16 March 2006

Londoners Spat Black

I've recently started reading Claire Tomalin's award-winning biography of Samuel Pepys (1633—1703). It's one of the best sources I've found for really understanding the living conditions in England in the 1600s. I hadn't realised, for example, how polluted the London air was. Tomalin writes as follows: "Every household burnt coal . . . . so did the brewers and dyers, the brick-makers . . . the ubiquitious soap and salt boilers. The smoke from their chimneys made the air dark, covering every surface with sooty grime. There were days when a cloud of smoke half a mile high and twenty miles wide could be seen over the city from the Epsom Downs. Londoners spat black. Wall hangings, pictures, and clothes turned yellow and brown like leaves in autumn, and winter undervests, sewn on for the season against the cold, were the colour of mud by the time spring arrived" (page 5). I had forgotten how little attention was paid to personal hygiene: "Hair was expected to look after itself; John Evelyn made a note in his diary in August 1653 that he was going to experiment with an 'annual hair wash'" (page 5). I don't think I'd ever realised the intensity of the smells that were so much a part of daily living: "But every home, every family enjoyed its own smell, to which father, mother, children, apprentices, maids and pets all contributed, a rich brew of hair, bodies, sweat and other emissions, bedclothes, cooking, whatever food was lying about, whatever dirty linen had been piled up for the monthly wash, whatever chamber pots were waiting to be emptied into yard or street. Home meant the familiar reek which everyone breathed" (pages 5-6). I hope that my reading pattern with this biography doesn't follow my usual one: read avidly for the first 50--100 pages and then stop, distracted by a sudden need to reread every Emma Lathen book I can get my hands on. Claire Tomalin. Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self. London: Penguin, 2002. Winner of the 2002 Whitbread Book of the Year.


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