Everyday Life in the 18th Century



Everyday life, what exactly is that? Each income bracket, each educational stratum, each individual has their own distinct way of life, of course, depending on how they earn their income. How the wealthy spent their days is well documented by letters and memoirs and, to be frank, relatively boring: Get up late, dress, groom, receive or make visits, lunch, write letters, go for a coach ride, go to the theatre or a ball, dine until midnight. ¹

The larger part of the population, however, had a completely different daily routine. It is hardly documented, but if you read between the lines, it can be imagined like this: Get up early, go to the workshop (or to the field), work, lunch, work until it gets too dark to see (and maybe a few hours beyond that), supper, sleep. Except Sunday, and many would have worked even then - would have had to work even then - to earn a living for the family, but for the fear of Hell. At least, that's what it was like for the men.

It is the daily routines outside well-known professions that we can't really imagine, and that is mainly that of the housewife, the servants and the artisans whose trades have died out, and the details that are hardly mentioned even in memoirs: what they ate from what kind of crockery, what they slept on and under, body hygiene and - rarest of all - how they went to the toilet.

It's only natural that there is hardly any literature on any of those subjects. They were so matter-of-course for contemporaries that nobody considered them worthy of recording. After all, modern-day books and films also leave out e.g. the use of bathrooms, except for some non-standard uses in "Lethal Weapon 2" or "Psycho". Only in subclauses and anecdotes scattered far and wide across contemporary literature one learns, for instance, that it was apparently not uncommon in London parks to defecate in full view, but with the face towards the bushes so one could not be recognised, and that men all across Europe often peed into doorways while in London, they peed against kerbstones, facing away from the houses so that the inhabitants wouldn't see their faces. ¹ That may not be very interesting, as such, but it says a lot about what was considered decent - and what wasn't. It took a non-English traveller who considered the above unusual enough to write it down - a Londoner woudn't have mentioned it.

So, the run-of-the-mill life was not usually written down. The everyday life of a common housewife would be completely unkown but for a certain P. Zimmermann, who in the late 1780s felt compelled to publish a two-volume book meant to introduce girls to the duties of a thrifty housewife. As far as I could find out, it was first edited in 1787, with a second or third edition in 1792, and a fifth and probably last in 1807.² Five editions within 20 years are not bad for that time and age; the fact that only a few copies have survived³ says a lot about how valuable the information contained therein was considered later: At least the paper was soft4.
That little book is the main source of these pages.


1) Casanova's memoirs
2) Zimmermann, P. Die junge Haushälterinn. Luzern: J.M. Anich, 1807
3) According to my latest OPAC research, there's one copy of the 1807 edition in Basel and one in Regensburg, and that's it for public libraries.
4) See Pratchett, Terry, on the subject of almanacs; or Reger, Max (composer) in a letter to a critic: "I a m sitting in the smallest room in the house. I have your critique before me. Soon, I will have it behind me."




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