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The Fortnight in 1916: And so it begins…

Today was the first day of my two week attempt to live like a middle class educated housewife would have in Wellington in 1916.

It was…interesting.  And already I have learned some things.

I had a meeting at 10am, so I rose at 8 (rather late for 1916, but Mr D was home, and I was trying to disrupt his schedule as little as possible), and got dressed, and made tea and porridge (oatmeal) with sultanas.

First thought: getting dressed took ages.  I’m pretty used to putting on historic garments in a hurry, but obviously I’d get faster through practice and repetition.  Still, there are a LOT of garments to put on: combinations, a corset, stockings, a corset cover, two layers of petticoats, a blouse, a skirt, cardigan and shoes.*  It all added up.  If you’re the sort of dresser who takes a lot of time styling your hair and makeup, this would be comparable, but on a daily basis I’m as speedy as possible: unders, jeans, undershirt, overshirt, cardigan, chignon, foundation (if that), sorted.

Second thought: despite the usual ‘shoes before corset’ joke of the costuming world, you can’t really put your shoes on before your corset if your stockings have to hook to your corset, and slide down while you’re putting it on your corset, thus defeating the whole point of putting them on first.

Because dressing took so long I was rushing to finish breakfast and wash up (as a good 1916 housekeeper would – no leaving dishes in the sink!), and then rushing to get to my meeting, so I made a terrible 1910s faux pas.

I forgot my hat.

And it’s a beauty.  Wait until I show it you to!

Anyway, oh, the horror!

So, scandalously hatless I stopped by The Fabric Store after my meeting (nothing purchased), and then did my shopping – no plastic bags, and dearly wishing I could just stand at a counter, read my list, and have the shopkeeper fetch it for me!

No one who didn’t know what I was doing commented on my outfit, because this is Wellington, and we don’t care how you dress as long as you do your job, plus we’re all artsy and eccentric too, so what makes you think you’re so different? In any case, we are all much too cosmopolitan to comment on eccentricities.  Guy in a chicken suit and Death walk down Cuba Mall hand in hand?  Everybody pretends not to notice, because we are too cool for that.  Celebrities love it here.**  Basically, lady in 1916 garb doesn’t even register.

My afternoon got slightly off schedule due to a personal matter, so I didn’t manage to ‘Wash on Monday’.

By the time I got home at 3 I was definitely starting to notice how many hours I had been wearing a corset for.

I was also noticing how unsuitable modern cars and furniture are for corsets.  I’m writing this sitting on a very hard, straight backed chair, because modern couches are torture in a longline.  But, it’s past 10pm and I’m still in it, so I haven’t given up yet.

Third though: This corset is really compressing my bladder.  I’ve never gone to the loo as many times in a day as I have today.   Luckily, it’s really easy to use the loo in combinations and a longline corset.  Which leads on to:

Fourth thought:  Going without modern knickers feels really, really weird.  Especially when you discover how easy and uncomfortable it is to get a combinations wedgie.

I’ll leave this at that…

Fifth though:  In addition to compressing my bladder, the corset is squishing my stomach.  I can only eat a tiny bit at a time (though I do want to eat quite often).  I wonder if I’m going to loose weight, or gain it, because…

Sixth thought: this diet is killer.  Based on a menu suggestion from the Dominion from 1913 I made pea soup, sausages (they said pork, I substituted venison), and brussel sprouts.  I was also meant to make ‘chip potatoes’ (potato wedges), but realised I didn’t have the right kind of potatoes in the house.  And dessert, but I’m trying not to incite a rebellion from Mr D (who also got broccoli with his dinner).  Based on the ingredients called for, most of the recipes in the Dominion are for at least 6 people, and I’ve decided there is almost no way to cut them down for two while still making all the dishes.  I suspect wartime women living in small households had a lot more dinners that were tomato soup and sardine sandwiches and nothing else.

Right, back to the diet.  EVERYTHING in it is base.  And that’s hugely true for all the winter menus.  No wonder all the heroines in LM Montgomery books eat so many apples.  You are desperate for something acidic.

I ate an apple at 4pm.  It was heavenly.

Seventh though: moving is nice, sitting is not.  Poor seamstresses and typists.  Poor me.  Time for a sponge bath and bed!

* There will hopefully be photos of the outfit, as one of my students took some.

**Someday I will show you the photo of a seagull I took while sitting on a bench on the waterfront with Jermaine Clement sitting next to me, because no way was I going to be gauche enough to turn around and take pictures of him, but I already had the camera out to photograph the seagull when he sat down.

15 Comments

  1. This is exactly the sort of thing I’d love to do! So glad you’re sharing with us (even the awkward combination wedgies). Wearing historical underwear as your only underwear is so weird, I agree! The only time I’ve done it is in this period (because I could never figure out how to go to the bathroom with normal underwear, combinations and a long line corset attached to stockings. Unless you want to get completely undressed every time….)

