Sunday, November 29, 2009

OT: Tenement Housekeeping (cont'd)

What's missing from the Tenement Test Kitchen pictured in the previous post is all the basins and tubs and pans and such necessary just to begin to handle the tasks of the day. You need dishpans (at least two), towel pans (at least two), coal shuttle (maybe one is enough), floor cleaning pans (you need two or three -- no mops, you do it on your hands and knees with scrub brushes and plenty of newspaper), plus, of course, laundry tubs (two or three), and wash boilers. Yes, the laundry has to be boiled. But we'll get to that.

And you need a BIG kettle on the stove all the time to make hot water. Cause you won't get any out of the tap.

To continue with our lesson, the topic is after breakfast clean up (you've already washed your dishes and pots and pans and put them away and you've washed out your dish towels in the towel pans):

So not only do you have a garbage pail (which we'll discuss in detail eventually) somewhere in that tiny kitchen, you have an ash can as well, because the ash collectors are forbidden to take garbage. Sounds wise. But think about it. You're generating both garbage and ashes all the time, quite a lot of one or the other, and you've got to keep them separate; not only that, you have to make sure the ashes are cool enough they don't set the tenement on fire, and that the garbage can is always covered so as not to provide a haven for the ever present bugs. No doubt you have to take both cans out daily.

The next lesson is a cooking lesson. On stale bread and sinks. Oh joy.

There are no instructions on how to cook the griddle cakes. Are we to assume the poor little girls just know? You can imagine what a disaster the initial attempts must have been. All that batter winding up on the freshly blacked stove top. Must have taken hours with a brush and plenty of newspaper to clean up.

But let's hope when the lesson was actually given, complete instructions for cooking your cakes were provided. And nobody was burned too badly, and little batter wound up on the floor, walls, or stuck to the stove top. It's a clever way to use stale bread at any event.

I'm just barely old enough to remember when bread didn't usually come sliced in the package. You had to have the man run it through the slicing machine -- which was a wonderful device of many blades buzzing merrily through the loaf in a second or two. You could never have done it at home with a knife. And you had to use up the bread fairly fast because it would go stale in a day or two. First it would get hard, then it would get moldy. Strangely, most packaged bread seems to last forever these days...

As for daily care of the sink... get ready:

Sounds OK so far, but don't relax yet:

I don't think I've ever seen a "sink shovel." Sounds like a neat, and come to think of it, necessary utensil. Hm. Whatever happened to them?

"A handful of soda..." I'm not sure exactly what that refers to, except that I'm certain it's not the soda you drink. There were many kinds of "soda" back in the day: washing soda, baking soda, sal soda, sodas of various other substances. So which one were you supposed to throw down the sink drain... and what would happen if you threw the wrong one? Whatever it was, it must have been pretty serious soda if it would eat holes in the pipes and/or combine with any grease in the pipes to make soap and thoroughly clog them up. What fun. Then you're really in a pickle, as I suspect the tenement doesn't have a super.

And you use yet more hot water. By now you should have used up several kettles full in preparing your food, general clean up, repeatedly washing your dishes and pots and pans, and washing your towels. So now you've got to clean out your sink and your drains with more hot water. If you've only got one kettle the size of the one in the picture in the last post, it seems to me you're going to have to wait for the water to heat, yes? There would have to be much waiting for water heating throughout your day. Something many of us can relate to. If your water heater goes out or your pipes freeze (I've had both experiences fairly recently), heating water on the stove is what you have to do, and it never seems like there's enough for any given task. It must have seemed like that to our student tenement housekeepers, too, and I wonder how frustrated they must have become...


So it would seem we're referring to washing soda when we talk about throwing soda down the drain to remove grease. Now I wasn't familiar with this substance. But. Leave it to the intertubes to provide an answer:

The chemical formula for washing soda is Na2CO3, and it is also known as sodium carbonate. It is a salt of carbonic acid, a chemical which produces a wide range of salts collectively known as carbonates. One common source of washing soda is the ashes of plants; for this reason, it is sometimes called soda ash. Sodium carbonate can also be created from sodium chloride, also known as table salt.

