The Domestic Revolution by historian Ruth Goodman is an interesting insight into how coal, and later soaps changed Britain, and the Empire. Everyone has heard of the Industrial Revolution, but in many ways the changing habits of how humans burned fuel for warmth, food-making and the domestic domain was more significant, if less well known.
For thousands of years humans have burned wood, peat, or variations thereof in the home – cooking and keeping warm. This practice shaped the landscape – wood was used everywhere – fuel, building, weapons, war, ships, homes etc. Land was managed, farmed, coppiced and the industries around this were important. Many folks did not travel far, and so utilised what was around them. Certain foods and ways of cooking do not manage on wood or peat, and others do not manage well on coal.
Ms Goodman describes cooking on wood, peat, dung and charcoal, how it was sourced and the foods which worked best. Cleaning was done, largely with wood ash, lime and various other intriguing ways. Ash doesn’t work on coal dirt and so hot water became the norm, and new vessels for boiling, new detergents and new roles.
Then came coal – which burns differently from wood, cooks differently, is used in industry differently, heats differently. People, pots, manufacturing, transport, food, housing, cleaning and pretty much every aspect you can think of changed with it, or as a result. Coal creates smoke which leaves smuts, dirt and dust. It produces pollution and is much harder to clean off. All those coal fires – say goodbye to your family tapestry, and your old cleaning habits. Bring on different smelting, transport, industry, soap-making, production and recipes.
The domestic hearth was, for much of history, the female domain, and although the records from women are scarce, from the 19th Century the records do bring to life the challenges, solutions and habits of women, from highborn ladies, to the lower classes. Status was important, and coal and soap brought with them status.
The book is a little slow to start, but the author knows her stuff and the book brings an interesting view on the lives of our ancestors, and how change, once it starts can be inexorable.
A good book for writers, and readers of history/historical fiction/fantasy as a reference to living with wood fires and coal, foods, cleaning and the role of women in these times (who became more tied to the home as things changed).