    This attire will give you a real appreciation for very firm “uncomfortable” furniture from the period and cars that you step up in rather than step down into. I always figured that this period would be so easy to wear in a car because it had less structural undergarments (no hoops or bustles!) and less voluminous petticoats but it is so hard to get in and out of a modern car! Oh, the things you learn while doing this sort of historical archeology!

    Can’t wait to see how the rest of this experiment goes!

  2. Congratulations on getting through this first day so bravely! I’m not sure I would have been able to stick it out in a corset.

    Waiting for more of these 2016 adventures in 1916 living with bated breath!

  3. Amie says

    I am loving this.
    I have often wondered if I went back in time, how would I fair? Or if someone else “moved” forward to our time, what would we learn?
    I have a romantic view of past times, could I face the everyday realities and hardship my great grand parents lived with every day? I suspect they were not even aware of some hardships we would consider hardship. We have today’s conveniences to compare.

    One question, what did 1916 housecats eat?

    • When my granddad was a boy (late teens – twenties), people bought cat food from the Cat Meat Man, who went around with a handcart selling meat door to door. It was chunks of meat that you then had to cut up for your cat.

  4. Rebecca says

    Oh dear! Modern cars (I can’t speak for older ones) and real corsets are definitely not to be mixed!

  5. Oh, boy. I can’t wait to hear more about this whole experience. But I can also tell it is going to be a lesson in fortitude as well.

    Sarah
    sewcharacteristicallyyou.com/blog

  6. I used to drive to work at a local museum in 1880’s costume, complete with period correct undergarments and I remember stopping for petrol and standing in the queue waiting to pay while everyone pretended not to notice me! Since i was in a period correct house, during the day I didn’t have any major issues with furniture but the stairs were an issue, I had to carry boxes up the stairs but found that it simply could not be done as well as holding up my long skirt. I felt really pathetic but I had to ask a man to carry them up for me.

  7. “Right, back to the diet. EVERYTHING in it is base. And that’s hugely true for all the winter menus. No wonder all the heroines in LM Montgomery books eat so many apples. You are desperate for something acidic.”

    I like to drink a lot of tea with lemon juice. Were lemons available in Wellington in 1916? Or bottled lemon juice? I have no idea what the answers to those questions are, but they may be interesting for your project.

    Great first day report! Looking forward to your commentary on the rest of your two-week project.

  8. Lyndle says

    This is so fascinating! Thanks for the details. From your last comment, are you forswearing baths or limiting them to weekly, too?
    If you’d made the pudding, would it have been acid?
    (Much later, but when my mum went to teachers college and boarded with a Scots lady in 1960 Dunedin, the three boarders were allowed one bath a week each. Of course they shared, so they each got three baths of varying degrees of clean water).

    It is harder living in period clothes in the modern world when nothing is adapted for it!
    I love Wellington…

  9. Lyndle says

    This is so fascinating! Thanks for the details. From your last comment, are you forswearing baths or limiting them to weekly, too?
    (Much later, but when my mum went to teachers college and boarded with a Scots lady in 1960 Dunedin, the three boarders were allowed one bath a week each (fully plumbed in). Of course they shared, so they each got three baths of varying degrees of clean water).

    If you’d made the pudding, would it have been acid?
    It is harder living in period clothes in the modern world when nothing is adapted for it!
    I love Wellington…

  10. “Everybody pretends not to notice, because we are too cool for that.” Canada is a bit like this. Not the too cool part. It is more of a polite thing. We pretend not to notice (with varying degrees of success) because we are too polite to stare or comment. But man, when we get home we are: “I saw this crazy guy in a chicken suit!”

    My girlfriend and I tried this in a small way last December. We went to a Dickens’ Festival and spent the weekend in Victorian garb. It was fun! But you are right, modern furniture is not meant for corsets. I found modern heating a bit oppressive when you are in winter Victorian garb…but I’m having hot flashes. I wonder how Victorian women dealt with hot flashes?

  11. I can’t wait to see how this goes for you. This is something that I would so love to do, I work for a freight company, and have to operate heavy machinery a couple times a day. Looking forward to the rest of your posts.

  12. Ah Wellington, where you can walk down the street in clothes from a hundred years ago and nobody bats an eye. I love this city.

    It’s very interesting to hear your impressions of the 2016 lifestyle, and I look forward to further blog posts. In particular, I’m interested to hear how laundry day goes, and how you get on with the diet over time.

  13. Kate says

    I was so fascinated with the food being base thing, I’ve been thinking about it since you posted. I just read that stainless steel wasn’t readily available until after WWII and it suddenly makes sense! Middle and lower class people wouldn’t have had silver cutlery so they couldn’t have eaten acidic foods without it blackening their steel cutlery and tasting terrible! Unless they were using wooden utensils I suppose, I don’t know how common that was. It also explains why so many vinegary and lemony dishes were seen as fancy luxuries, which I’ve always wondered about.

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