The joys of modern plumbing

posted in: History, Life and things | 0

I saw in the news that Johnny Depp is resurrecting his acting career, playing the role of Louis XV in a French film about one of the king’s many, many mistresses (Jeanne du Barry). There he was, astride a white horse, and then we were shown a scene obviously shot in the Palace of Versailles and of course that reminded me of our covid-ridden trip to France last year.

Versailles was not a highlight of the tour for either of us. For a start, we reckon that somewhere in the crowded galleries, jostling with hundreds of other people from who knows where, we picked up the covid virus. But apart from that, I find all that over-the-top gold and opulence almost offensive. So few people with so much unnecessary extravagance while the peasants who ultimately paid for it all subsisted on so little.

And then my mind wandered off to time travel. Let’s say I was accidentally teleported into the Hall of Mirrors in the early 18th century. What would be my first reaction?

The Hall of Mirrors

“In 1682, in an effort to seal his authority and subjugate his nobles, Louis XIV moved his court permanently to the gilded mega-palace of Versailles. At times over 10,000 royals, aristocrats, government officials, servants and military officers lived in Versailles and its surrounding lodgings.

Despite its reputation for magnificence, life at Versailles, for both royals and servants, was no cleaner than the slum-like conditions in many European cities at the time. Women pulled their skirts up to pee where they stood, while some men urinated off the balustrade in the middle of the royal chapel. According to historian Tony Spawforth, author of Versailles: A Biography of a Palace, Marie-Antoinette was once hit by human waste being thrown out the window as she walked through an interior courtyard.

The heavily trafficked latrines often leaked into the bedrooms below them, while blockages and corrosion in the palace’s iron and lead pipes were known to occasionally “poison everything” in Marie-Antoinette’s kitchen. “Not even the rooms of the royal children were safe,” writes Spawforth.” [source] Here’s another fascinating article about real life at Versailles.

The Hall of Mirrors might be magnificent but I think my time travelling self would hardly notice because it would be like arriving in an over-decorated cess-pit. And this, folks, is why I’m not much interested in the sort of time travel stories where modern people are whisked off to the distant past. I don’t think they’d survive for long. It’s not just the filth and the smells; it’s the rats and fleas and lice and disease.

Versailles wasn’t special in that regard. All the fabulous royal palaces throughout Europe were the same. Then again, so were the cities. I think if you were approaching London from the countryside in the 17th century the first thing you would have noticed was the stench drifting out like a powerful miasma. Remember that scene in Shakespeare in Love where Geoffrey Rush is hurrying down some Elizabethan street dodging the rubbish on the street when he has to avoid a chamber pot’s contents, tipped out of a window? Yep. As for the Thames, it was the city’s sewer.

In our modern first world cities we have running water on tap and indoor toilets but they are relatively recent innovations. London’s sewers were built in the late 1800s. Here in Australia I have childhood recollections of night carts operating in Perth as late as the 1950s. Peter tells me they were still around in Melbourne in the mid-70s. The carts drove along the access lanes behind the houses and collected waste from outdoor dunnies. In the UK, Peter recalls the hip bath hung on a hook in the kitchen for the weekly bath routine. The bath was set up in the family room and filled with water from the copper in the kitchen. It took a while to heat enough for a bath and then it was Dad, Mum, older brother, then Pete. When it was Pete’s turn the water had acquired a soap scum and it wasn’t exactly clean.

Which brings me to clothes. Those wonderfully ornate garments worn at Versailles would never be washed, although the linen undergarments would have been. That would have been hand washing, of course. These days we have our wonderful washing machines where the water is heated for you and you press a button or two. When I was a kid although we had running water, getting enough hot water for washing clothes meant setting a fire underneath the copper in the laundry. (Copper! It was called that because it was a large copper cauldron. Imagine what all that metal would be worth today!) We had a rudimentary washing machine and it had a wringer. At first the wringer was hand operated but later we had one powered by an electric motor. You washed your clothes with soap powder, put them through the wringer, then rinsed them before you put them through the wringer again. The twin-tub washer was a great innovation – wash in one, rinse in the other.

Ah well. That’s enough nostalgia for the day. I count myself fortunate to be living in a time of (relative) peace and prosperity.

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