Having your very own lady’s maid seems like the ultimate luxury for many modern women that is now totally out of reach. The closest we’ll ever get to living out this fantasy is at a health and beauty spa where you get groomed and pampered within an inch of your life.
Not that a modern woman really wants or needs someone to help her tight-lace corsets to the extremes favoured by Victorian women or, for that matter, help in getting a crinoline on. And most modern women would be rather put off by some of the beauty treatments suggested by Mrs Beeton in the section of her book directed to the lady’s maid. Hair pomade made from lard, castor oil and scent, or (even worse) whale oil plus some less alarming ingredients? A “useful mash for chapped hands” made from sulphuric acid, rosewater and almond oil (to be used diluted, however…)? Dried bullock’s blood for spot-cleaning grease spots from cottons or woollens? No thank you!
However, some of the advice for the lady’s maid or your domestic cleaning London lady is quite useful…
* To clean a hairbrush made from natural bristle, dissolve a piece of washing soda in warm water. Remove the hair from the brush using the comb, then dip the bristles into the water, making sure the back and handle of the brush stay as dry as possible. Repeat a few times, then rinse in cold water. Shake out, then dry the back and handle (but not the bristles) with a towel and dry “in the sun or near the fire”. Don’t use soap on natural bristle.
* To clean feathers, “cover the feathers with a paste made of pipe clay and water, rubbing them one way only. When quite dry, shake off all the powder and curl with a knife.” Pipe clay is powdered gypsum, known as terra alba.
* To clean silk ribbons, mix half a pint of gin, half a pound of honey, half a pound of soft soap and half a pint of water. Lay the ribbon flat and use the mixture to scrub any dirt off. Rinse three times and do not wring. Drip dry for a few minutes, dab with a towel, then iron with a hot iron (yes, Mrs B. actually says to iron silk with a hot iron).
* To “revive black lace”, either dip the lace into tea left to brew overnight, or into beer. After this, “clap it for a quarter of an hour” then pin to a towel in whatever shape the lace is supposed to be, cover it with another towel and iron with a cool iron.
* To wash silk (this is from before the days of dry-cleaning and should still be good today), lay the silk garment flat, then rub it evenly with a warm, soapy flannel until the dirt has gone. Then rinse with a sponge and cold water. Dry in the shade. Black and navy blue silk should be sponged with gin or whisky when dry, then re-dried.
The idea of all that liquor – beer, gin and whisky – being so freely available to the lady’s maid (and, presumably to My Lady) gives a rather different impression of Victorian womanhood than usual!
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