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Me in my 1916 unders

A Fortnight in 1916: the halfway point

I’m halfway through the Fortnight in 1916 project – 7 days of life in 1916 down, 7 more to go.

What’s going well so far, and what’s been hard?

Things that are better/easier than I expected:

Food:

I really thought the 1916 diet would be a struggle, and was quite worried about some of the dishes, but most of them have been very pleasant surprises.  The emphasis on fish (over mutton and other meat, which was being exported to Britain in large quantities), the wide variety of vegetarian dishes (evidence suggests it was a reasonably popular trend in 1910s NZ), and the reduction in bread (due to its high cost during the war) have helped.  I’ve really been enjoying things like swedes and steamed cauliflower, and  I haven’t been craving fresh greens, nor fruit other than apples, nor seasonings like garlic and ginger that usually feature heavily in my cooking.  There is actually a lot of vegetables – just in slightly different forms.  While the cooking is all quite simple, you are generally using fresh, very good quality ingredients.

Heat:

I was very worried that I’d be hideously cold the whole two weeks, and while I have been exceedingly lucky in that we are having an unprecedentedly warm winter, even on super cold days I’ve been very comfortable.  Between my wool stockings, cotton combinations, a corset, petticoat, wool skirt, cotton corset cover and cotton blouse, and wool cardigan, with hat, coat and gloves for going out, I’m well covered.  In fact, I’ve been so warm that on many days I leave off the cardigan: with my core is so nicely warmed from the corset that I don’t need one.  Even my hands have stayed warm, and miracle of miracles, I haven’t got a single chilblain

Because I’m so well dressed, and so active cooking and doing housework, I’ve been running the heater much less than I usually would in winter, which is quite nice.

Depending on what stockings I’m wearing, there is a strip of skin exposed at the top of my thighs, but it hasn’t felt exposed or cold: the petticoat and skirt provide such nice insulation, and creates a sort of warm tent for my legs.

How comfortable such clothing is in winter certainly explains a lot about New Zealand housing.  When your clothes are doing such a great job insulation isn’t such a priority!

Stockings:

Continuing on the warmth/great clothes theme, I was worried that wool stockings would be extremely itchy, but nope.  Super comfortable!  All my stockings are made from my stocking pattern, and they haven’t annoyed me one bit when worn for 13+ hour stretches.

Shoes:

Wearing ‘proper’ laced, heeled shoes from 9am to 9pm every day of the week sounded like torture (as compared to living in lovely, snuggly, sheepskin booties whenever I am home) , but I haven’t minded at all.  They are low heels, but still.  Heels.  And real shoes.

Things that are worse/harder than I expected:

Wearing a corset all the time.  Sitting in a longline just isn’t fun.  It’s better in a hard chair, but even so, it’s hard to sit and sew or write.  It’s not that it’s uncomfortable on a minute-by-minute basis (and it’s certainly gotten more comfortable as the week went on), it’s that it’s never quite comfortable.

Just wearing all the clothes.  It’s a lot of weight.  It takes energy to just live in them, and everything you do in them takes more energy, and I’m tired all the time.

Getting anything done other than living in 1916.  Between cooking, getting dressed, the effort of moving about, and the lack of desire to sit, it’s almost impossible to get anything else done.  Everything takes so much time and effort.  It’s not that much harder to do the housework, but I don’t get it done, because I’ve spent the whole day cooking breakfast and dinner and walking to the shops and taking a sponge-bath etc.  The 1916 lifestyle really is meant for people living in extended families: there is no point to cooking three courses for two people.  I wonder if some women found that in some ways it was a relief when men went overseas: suddenly they had so much less pressure to cook and present.

Things that I’ve noticed that I didn’t even think of beforehand:

Plastic: It is HARD to live without plastic.  It really makes you appreciate how awesome it is, and worry about how frivolously we use it, and how much needless, disposable, single-use plastic there is, because it’s going to suck when it runs out (trust me.  Living without it is not fun).

Silence & Sound:  your options for music in 1916 Wellington were gramophones, what you could produce yourself, or live music.  I don’t have either of the first two, or the opportunity for the second, so my life has been very silent for the last week.  No background radio or TV, no songs.  Quite a number of the wartime diaries etc that I read as research mention how important a piano was, and that really makes sense.  Without all the aural clutter of modern life, it’s quite startling to me when I do hear it.  Walking into a shop with music playing is suddenly jarring.  Now that I’ve realised how different it is without it, I wonder if it is actually good for us to live with the constant canned, artificial noise.

A corset-themed tale of hubris and irony

As a blogger, it’s tempting to only show you my successes: things that turn out perfectly, and look beautiful.*  But that’s not fair to you, or me: it creates an unrealistic expectation of life, and how well you think you should do at any given project.  As a reader, I get frustrated with blogs that are only about perfection and glamour: I find myself comparing myself, and feeling insufficient, but I also find myself bored, because while you can definitely learn from seeing other people’s amazing successes, I think you often learn a lot more from seeing their mistakes (for one thing, you learn how to avoid them!).

