At Your Service A Series on 18th Century Housekeeping & Daily Life

Drunk Tailor and I were invited to interpret aspects of daily life at Whitall House in Red Bank, New Jersey. This was a culmination of the work we had been doing exploring servants and cleaning methods and solutions typical of the late 18th century. Together, we’d explored servants in military contexts, waiting on officers and cleaning barracks. I’d tested housekeeping and cleaning methods in houses and barracks.

Household Economy

This time, we brought that knowledge together to talk about “household economy,” or the management of daily chores. Fortunately for us, Job Whitall's diary has been transcribed and served as a good source for understanding what life was like in 1775-1779 New Jersey on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

Right, Whitall House.

It's not a literary diary-- but it is a practical one, describing the daily life of Quakers on a farm. It's jarring today to read "Big white frost & ise this morning" as the lead for May 3rd's entry, but climate was different 242 years ago.*

In between the manure and the plowing and the rain, Job Whitall buys quite a bit of linen and calico (cotton, probably printed) in his peregrinations around Gloucester County. Households used fairly large quantities of textiles in the pre-paper towel era. Towels were needed for people and dishes; dressing tables were typically covered with a linen cloth, tablecloths protected dining tables and napkins protected clothes at mealtimes. Shifts and shirts (women's and men's body linen) were usually changed daily and washed weekly, aprons needed mending and replacing as they were used up in daily chores. All of this would amount to a great deal of washing and mending and repurposing of textiles as they aged.

The afternoon we spent in Whitall House was wet, blustery one, well suited to sitting by the fire doing small table-top chores. I had a basket of washed clothes ready for mending; the first task being darning Drunk Tailor's stocking. After that, his favorite "aether of linen" shirt much in need of mending-- or ready for repurposing.

Top, left, a shirt in need of washing; center, a patched shirt; right, the washed shirt drying on the grass. Below, darning a stocking and bantering about chores at Whitall House

As in the past, our own gowns and shirt are mended with some frequency, but this shirt, despite being his favorite and deliciously soft, is ready to become something else entirely. It's ready for the rag bag, or perhaps it can become a clout, in particular a menstrual clout, as we argued all afternoon.

The question of how women managed menstrual blood in the 17th and 18th centuries (and earlier-- indeed, anytime before about 1850) is an open question. Despite a recent thesis on the topic of mid-nineteenth century techniques, hard evidence of management in earlier periods remains elusive.

Menstrual Management

What is clear is that women did manage their menstrual bleeding. Despite effective laundry procedures, there are few clothes with extant stains from bleeding-- and it is likely that clothes would have gotten stained, given the statistical likelihood of women with heavy periods being about what it is today as a proportion of the overall population. There is an interesting case in the Old Bailey from 1733 in which laundress Sarah Malcolm is accused of murder based (in part) on the evidence of bloody linen found in her possession. Her testimony is that the blood is her own menstrual blood, and uses the location of the stains as evidence of that.

“I wore the Apron under me next to my Shift” is a curious arrangement, and one wishes Hogarth had drawn the evidence and not just the accused.

Stained shift

The thing about menstruation is not just that our attitudes towards it have (sort of) changed; how we experience menstruation has also changed.

In the 18th century, menarche occurred later than it does now. Girls began menstruating closer to the age of 15; in the late twentieth century, the average age at menarche was 12. Women were also pregnant more often and nursing longer than is currently typical. (Although I nursed my son until he was nearly three, I am an exception-- and he's an only child.) This infrequency of menstruation must inform how we attempt to understand its management and experience in the 18th century.

The Lying-In Room, oil on pine panel by Daniel Chodowiecki, 1759. Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

Regular menstruation was also seen as essential to a woman's health, both for the relief of "humours" and for the indication of fertility. Hence, it was something to be regulated, and women and their midwives and physicians maintained and shared recipes for emmenagogues to restore the menses and others to reduce flow.

What does the infrequency of menstruation mean for those of us interested in the material culture and physical experience of menstruation in the past?

For those of us interested in colonial and early Federal America, there will be few, if any, artifacts. This is not only because the period is largely non-industrial, but because there was less need for pads or other absorbent methods. Documentation is scant, and what exists in women's voices is coded. Methods and recourses were transmitted orally more than in writing, and records of personal experiences-- interiorities of bodies or emotions--are scarce.


*Recognizing the difference in climate 242 years later can be helpful when asking the inevitable "aren't you hot in those clothes?" questions. For one thing, no; I'm acclimated to them since I've been in them all day. And for another, the climate was different, with fewer hot and record-breaking days (the Battle of Monmouth excepted).


Kathleen Brown, Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009)

Sharon Ann Burnston. “Babies in the Well: An Underground Insight into Deviant Behavior in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 106, No. 2 (April 1982) 151-186.

Elaine Forman Crane, Ed. The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker: The life Cycle of an Eighteenth-Century Woman. Abridged edition. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994)

Tess Frydman. America’s Bloody History: Menstruation Management in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. Master’s Thesis, University of Delaware, 2018.

Florence DeHuff Friel, editor. The diary of Job Whitall, Gloucester County, New Jersey, 1775-1779. Woodbury, N.J. : Gloucester County Historical Society, 1992.

Hannah Glasse The servant’s directory : or house-keeper’s companion: … To which is annexed a diary, or house-keeper’s pocket-book for the whole year. London : Printed for the author ; and sold by W. Johnston ; at Mrs. Wharton’s, at Mrs. Ashburnham’s china-shop, Mr Vaughan’s, and by all the Booksellers in town and country, 1760.

Alexandra Lord. “The Great “Arcana of the Deity”: Menstruation and Menstrual Disorders in Eighteenth-Century British Medical Thought.” Bulletin of the HIstory of Medicine, Vol. 73, No. 1 (Spring 1999) 38-63

Sara Read. “Thy Righteousness is but a menstrual clout”: Sanitary Practice and Prejudice in early Modern England.” Early Modern Women, Vol 3 (Fall 2008) 1-25.

William Wallis Woodward One thousand valuable secrets, in the elegant and useful arts : collected from the practice of the best artists .. by Published 1795 by Philadelphia : Printed for B. Davies …, and T. Stephens … .

Created By
Kirsten Hammerstrom

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