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Friday, 12 November 2010

Beyond the Door; or “The Homes of the Victorians”: Part Three: The Lady of the House

This is the third and final part of this weeks peek into the homes of our Victorian upper class ancestors, and having already looked at the rooms, the servants and how the homes were lit, we finish by examining the house-proud woman who dwells within:

The lady of the house would fill her days with numerous little hobbies, particularly embroidery and needlework, knitting and crocheting. Painting was also popular, with glass painting, china painting and shell painting being hobbies, as well as bead work, such as making mosaics using coloured beads set in a type of cement, napkin folding, arranging family photographs, drawings and cartes de visite.

The other popular past-time of the lady of the house was receiving and visiting callers. These visits, or calls, happened in two ways; either:
The caller knocked on the door and asked the maid or servant if the lady of the house were home, and left a card if she was not.
The caller knocked on the door and simply handed the servant a card which would be addressed to the lady of the house, and have the caller’s name on, without attempting to visit.

These calls had to be returned within a week, or at most, ten days. If the caller left a card, then the lady would return a card, likewise, if the caller visited, then a return visit was obligatory.

With all these visits going on, ladies had very busy social lives and would keep a visiting book in the morning room. In the visiting book, she would note the names of callers, when they had called or left a card, and when the visit or card was due to be returned. The keeping of a book ensured that nobody was overlooked who had visited.

Ladies would have specific days when they were “at home” to receive visitors, and all her friends would note this day in their books. Some ladies could receive up to nine visitors a day. Having an “at home” day meant that callers were not continually disappointed by the lady being out, or that the lady was not inconvenienced by a caller at an inappropriate time.

Calling was essential in certain situations. Those situations include;

  • After an evening of entertainment such as a dinner party.
  • If there was an illness in the house
  • After a death

At homes of the ill, or where a death had occurred, it was correct to leave a card, but not calling at all was the height of rudeness and quite unforgivable.

Amongst all this socialising, a lady was also expected to bear her husband children, although the children themselves would be looked after by nurses or nannies and only given to the mother at bed times and any other significant occasions throughout childhood such as birthdays &c. The lady would have fairly little to do with actually bringing up her child. In fact, she had little to do around the house at all, the servants kept the house running whilst the lady supervised, and if there were a dinner party, the lady would do no more than decide what food to put on the menu and arrange the seating plan.
This left her free to fill her day with the hobbies we have mentioned, and receiving her callers, and of course, shopping.

Ladies of the upper classes would have very full wardrobes, as they could undergo up to six clothing changes a day, with a different outfit being worn for different duties:

For breakfast: A floral and light dressing gown

For shopping: A simple tailor made costume

For kitchen operations: A workaday dress and pinafore of overall

For paying / receiving calls: The best dress in the wardrobe to convey a prosperous appearance.

For early evening: A loose and comfortable tea-gown

For evening: A dinner dress.

Along with these, there were also accessories. All women, whether rich or poor wore shawls, upper class women would also not leave the house without a fine bonnet, and an umbrella just in case.
Looking after children in the 19th century was a bit of a minefield as seemingly harmless illnesses and niggles in children could become fatal. Diptheria was often mistaken for croup, with the treatment for croup at the time being drops (up to 24 sometimes) of Ipec (Ipecacuanha – a powdered root used as an emetic, causing vomiting to supposedly expel illnesses) wine and calomel powders (calomel was made of mercury chloride and was also a purgative) this treatment would do little to cure diphtheria.

By the age of five, 40 out of fifty children had either smallpox, measles, scarlet fever, diphtheria, whooping cough, typhus or enteric fever, all of which could be fatal. 


  1. Great post! And what did the man of the house do all day?

  2. Thanks for reading! The man of the house went to work, whether he be a clerk or an engineer, reporter or police inspector.

    Then he returned home and did rather as he pleased - Given the limitations of the time, of course. Lots of reading and entertaining would have been done. Lucky for collectors of antique books like me that reading was a huge part of their lives and upper class men would often have a study filled with books where he could read alone, possibly after an evening with the gents at a gentleman's club.

  3. Have you been to the History of Medicine section in the Science Museum in London? It's breathtaking with its recreations of Victorian apothecaries etc.

  4. No I haven't, but I'll definitely add it to my list of things to do along with the Transport Museum in Covent Garden and the Old Operating Theatre. So much to see for us history lovers in our great capital!

    Thanks for the tip, and thanks for reading!

  5. I learned recently the reason for a lady leaving two of her cards when visiting (gentleman only left one) - one was for the husband of the house, so that he could ensure his wife did not receive unsuitable callers while he was out at business. :)

  6. Really? I never knew that. So it was like the Victorian equivalent of looking through his wife's emails!