So this, dear readers, is a post about a sewing project for my Fortnight in 1916 that has most definitely not been a success – but which I have learned a great deal from, and which you may also learn something from!

I’ve showed you my black and white 1916 longline corset, and mentioned that it was made directly from a pattern, without being altered to fit me, so that it acted like a ready-to-wear corset, which is what most New Zealand women were wearing in 1916.

Here is the ironic part: it has turned out to fit me almost perfectly, and is extremely comfortable.

The custom-fitted corset I made?  Not so much.  Here is what it looks like after one wear:

1910s corset damage and mistakes08

(ergh is a perfectly reasonable response here).

Here is the stupid and hubris-filled parts:

Yes, the corset pattern was custom-fitted, in that I made it for myself.  Seven years ago.  When I was just a teeny bit slimmer.

And by a teeny bit, I mean 3 inches in the hips.  But no problem, right?  I’ll just leave a lacing gap, because it was designed without one.

And the corset itself was cut and started over three years ago, and then got abandoned for various reasons.  When I started seriously planning for the Fortnight in 1916, it seemed like a perfect excuse to pull it out and finish it.

As I finished it, I realised that the reason I’d abandoned it was because of poor fabric choice:  The damask is pretty, but too weak, and soils easily.  “Oh well” I thought “It’s only two weeks: 7 wears…if it dies at the end, at least I will have finished it.”

So, I finished it, and because I wasn’t too fussed with it, I boned it in cable ties.  To give the fabric some extra support, I put in a nice, firm waist-stay.

1910s corset damage and mistakes05

As it was my ‘comfortable’ ‘properly-fitted’ corset, I chose to wear it on laundry day for the first time.  It wasn’t bad when I put it on in the morning, and wasn’t bad for doing laundry: the corset actually provided very nice back support for all the scrubbing and lifting and carrying.  I did, as mentioned, pull a weird muscle around my collarbone hanging laundry on the line, but I’m not sure that was the corset’s fault.

So, all in all, for most of the day, the corset wasn’t an issue.  Snugger than the black and white one, but not painful.

And then I got in the car to drive to teach my evening lesson, and less than three minutes down the road, I knew I was in trouble.  There was a very odd pinching sensation at my waist, and the corset was lifting and pushing up under my rib-cage.  I could breath, but it wasn’t fun, and no matter what position I sat in, I could not get comfortable.  I knew that something was wrong, but couldn’t do anything about it.

As soon as I parked and got out of the car for class I was alright, and I focused on teaching and managed to compose myself and be fine.  But the ride home was also a nightmare, and as soon as I got home I divested myself of my layers and ripped the corset off, to discover livid red-purple marks across the sides of my waist.  I have creases with the black and white corset, and with other corsets, but I’ve never had marks like this before.

The corset itself was in terrible condition.

1910s corset damage and mistakes11

The busk had ripped out of one side of the front (apparently when I started it three years ago I flat lined everything except the front busk area – why I did this I don’t know, but I can’t believe I was that stupid!):

1910s corset damage and mistakes07

And the cable ties had warped and bent:

1910s corset damage and mistakes06 And all in all, it did not look spiffy.

1910s corset damage and mistakes09

Neither did I when I inspected myself after my sponge-bath the next morning.  (please excuse my cold, purple, extremely unflattering skin):

1910s corset damage and mistakes04

1910s corset damage and mistakes01

It doesn’t look too bad in the photos, but those are essentially blood blisters: welts under the skin from the corset.  I’ve worn many corsets that reduced my waist significantly more than that one, but I’ve never had marks from the corset over 12 hours after taking it off (and, three days later, they are still there).

As far as I can figure out, what happened in the car is that the corset busk and bones were a little too long, and when I sat down, they tried to shift up, but couldn’t, because the waist stay held the corset so snuggly at my waist.  So the corset held on to my waist skin, and lifted that up and my waist + corset ended up shoved under my ribcage.

1910s corset damage and mistakes08

So what can we take from this:

The poor choice of fabric, and my change in size over time were things I knew were a problem, but which I hubristically** ignored, because I didn’t want to deal with the work of fixing them.

I’m definitely going to be re-thinking the use of cable ties for 1910s corsets in the future – every example of a longline corset in NZ is boned with metal, and I think that plastic, while it’s better at imitating whalebone in many ways, simply doesn’t hold up enough with extensive wear.  I’m going to try a corset with German plastic boning, and see if that does better.  (yay, research!).

I’m also going to test-drive (literally) corsets before committing to a car ride in future.  Best to know ahead of time that anything over 5 minutes is torture!

I’m almost pleased with the rip at the front busk, because at least two of the extent 1910s corsets in NZ show mends in exactly this area.  Mine happened too quickly, because the fabric was insufficient, but even with strong fabric, if you’re really doing work in a corset (laundry!), it’s a weak spot.

So, I am now down to one corset for the duration of my fortnight, but I also learned quite a bit about corsetmaking and wearing, and learning was the intention of the fortnight, so I have no regrets there.

I’m down to one corset, but I can get by just fine with one for two weeks.  Lying in bed the night of the incident, I thought of the 1916 woman I was representing, and what it would have mean to her if her corset had turned out to be hideously painful to wear.

