Issue 35 Dust Fall 2009

Swept Away

Susanna Whatman

In the late eighteenth century, increased social mobility among the yeoman class—from which stratum domestic staff were most often hired by the aristocracy and merchant classes—led to a shortage of servants in England. The rate of staff turnover increased, and it was not unusual for an aristocratic or upper-middle-class woman to draw up a list of instructions, a plan of campaign in the war against dust and grime, that might be passed on by a housekeeper to her successor. One such text is The Housekeeping Book of Susanna Whatman, composed in the years following her marriage in 1776 to James Whatman, a prosperous paper-mill owner, and their setting up home at Turkey Court in the county of Kent.

In Directions to Servants, his satirical instruction manual of 1731, Jonathan Swift had suggested that a butler ought employ his sweaty palm to ensure an even surface to the salt cellar, and a footman should sneeze on a plate rather than spray his master’s table. It is a good idea too, Swift writes, to fling several pounds of butter at the kitchen wall, and pluck it off as required. Directions to Servants is less an attack on slovenly staff than a scatological guide to enacting a filthy revenge on ingrate employers.

As the short extracts below may hint, Whatman’s manuscript suggests, despite itself, a similarly rank and grubby revenge, and conjures the shades of exhausted bodies that move slowly and awkwardly, leaving decidedly unsettling traces behind them.

To use as little soap as possible (if any) in scowering rooms. Fuller’s earth and fine sand preserves the colour of the boards, and does not leave a white appearance as soap does. All the rooms to be dry scrubbed with white sand.

To take the papers off the tops of the beds twice a year.

To whisk all the window curtains every Saturday. Shake mats, carpets, etc. every Saturday. To use a painter’s brush to all the ledges, window frames and furniture, and then the duster. Never to use a hard brush to any mahogany carving that has been neglected and the dust suffered to settle in it.

To keep a small mop in the cupboard in the Water Closet, and use warm water every day to keep the inside clean. In frosty weather not to pour it too hot, only just warm. And it must be used in a mug, not in anything so wide as a bason, that it [do] not wet the sides of the pan.

To rise on Tuesday morning to wash her own things and the dusters, and help wash stockings. To iron her own things of an evening. To mend the towels and her Master’s common stockings of an evening.

To take turns of going to Church every other Sunday with the Laundrymaid.

Never to dust the pictures, nor the frames of anything that has a gilt edge. Never to dust the black busts.

To force back all the window shutters: otherwise they get warped, and will not go into their place, which makes a room look very bad indeed. To sweep the steps in front of the house every morning when necessary.

When a floor cloth wants washing, not to use a brush or soapsuds, but a soft linen and some fresh milk and water. A steel should be used round the hearth and in all dirty corners.

[...]

All doors at places where the dust lodges should be attended to. Otherwise, if left too long, it takes a long time and much labour to get it off.

[...]

The sun comes into the Library very early. The window on that side of the bow must have the blind let down. … The books are not to be meddled with, but they may be dusted as far as a wing of a goose will go. Nothing put behind the door besides the ladder. Tea leaves used on the carpet in this room, Drawingroom, and Eating Parlour, and Mrs Whatman’s Dressingroom, no where else.

Drawingroom. The blinds always closed in the morning and window up. Kept dusted, and the chairs and sofas dusted occasionally, and the mahogany rubbed. The covers shook. The girandoles Mrs W always cleans herself. They should never be touched: nor the pictures. In damp weather a chafing dish with coals should be used, but something put under it to ketch any dirt that may fall. When the fire is light and the stove cleaned, something must be laid down to prevent the carpet from being dirtied, as it is nailed down. The other carpets are not.

[…]

Eating parlor. The sun never comes in. The chairs must be well dusted so that the mahogany should look bright. The carving on the mahogany sideboards should be kept free from dust with the painter[’s] brush. No chair should be set in the corner near the door to the kitchen. The pianoforte and the harpsichord should not have anything struck against them.

Hall and Staircase. Swept and dusted every day, and the banister occasionally rubbed with a very little oil and every day with a dry cloth.

Susanna Whatman (1752–1814), the wife of English papermaker James Whatman, was the mistress of Turkey Court in Kent. In 1777, she began to compile a book to instruct her servants on housekeeping.


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