In laundry, washing soda accomplishes several things. The high alkalinity of washing soda helps it act as a solvent to remove a range of stains, and unlike bleach, washing soda does not usually stain. It is also used in detergent mixtures to treat hard water; the washing soda binds to the minerals which make water hard, allowing detergent to foam properly so that clothing will come out clean, without any residue. Sodium carbonate is also used by some textile artists, since it helps dyes adhere to fabric, resulting in deeper penetration and a longer lasting color.

Around the house, washing soda can be used to descale things like coffee machines and bathroom tiles which may accumulate mineral deposits as a result of exposure to hard water. It can also be used to strip floors of wax so that they can be refinished, and for other touch cleaning jobs like scrubbing the stove. You should wear gloves when cleaning with washing soda, because it can cause skin irritation. Incidentally, the best way to treat some types of chemical burn is with baking soda, also called sodium bicarbonate, as it is a buffer and it will neutralize both acids and alkalis. To treat a hydrofluoric acid burn, apply baking soda mixed with water to the site of the burn for several minutes, flush the wound with water, and seek medical attention.

Many markets carry washing soda, typically with other laundry products. Some companies make mixed detergents with washing soda which are specifically formulated for hard water, and you can also find washing soda on your own. Since sodium carbonate can be dangerous in large quantities, make sure to keep washing soda out of the reach of children and pets, and clearly label the container to indicate that it is caustic. It can be harmful to the eyes, cause irritation to the lungs if inhaled, and may cause abdominal pain or vomiting if large doses are swallowed.

But you must not confuse it with baking soda:

Which you use to make your cookies and clean your bathtub and "freshen" your refrigerator. Except you probably don't have a bathtub or a refrigerator in your tenement. There's a toilet out in the hall that you share with all the other households on your floor. If you want to take a bath, you go down to the public baths several blocks away.

"Refrigeration" amounted to sticking stuff out the window in winter. In summer, things didn't keep. You had to buy perishables every day and hope that they wouldn't go bad before you could use them.

And wait. This instruction says to put your soda (presumably washing soda) in your hot water kettle and let it boil, then pour it down the drain to make the grease vanish, then pour hot rinse water down the drain so as not to cause soap to form or your pipes to corrode. So you really have to have several hot water containers going all the time. Or you're out of luck. Your pipes are clogged.


Enough for today. We'll continue later on.

1 comment:

  1. I ran across this post in my undying fascination with tenement life in the pre and post industrial period of the early 20th century.

    I love the descriptions of the daily tasks.

    I lived twice in old farmhouses with no plumbing, electricity and no heating or cooking save for turn of the century wood stoves. In one farmhouse I lived we only had a home-made barrel stove and the hand pump was broken so we had to truck water in from town.

    In another, I had running cold water in the kitchen but there were no other plumbing facilities and I had a parlor stove in a living room and a Glenwood kitchen stove.

    One thing people today can never appreciate until they live like that is how labor intensive everyday life is. I like how you attempt to highlight that here.

    In addition, the filth and dust generated by wood stove heating and cooking is constant; it is in the air, soot and ash collect on everything and in your lungs as well.

    In one farmhouse we had electricity (one light bulb in the living room and one in the kitchen -- none in bedrooms upstairs or the side "parlor" room). So where we had no electricity we had to use kerosene lamps. People may collect old Aladdin or Bradly and Hubbard lamps for nostalgia, but using kerosene daily is quite another thing. Kerosene has a horrible, toxic smell that gets into your clothes, into the house and unless you have the ability to wash completely everyday (and you don't because water is a precious commodity), it stays with you.

    Kerosene lamps also leave their share of soot everywhere, on the ceilings and in the air; and the lamps require constant maintenance -- cleaning the chimney with newspaper and refilling every day.

    In the pictures one can see the filth on the floors of the tenements. This I know well. No matter what you do, without a constant, ready supply of water and with the continual build-up of soot in the house, no floor covering but bare boards, filth on the floor is constant and it gets on everything.

    Looking at that picture of the little girls cooking on that small table, the water supply on the stove; the one large sink for all the washing and water supply -- they actually had it much better than many.