A Messy Business

You are all enjoying yourselves with my little competition.

To date we have had 288 views of the blog, 7 right answers, a few puzzled readers and several failures. This is mainly thanks to Debbie  of Debbie’s Tiny Treasures who featured my PastMastery post on her blog and got everyone to have a go. Thanks Debbie. And thanks to those who have written to me.


Told you it was going to be simple but not easy!

Today we are going to nip back to the 17th century again as promised and I think, since we are in the run-up to Christmas, we shall go shopping.

Now shopping today, is a frantic affair. It’s mostly a do-it-yourself jobbie with us loading a trolley or basket with bits and bobs and then taking it to a till where a pre-pubescent being with a  nose ring and tattoos tots it up on a glorified calculator, tells you how much you owe and gives you the change the computer insists is correct. Hmmm.

Hardly any pleases or thank yous. And of course this can, in the main all be done under the same roof, should you wish. You can buy your mince and your mints, your flowers and some flour, go to the hair care aisle for shampoo and purchase a nice hung hare for your dinner, all in one place. Everything is packaged to within a inch of its life. No mess

Not so in the 17th century. No do-it-yourself then. And plenty of mess.

Some plaices, I mean places, have bitten the dust entirely. Take the Chandlers for example. Or the Cordwainers.  Mm see what I mean?

We are going to the shops which line Piccadilly in London!

The River Thames c. 1600 with the only bridge across the river.

Now it looked of course, nothing like it does today.

They say this is the oldest shop front in London.... from after the Great Fire of 1666.

No motor cars but plenty of horses ( and what they leave behind ); the difference between the rich and poor was very, very noticeable unlike today and there would have been no posh designer bags with logos advertising the latest boutique or the favourite brand of trainers.

Piccadilly before it was a circus!

Folk would have been loaded up with purchases yes, but their owners would be nowhere to be seen. You see….you didn’t DO your own shopping! Rather like nipping into Debenhams to get yourself a PERSONAL SHOPPER, you had a servant to fetch and carry, especially those who could afford to shop in Piccadilly.If you went shopping yourself, you sat in a wood panelled hall while shop assistants flitted to and fro bringing you goods to feel and look at.

There are two schools of thought as to how this place got its quaint name. Piccadilly.

The name may arise from the fact that a  tailor named Robert Baker, owned a shop on the Strand, in the late 16th century and early 17th century. He amassed a large fortune by making and selling piccadills stiff collars with scalloped edges and a broad lace or perforated border, that were then the height of fashion.

wearing of a piccadillo ruff.

It is also said that this street, when known as Portugal Street ( before Piccadilly) was a less than salubrious area and that gentlemen of a needy disposition would frequent the ladies of easy virtue around and about the buildings here. Many of these so-called gentlemen were married of course. Once it became known that one had frequented this area and of course it always DID { servants can’t keep secrets you know 😉 } one’s peccadilloes might be bruited abroad. This word comes from the latin pecado – meaning sin and so this area might have been known for the naughty goings on, the minor transgressions of the flesh that were every day occurrences here.

Who knows. What ever the name…it’s a memorable one!

Our mistress has sent us to Piccadilly to purchase some everyday requisites. Things that are essential to the living of a refined life. You will of course understand me when I say….

TEA, SNUFF, WHITING, YELLOW STARCH, POMADE…{No..nothing to do with a drink like Appletise}. SEALING WAX and CERUSE. All messy stuff of course.

Tea..? Well we still have that of course, but now we buy it in little perforated bags. IN our 17th century guise, we nip into the specialist tea and coffee shop. It’s sold by the pound, is incredibly expensive and has to be kept under lock and key. It’s weighed out for us to our employer’s own receipt. When we get it home it will be locked into a tea caddy with a glass bowl in the middle where it will be mixed as needed by the mistress before being taken to the kitchen to have hot water poured onto it. Then up it will come to the drawing room again to be consumed by the elegant folk from little porcelain bowls ( no, not a recognisable handled tea cup in sight.) Us poor servants get the dregs later re -heated and a bit thin on taste. Messy process just for a bitter thin drink that scalds the tongue?

Full sized dummy board of a servant with a tray of early Batavia ware tea cups. C. 1700 U.S.A.

Snuff? White powder for the Master who is fond of sniffing it up from the back of his hand and then spraying everyone for yards around, when he sneezes! UGH!


Whiting? Absolutely essential to any ladies’ maid. Needed for the proper cleaning of white leather gloves…soooo fashionable at the moment.But messy to apply.

Yellow starch. No laundress worth her salt would be caught without a drop of this to add to the final rinse when washing the fine folks’ ruffs. Nice fashionable yellow colour…makes ’em look like they have jaundice I think! Not good for the hands…..

