The past is a weird country you only get to visit via travelogues

I was chatting with my cousin about the census project. We were on the topic of occupations. Some bewilder her, like hustler and huckster and compositor. Then there are others where she was amazed at the sheer number of laundresses. Lota lota laundresses. Off the top of my head I was trying to remember the history of Washington DC domestic service, along with the history of American consumer culture and the rise of the home washing machine and indoor plumbing, which would have made a laundress unnecessary. Later, conditions changed where the “need” & “supply” for domestic servants (another large female occupation) disappeared.
She also noted the large number of people in one house, also unusual for our time, normal for then. I explained that several houses in the neighborhood were two or more units. You can see it with some of the Bates Street houses still, where there are two doors, one for the lower unit, and another for the 2nd floor unit. Regardless, there would be three generations sharing a house or a unit.
Another shocking thing I told her, not revealed in the data, but coming from the whole laundress and plumber (a biggy for white males) discussion, was the lack of running water in many neighborhood houses. Yes, not every house had running water inside. Think of all the things you use that requiring water on command (toilets, dishwasher, shower, etc) and imagine not having that. I illustrate this for her I recalled one of our late grandmother’s odd habits such as keeping a chamber pot under her bed. She had running water, but she was, eh, mentally ru-ral. The running water problem lasted up till about the late 50s or 60s in parts of Shaw.

3 thoughts on “The past is a weird country you only get to visit via travelogues”

  1. i was at the discussion of the wardman display at the historical society of DC down at the old library last week (or was it the week before? i can't remember dates anymore).

    anyway, the presenter talked about the houses on bates and the fact that they were built specifically to have two units in each house. just thought i'd bring that up here. the historians in the city clearly recognize the unique features of that area.

  2. Well I wouldn't call it unique. I believe the company that built the Bates St houses built houses elsewhere in the DC region. And the two unit, one structure thing definitely isn't unique. Now the odd 2nd story bay window thing, yeah, that's unique, funny looking when you 1st see em (they grow on you), but yes, that feature is unique.

  3. Yep, over here on Warner Street all of the houses on the south side of the street were built that way. We have 2 front doors, and the house originally had identical units up and downstairs. There's also a skylight/tiny atrium right through the middle of the house to provide daylight and air circulation (so I'm told) for the otherwise windowless center rooms.


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