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Victorian adventure turns ugly

The 1900 House chronicles a family's attempt to live as people did a century ago. What did they miss most? Cleanliness.

By JUDY STARK, Times Homes Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 10, 2000


Oh, if only we could go back to the good old days! Back to a romantic time like the Victorian era. Long dresses, garden parties, grand houses . . .

Right. And no indoor toilets or central heating; dim gas lighting; never enough hot water for a decent bath; and a daily grind of unending, exhausting household chores.

That's what Joyce and Paul Bowler and their four children discovered when they were chosen from among 400 volunteer families to spend three months living in a 1900 house in Greenwich, England. Their experiment in time travel is documented in The 1900 House, a four-part series that begins at 9 p.m. Monday on WEDU-Ch. 3.

A house typical of the turn of the last century was "de-renovated" to its condition in 1900. The Bowlers promised to wear period clothing and conduct their lives as a family would have at the time. At the beginning, it all sounded exciting and adventurous.

The bloom quickly left that rose, the Bowlers discovered. The coal-burning range had no oven thermostat, so a birthday cake was a disastrous mess, and the range refused to produce enough hot water for a decent bath. They were constantly "dirty, greasy and smelly," 17-year-old Kathryn complained. Laundry day was an exhausting 12-hour production so labor-intensive that 11-year-old twins Hilary and Ruth had to stay home from school to help. Nine-year-old Joe hated the food and went on a hunger strike. Paul, the husband and father, had to contend with a razor so sharp it's known for good reason as a cutthroat. And Joyce, the wife and mother, discovered that for women, the Victorian existence was "mind-numbingly boring," and endless efforts to keep the place clean were "a waste of time and skill."

Originally the series "was set up as a science and technology living experiment," said Debra Falk, a spokeswoman for WNET in New York, which co-produced the series. The producers wanted to show how much daily life has changed in the last century.

Indeed, the narration points out just how dangerous Victorian homes were. Boilers exploded, killing people; 2,000 British children died from burns and scalds in 1900, compared to 11 in 1998. Coal dust and smog from fires caused lung disease. Wallpapers were treated with arsenic; pesticides contained heavy metals.

But the series quickly became the story of 44-year-old Joyce Bowler's feminization, as she came to understand the circumscribed lives led by Victorian women, in bodies restrained and restricted by corsets that made breathing difficult. "My life is about removing dust and fluff," she said bitterly. She first hired a maid to free herself from some of the housework, then became progressively uncomfortable with having someone else "clean up my mess" and dismissed her.

Interestingly, the maid, Elizabeth, daughter and granddaughter of domestics, became radicalized herself, even as her counterpart might have 100 years ago, by harsh working conditions, backbreaking chores and long hours. "It raised more social issues than anyone had intended or expected," Falk said.

The 1900 House was videotaped in the spring of 1999, Falk said. Camera crews were in the house with the family three to five days a week. "Nothing was staged; they just popped in. The Bowlers developed great rapport with the camera crew and didn't realize they were there most of the time." The camera crew was there on Day Three when Joyce Bowler stormed into the garden, in a tantrum of weeping and shouting, frustrated at how long it took to accomplish the most basic task, like getting a meal on the table, only to have it turn into an inedible disaster.

There were also "confession cameras" in the bedroom closets, where the Bowlers could be taped any time they had something specific they wanted to say. Family members took advantage of that opportunity to speak their minds, talk about how things seemed to be going and what they liked or disliked about the experiment.

In its British incarnation, shown last fall, the series aired as eight half-hour programs. The show was "renarrated and repackaged for a U.S. audience," Falk said, as four one-hour installments, which will be broadcast on consecutive Mondays through July 3.

The narration offers historical footnotes, including the astonishing fact that the technology did not exist in England to make ice until the 1920s. Until then, ice was imported.

For all their frustrations and anger during the three-month experiment, the Bowlers were sorry to leave at the end, and Joyce Bowler "would do it again in a heartbeat," Falk said. "At the end, they just started getting good at stuff. They got the range down, they worked out the hot water stuff," they learned to use unfamiliar household implements, including a bellowslike carpet sweeper, a washing machine that was like a boiling cauldron and a hand-turned wringer.

The Bowlers missed contemporary shampoo, detergent and dish soap; phones and newspapers; comfortable clothes; sweets; and music. In retrospect Joyce Bowler says the hardest thing for her was realizing that stepping back in time required "a real slowing down," and hopes that the family can "take more time" to spend with each other as they return to their 21st century lives.

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