Like to sweat? Welcome to the 19th century
It’s August. Hot as blazes here in Atlanta. Boy, howdy, am I thankful for air conditioning! I’m also thankful I don’t have to wear long dresses with bloomers and petticoats underneath, maybe a corset too, and lace-up boots. No wonder women used to faint!
Nineteenth century women’s clothing has been on my mind as I write my latest novel, half of which is set in the summer of 1840. Because they certainly didn’t have AC back then. They didn’t even have electricity, so they couldn’t use window fans. They didn’t have refrigerators either, so no cold water to drink. No running water at all, come to think of it, so they couldn’t cool off in the shower. A bath was a special occasion affair, spit baths being more the norm. What was a woman supposed to do? The answer to that question: sweat! Lots of sweat!
Of course, they didn’t have washers and dryers, so laundry was done by hand in a tub or a creek and then hung on the line. They didn’t have vacuum cleaners so they had to sweep their homes and beat the rugs, assuming they had rugs. Cooking… well, don’t get me started on cooking. Everything was from scratch and done over a hot stove or a hot fire. (Remember, no AC.) And, all the while, those poor women were covered, head to toe, with layers of cloth and leather shoes.
The book I’m writing is a time travel story in which the modern-day woman travels back to the past. Like me, she’s spoiled to all the modern conveniences she takes for granted. It’s only when she’s forced to dress like a nineteenth century woman, and is exposed to what life was really like back then, that she realizes how easy she’s got it in the twenty-first century.
How did women keep cool in the past? High ceilings in their homes so heat would rise. Shade trees to help cool the home. Windows designed for air flow through the house. Covered porches so folks could sit outside to cool off. Handheld fans. And maybe, occasionally, putting their feet in a nice cool stream or pond.
As for that picture, the baby is my great-grandmother with her parents, my great-great-grandparents, way back in the 1880s.