Friday, August 17, 2007
Georgian Health & Safety
In today's safe world it is hard to credit the risks our ancestors were prepared to take in their day to day lives. In the eighteenth century very few streets in major towns had street lighting, making travellers easy prey for footpads and highwaymen. Of course the very rich could hire link-boys to precede them as they made their way around town, or they could be accompanied by footmen, while if they were making long journeys then outriders would be employed. In The Belles Dames Club the dastardly captain of a slave ship has only hired his outriders to accompany him on the most dangerous part of his coach journey from London to Bristol, and when the ladies learn this they set their trap for him.
The poor had no one to look after their safety, but even the rich and fashionable were at risk – chalk was added to the milk to make it whiter, expensive tea was adulterated - the leaves of elder, hawthorne or ash were added, to say nothing of sheep's dung, while green tea was often coloured with copper carbonate and lead chromate to produce the right colour. Such adulteration was partly responsible for the rising popularity of black tea by the end of the 18th century. The ladies in my books often drink tea, and it is to be hoped that it is purchased from a reputable tea-seller.
Looking good was certainly not a healthy option. For part of the eighteenth century at least the use of lard to keep the ladies' enormous hairstyles in place attracted plenty of vermin, including mice! Face powder contained white lead - one recipe calls for the lead to be steeped in vinegar and rested on a bed of horse manure for three weeks! Rouge was no better, containing lead-based carmine. I have no doubt that Lady Gaunt, the most fashionable of The Belles Dames Club members used both these products. Not that the medical fraternity were much help – until the middle of the 18th century physicians did not advocate washing - they feared that water would enter the body through the pores and contaminate the internal organs, affecting the humoral balance!
Writers have to tread a very fine line between portraying history as it really was, and writing a story that a modern audience will enjoy, let's hope we get it right!