Notes on collections at the RIHS
We arrived at 8, and started cleaning at 10. We finished a little after 4, with three rooms and two light fixtures cleaned. Along the way, we learned a few things and answered some questions.
Following the advice of Hannah Glasse and Susanna Whatman, we began with the fireplace, and then started high and worked our way down. Dana pulled the logs from the formal parlor fireplace and cleaned the andirons, while I covered the sofette with a cloth and began to dust the looking glass. It soon became clear that no one had cleaned the looking glass in some time. I whisked the upholstered furniture (with reproduction fabric) while Dana polished the mahogany. These 18th century techniques definitely worked.
Using an 18th century cleaning solution of vinegar infused with lavender, we cleaned the glassware and china, and saw visible dirt residue on the rags we used to wipe, rinse, and dry the objects. We applied the same solution to the marble fireplace with similar success. We swept the floor with the round broom-corn brooms of the period and discovered just why the housekeeping guides suggested the use of damp sand, “thrown down hard onto the floor,” before dusting began. While we could collect piles of dust bunnies and dirt, they fled before the wind from our moving skirts and were hard to sweep up. Damp sand would have kept the dirt down and allowed us to sweep it up more easily—but that’s not how the floors Marsden Perry installed in the house were cleaned, so we used damp rags instead.
When we were finished, I noticed that although we had not swept the floors with herbs and sweet grasses, the formal parlor did have the faint odor of sweet broomcorn and lavender. The daily sweeping and cleaning a house with herbs, grasses, corn brooms and lavender would have been an excellent means of keeping the less pleasant smells of the 18th century at bay.
About our clothing, we were asked that most-often-asked question of re-enactors, Aren’t you hot in those clothes?
No, we’re not. We wear linen shifts next to our skin, under the stays and petticoat, dress and apron, and once the shift is damp with sweat, you tend to stay cool. If you stop moving, you can feel chilled. We began the day in jeans and t-shirts, and felt much cooler once we’d changed into 5 layers of linen and cotton. (This is true inside and out; I have certainly felt cooler on an 80+ degree day at Old Sturbridge Village in 1775 dress than I have in modern blouse and skirt.)
When I got home, I discovered that the diagonal bones in my stays had worked their way through the linen binding—another argument for using the earlier method of binding stays with leather, and not with linen. The busk, or flat wooden panel running down the front of my stays to provide separation and support, was wet and warped. I didn’t notice the twist in the wood until I had loosened the stay laces, and then the front of my stays started twisting! The back of the busk was wet, and the front smelled slightly of vinegar, which I must have spilled. Now that the busk is dry, it has pretty much regained its original shape, with a slight twist along its long axis. Baleen might have greater staying power than oak, but I will compare the busk I have with some in the collection to see if they, too, have twists from use.
~Kirsten Hammerstrom, Director of Collections