Pomade? For brushing onto the wigs and for applying directly to the hair to whiten it. It’s said to keep lice and mites at bay. 😉

Sealing Wax? No such thing as an envelope to put letters in yet. That is a long way off. You fold your letters into a tiny square and seal it with wax to prevent tampering. Of course, it isn’t foolproof. Us servants know how to get under the seal when we need to…. but it’s a messy business sticking it back!

Ceruse? The mistress insists on a flawless white complexion. A sticky mixture of chalk and white lead applied to the face, neck and bosom gives her this. Sadly as it dries out, it cracks and bits flake off into her soup. Poor soul, she is so short sighted, she can’t see it. Good job really.

And what is in it for us servants?

Perquisites. Originally this word meant something acquired, again from the latin perquisitum and shortened this word gives us PERKS!


Well…. the dregs of the tea as I’ve said.We get the left overs of the mixtures of the whiting ourselves for our own use though we have no posh gloves to whiten. No -we use it on our house shoes… those softer versions of boots that we wear around the home. We have no use for sealing wax as we can’t read or write. Snuff..UGH wouldn’t be seen dead with it and as for ceruse…. I pride myself on my peaches and cream complexion, acquired by splashing with icy water and rubbing with oatmeal stuffed into little muslin bags. No need for falseness. My hair is tied up in a little cap so I wear no wig….no need for pomade, though I do love the smell of it….and now and again, I  try just a bit which has messily dropped onto the cloth I put round my mistresses’ shoulders, when dressing her hair.

My little bonnet....head of the Brighton servant. Dummy board Mid 18thc.

Two of our enterprising footmen, Mr. Fortnum and Mr. Mason have secreted away, in a cupboard, a lot of the candle ends from the light fixtures around the house; those that are half burnt down and are replaced each day. They say they are PERKS!

They plan to melt the left over beeswax ( for such they are and are very expensive and burn with a nice smell and a clear flame ) and re- mould them into candles to sell to a Chandler in Piccadilly.

I don’t think they will profit by it much though. If our Mistress was to get wind of it…oh dear! It would be a fine mess they would be in.

The Chandler, who began as just a candle maker but now sells everything we need for the home; paper, glue, pins, starch, things we might find today at an ironmonger, will want to know where the raw material came from. Won’t he?

I am going into the Cordwainers today too. My mistress needs her black boots repairing and I will take them to a cobbler but she says that Master Cordwainer must look at them for she needs a second pair and he must make them exactly to the same design. He is the man who will make the best shoes from the finest leather in the latest fashions. Therefore, he will make drawings from the existing pair before I take them for mending. Of course I only have one pair of boots. Good stout ones they are too. Even I, though, need pattens, little wooden overshoes like blocks, which raise me from the ground and keep the leather from the muck and mud ( and goodness knows what else) of the 17th century street.

Wooden pattens

It can be a messy business just going shopping, don’t you know !

Of course we all know that Fortnum and Mason has been on Piccadilly since the early 18th century. It’s said the store was founded with profits made by melting down candle stubs filched from Queen Anne’s palace. Who knows!?

Mr Fortnum or Mr Mason? One of the statues in the lobby of the Piccadilly shop.


Bonnie asks why yellow starch was so desirable. Hard to say. It was probably the cost.There were several colours favoured but yellow was more expensive than ordinary starch and so showed how wealthy you were. Apparently it was ‘invented ‘ by a lady called Mrs. Turner. She became embroiled in the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury in the Tower of London and was eventually hanged ( in a yellow ruff! ) at Tyburn for the crime. After this the fashion dyed out…I mean died out. Understandably!


5 Responses to “A Messy Business”

  1. Debbie Says:

    Sue, I Love that shop front. Shame there are not more of them about. In Greenwich where I originate from they have some lovely little Shops in the Market, but most have new shop fronts now.
    Glad to have been of help with the give away. You may get some more yet..xxx

  2. bonsmots Says:

    Why would they use yellow starch? Hasn’t brilliant white always been more desirable? If my sheets or aprons (hah!) were yellow, I’d surely not want to display them!

  3. julie Says:

    loved reading this Sue,those were the days eh ?…….!
    The shop front is beautifuland one that is surely begging to be recreated in miniature.
    julie xxx

  4. pastmastery Says:

    Thanks all.
    Debbie- Humans have a terrible urge to sweep away all that is not ‘fashionable’. Sad. We have an unhealthy fascination with the ‘new’. What is wrong with the tried and tested?
    Bon- Goodness knows why yellow was fashionable but it was and you are right….I would hate it too. See my addendum for a note about yellow starch.
    Julie- It is lovely isn’t it? You gonna do it? 🙂

  5. The Lord of Misrule – Prepare! ( part one ) « Pastmastery's Blog Says:

    […] little maidservant, the one we met doing the shopping in A Messy Business, I think her name is Iris Kalot, she is putting the finishing touches to the Twelfth Night Pie. She […]

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