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PBS Online - Thirteen/WNET

“The 1900 House”
Companion essays for PBS Web site, 3 of 24 total 
+ Interview with Joyce Bowler, mother of '1900 House' family

by Paul Bacon


Cocaine, morphine and opium, now considered illicit substances, were common household remedies in Victorian times. Even in the United States, where regulations were typically stricter than in England, many medicine cabinets contained elixirs made from powdered heroin. Why would the conservative Victorians use highly addictive narcotics as medicine?

Given the primitive state of medical technology, masking pain while the body attempted to heal itself was usually the best treatment available. Not surprisingly, more than a third of American families would experience the death of a child in an age when a popular cure for whooping cough was a trip to a gas manufacturing plant to inhale the fumes. Aspirin, invented in 1899, remains one of the few legitimate remedies to emerge from the myriad bogus “patent medicines” that flooded the market around the turn of the century.


“The stupidity and wickedness of this custom is scarcely possible to exaggerate,” wrote one Victorian home journal on the subject of corset-wearing. Tightly-laced, rigidly-constructed undergarments, corsets exaggerated the female physique by constricting the abdomen and pushing up the breasts. Worn by most middle- and upper-class women despite their painful fit and numerous health risks, corsets remained in fashion until the 1920s.

Women further embellished their figures at the expense of comfort by wearing ruffled underskirts called petticoats, often two or three at a time, that made their buttocks appear enormous in contrast to their willowy waistlines. Victorian men got off easy; their underwear, usually of the woolen long-john variety, was merely itchy.


Rubbing, pounding, boiling and squeezing are not tasks most of us associate with doing laundry, but at the turn of the century, this was the way they washed the clothes. Forty years before the advent of washing detergents, laundry was a Herculean task that could take days--just to clean a family’s underwear. Outer clothes were merely brushed down in order to reduce the backbreaking chore of washing, which required soaking items in boiling water then scrubbing them with soda crystals by hand as many as three times. The process, including a number of other laborious steps, was not only exhausting, but also rubbed hands painfully raw.

INTERVIEW EXCERPT: Joyce Bowler, Mother

What was the biggest challenge of living in the 1900 House?

Not going mad, mainly. That and keeping a grip on reality. Granted, it was an artificial experience, but it got more and more real as time went on. It wasn’t like playing pretend. It had an enormous impact on our lives. 

What did you enjoy the most?

Getting in touch with the woman who had lived in 1900. It was amazing to be wearing her clothes, living in her house, eating her food, reading the books that she would have read and connecting with the news around her. It made me feel quite humble really. I realized that I didn’t know as much as I thought I knew about this woman.

During the experiment, your husband and children were allowed to rejoin the modern world for work and school, but you had to stay at home. Did you resent this?

No. I think it was better for me because I could stay true to 1900. I could immerse myself in it completely, and I really, really wanted to do that. Going back and forth every day from one period to another would have been like living with a split personality. I don’t think I would have liked it. 

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