During the war a corset was (for most women), a necessity, but also a significant monetary outlay.  So if you bought one that felt alright in the shop, and for the first few hours, but turned out to be very uncomfortable, and to even cause welts, there is nothing you could do.  We live in an era of such wealth, and easy disposability and replaceability.  But for so many women, a mistake like that would have been days of chaffing and discomfort.

1910s corset damage and mistakes10

* It’s also tempting to never admit to mistakes on the internet, because as soon as you do people assume you are bloody stupid and point out the most basic stuff to you.  I try to breath and think of it as a public service: if someone is that desperate to be right they must need a lot of reassurance 😉

** A moment of celebration for the fact that this is, indeed, a real word.

Doing laundry in 1916 Part II (the part where I actually do it)

As promised, I have done laundry in 1916 style – or at least an approximation thereof.

Our early 1920s house was built complete with a laundry room – an extension off the back of the house, of much simpler construction than the rest.  The extension also includes the loo.

The house even has the old laundry sinks, but they are sitting in the backyard, half full of soil, and were clearly once used as plant boxes.

As I discussed in my last post, I don’t have a copper or a period washing machine, but particularly in an urban setting like Wellington, coppers would have been less common by 1916.  Without these things, I did my best to achieve the same amount of work, and the same result, that a 1910s housewife would have.

I was lucky that Wednesday, my nominated laundry day this week, was clear and bright and warm.  Much better for drying, and much more pleasant for hanging out.

First, I scrubbed out our laundry sink.  It was used for cleaning paint brushes all summer, and was in terrible condition.

Doing laundry in 1916, thedreamstress.com

Once it was clean, I plugged it and filled it with hot water.  It must have been an amazing labour saver for women once plumbed hot water became available.  You could get your laundry clean without boiling a copper, AND could drain the water without having to carry it away in buckets.  Life in 1916 was hard, but it must have been so much easier for those in urban settings and new houses, that were the first to get such mod cons.

While my sink filled I grated Sunlight Soap into it.  I was afraid this would be very hard, and that my big grater would create big chunks of soap that would take forever to dissolve, but it was actually dead easy.  It grated into a powder, and went very quickly.

Doing laundry in 1916, thedreamstress.com

In grating and dissolving the soap, I realised I recognised the smell – it’s ‘clean old lady fabric’ smell, which completely makes sense.

I’m only washing items that are the type of fabric that would have been around, and laundered, in 1916: sheets, my blouses and under-things, tea towels, etc.

Doing laundry in 1916, thedreamstress.com

First I added my nicest items: combination, corset covers, petticoats and pillow-slips:

Doing laundry in 1916, thedreamstress.com

Those were left to soak for half an hour, as per the Sunlight testimonial.  You can see the lovely milky colour the water has turned around them from the soap.

When the half hour was up, I pulled them out one by one, scrubbing them against themselves to get them clean, and wringing them out and putting them in a bucket.

This bucket got carried to the kitchen sink (I couldn’t think of anywhere else big enough to rinse them), and I put in the next load of items to soak.  While they soak, I rinsed and rung out the first lot, and then carried them out, and hung them on the line.  It took the full half hour and more, just for the few items I had (the thing about doing laundry three days into my challenge is there isn’t much to do!).

The second load was slightly grubbier items: Mr D’s work shirts (which got given a pre-scrub with Sunlight in the collar area), and my stockings.

The final load was a modern towel, and a duvet cover.  I had doubts about both, but wanted to do a full load.

Have you ever picked up a fully soaking, quite fluffy towel?  It holds a good couple of gallons of water!  Talk about a workout!  The duvet cover wasn’t much better.

And trying to wring out either by yourself?  Exhausting.

By the time I had finished it was well over two hours later, my apron was soaked, as were my sleeve cuffs (thank goodness for warm weather is all I can say), but my laundry was all hung out, and wrung out, and so was I.

Doing laundry in 1916, thedreamstress.com

I pulled something funny and painful in my upper chest hanging out the laundry.  It’s just hard to reach your arms that high while wearing a corset.  So now, every once in a while, when I breath in, I get a sharp stab of pain across my collarbone.

Because of the warm weather the laundry dried overnight, and I’m delighted to say that my laundry is extremely clean – even more so than I think I would have gotten it with a washing machine.  It was the tiniest bit damp when I brought it in, so pressed very easily.

I pressed everything.  Even the pillowcases.  Let me tell you, that has never happened before!

I must confess I’m just using a modern iron for pressing.  I ran into the problem that by 1916, in Wellington, an electric iron is plausible/likely, and while you can find 1910s irons for sale, the electrics don’t work (obviously). Ultimately, I couldn’t figure out how to replicate a period electric iron safely, and a cast iron iron on a gas stove fell into Mr D’s realm of ‘you aren’t allowed to endanger yourself or the house for this project’ veto power.

Conclusion: In a weird way, it’s harder to replicate an era of transitional modernity than the distant past.  There were lots of ‘conveniences’: they just weren’t as convenient.