Rags, rugs and recyling

I can’t resist showing off my latest project; the rag rug as shown here.  It only took me ten

rag rug © Adèle Emm

years to finish. Mind you, for nine of those years, it was stashed under the sofa in my study due to my running out of rags and stamina.

Rag rugs were a practical solution to flag floors in an age when every penny was the buffer between survival and the workhouse.   These unique works of art protected toes against icy floors and cheered up homes with few comforts and fewer luxuries.

Made out of any old rags, cotton, wool and whatever was to hand, the whole  family contributed to their manufacture; tearing up rags and knotting them into the hessian, jute or potato sacks which formed the backing. They were virtually indestructible, easily washed and easily replaced. All it took was a little effort and, with few other diversions available to working class families during the nineteenth century, plenty of time.

Originally, paper was made from rags.  Rag and bone merchants made their living sorting rags and selling them on.  Clothing had an economic value and was sold second/third hand. Once too shabby even for the destitute, rags were destined  to be ground down and processed into paper at a paper factory.    ‘Good Mrs Brown’ in Charles Dickens’ novel Dombey and Son (1848) made her living as a rag woman (the colloquial term for a female rag merchant was bunter). Her room was described thus: ‘there was a great heap of rags lying on the floor; a heap of bones, and a heap of sifted dust or cinders; but there was no furniture at all , and the walls and ceilings were quite black’.

Rags had to be dry before they could be sold.  White rags made more money fetching between 2-3d a lb with coloured rags at about 2d a lb.  Grease extracted from rags (the mind boggles!) went into making soap.

There was tax to be paid on newspaper.   in 1815, the government raised the Stamp Duty (the official name for the tax) to 4d which meant the average cost for one newspaper was 6-7d (there were 12 old pence in a shilling) a huge amount for the working class to trump up – so they didn’t.  After the Peterloo Massacre, 1819 (see my previous blog), the Stamp Duty was extended to include leaflets and pamphlets thus, the government hoped, suppressing ‘seditious’ anti-government proselytisation.  The Stamp Tax was repealed in 1855.

Towards the end of Victoria’s reign, paper was more commonly made from wood pulp  and the price of rags slumped.  With rags more readily available, rag rugs became more common beside the bed, in the kitchen, in front of the fire. When they got really dirty, they were thrown out; they had, after all, cost virtually nothing.

The National Trust occasionally runs rag rug making workshops.


Washday Blues

Whitecap Washer Wringer from Beatty Bros. Turn of the century. © Adèle Emm

Borax, cuckoo-pint (arum), urine, soda, animal fats and wood ash!  This toxic list of ingredients is why great grandmama’s hands were constantly red, sore and chapped. Why? From the weekly wash.

Women on the brink of the shame and ignominy of entering the workhouse might have taken in other people’s washing.  Each halfpenny perhaps postponed another day from becoming a pauper.   So how, I wonder, did they manage to pay for fuel the heat the washtub water, candles to light their dark cottage or cellar (condensation from the steam oozing down the walls!) and soap towhich, as my old physics teacher insisted, makes ‘water wetter.’   And the essentials of a washtub, dolly (posser in some dialects), washboard and mangle?  How could she afford them?

Answer; many women didn’t.  For those on the brink of penury, she might specialise in the laundry – heavy duty fabrics only; such women certainly weren’t trusted with fine linen or silks.  Others, who, in a previous wealthier existence had a mangle, took in wet clothes, manoeuvred through the mangle and handed them back for drying.  Some ironed  whilst others starched.    Whatever they did, hands were raw.

The social history of washerwomen and laundresses is the topic of my next lecture.  There are still a few places left at the Society of Genealogists, London, on Wednesday 13th February.  For further details and to book your place click here.