Tallow, The Baltic Trade and Filthy, Shadowy Georgian London

I was surprised, a while back, to discover that all isinglass in Georgian England was imported from the Baltic.

But wouldn’t know you, that’s where they got tallow, too. Tallow, of course, was used to make cheap candles and soap.

Tallow-beef_suet_after_rendering
Tallow. Click for source.

In the Georgian Era, tallow candles were the ones that got everyday use, while wax were fancy-pants stuff you lit up when you got guests and visitors: in other words, wax candles were the Georgian Era’s version of domestic bling-bling, which, well: given that you stood a good chance of being robbed if you actually wore jewelry around, made sense: it was perishable stuff, and burning a bunch of wax candles in your home for guests showed just how much you didn’t give a damn about the cost.

Tallow also got used for making soap, not that people used the soap much for washing themselves--it seems like it was a widespread idea that immersion in water would cause the plague to get in through the pores, and besides, at least in early Georgian London, getting enough water into your house for a bath almost inevitably involved sending someone to go get it: only the ultra-rich could access the primitive water pipes of London. The solution seems to have been the kind still preferred by teenaged boys worldwide:

Yes, that’s right: most people probably stank like absolute hell, and more than a few actually bragged that they didn’t bathe more than once a year. And as any history buff will tell you, to cover that up, they applied scents and perfumes. They applied them like there was no tomorrow. Ironically, people probably got more of a chance to bathe out in the countryside, where there were available bodies of water that weren’t always teeming with filth, than they would have in London. Still, a few people did “bathe” in the Thames–which I assume implies some mix of washing and swimming around in the filth. (Pepys’ diary mentions a boy who drowned while doing so, in May 1668.)

That said, if people made sparing use of soap on their persons, they did at least sometimes use it on their clothes. Well, some of them did so, occasionally at least. Not too often, since some clothes–the fancy stuff, I imagine–had to be taken apart to be washed. One cannot but sympathize with the washerwomen of those days: the insanity and drudgery of that boggle the mind.

Londoners cleaned up their act basically after “Beau” Brummel got the attention of the Prince Regent and, later on, hygiene practices trends shifted to follow suit. But Brummel was, well… blunt when delicacy could have spared him some pain:

So, basically, if you’re writing something set in the early Georgian Era, you’re writing a story set in stinksville, not any different from the Paris described at th beginning of Patrick Süskind’s most famous novel:

In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots. The stench of sulfur rose from the chimneys, the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughterhouses came the stench of congealed blood. People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stench of rancid cheese and sour milk and tumorous disease. The rivers stank, the marketplaces stank, the churches stank, it stank beneath the bridges and in the palaces. The peasant stank as did the priest, the apprentice as did his master’s wife, the whole of the aristocracy stank, even the king himself stank, stank like a rank lion, and the queen like an old goat, summer and winter.

Of course, to “us modern men and women” that is all horrifying, but people at the time seem to have taken it so much for granted that stink barely gets mentioned except in its (imagined) connection to disease-causing “miasma.” Not does the perpetual darkness, except by rich people used to it being otherwise.

Which is another interesting problem in historical fiction: how to discuss the things characters take for granted, but your reader won’t? There’s a balance to be struck, but, well… that’s beyond the scope of this post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *