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The story behind the picture: Mr Roberts washes his dirty linen

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In 1912 Mr Henry Roberts, Director of the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery visited Norway to source paintings for the 1913 Exhibition of Norwegian Art shown at Brighton Museum. As well as this, his intended purpose, Mr Roberts inadvertently supplied history with a peek into the private hygiene habits of the late-Edwardian gentleman.

Washing your dirty linen in public

This once well-known phrase or idiom is going out of common usage but it would have been familiar to people living at Preston Manor when it was a private house 88 years ago. To wash one’s dirty linen in public is to discuss very personal or private matters in front of other people and so expose unsavoury secrets that are best kept hidden. To wash, or to air, one’s dirty linen in this way was considered poor etiquette and was almost always the cause of embarrassment for those in receipt of the information however fascinated they might be by it. I am sure the gentlemanly Mr Henry Roberts had no unsavoury secrets in his blameless life but he has left us this little slip of paper which tells us much about his actual dirty linen.

Who was Mr Henry Roberts?

Henry Roberts is a man I think about every working day because he came to live at Preston Manor in 1933 when the house became a museum under his care as curator. In the 1930s many curators of historic buildings lived-in and apartments were set aside for this purpose. My office is in one of his private rooms.

The eldest of ten children, Henry Roberts left school in 1886 aged 16 and started work at the library service in Newcastle and then London. A tireless career trajectory led him to become the first Director of the Royal Pavilion overseeing important refurbishment works in the 1920s. Today Mr Roberts would be described as a workaholic. He never stopped. He gave lectures, wrote books, curated a series of ground-breaking exhibitions of international modern art at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, and entertained royalty. During the First World War Henry Roberts acted as Liaison Officer between the military and Brighton Corporation supervising the complex task of turning the Royal Pavilion (by now no longer owned by the Crown) into a hospital for wounded Indian soldiers. In recognition of his work Henry was awarded The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE).

Keeping paper ephemera

What I really like about Mr Roberts is his habit of collecting and keeping paper ephemera from his travels, those seemingly unimportant throw-away slips of paper that are so fascinating after a hundred years have passed; menus, business cards, receipts and laundry lists. I too love paper ephemera especially of this sort, the day-to-day insignificant item and I keep a fair amount of my own (who doesn’t?). In another hundred years it is almost certain paper ephemera will not exist at all because all such records will be digital and not exist in a palpable form. For historians (or just the plain inquisitive) this will be a loss to public record. Mr Roberts certainly never intended his laundry list to be examined as a historical document but as an avid keeper of such ephemera he has left a paper-trail that I find impossible to ignore.

What do we know about Mr Roberts’s trip to Norway?

I have in front of me the following evidence: two menus for banquets, three business-personal cards from private individuals, three letters (two formal, one personal), one envelope, one hotel notice of meal times, one hotel notice asking guests to ‘please take notice of the poster in the room,’ one music programme for a concert, one invite to a formal dinner, nine receipts for hotel services and one laundry list.

From this collection I know that Henry Roberts spent about a week in Norway as items are dated between Wednesday 13 and Tuesday 20 November 1912.

He stayed at The Grand Hotel in Christiania, a city that would revert back to its ancient name, Oslo in 1925. In Norway Henry Roberts enjoyed the best of the best at The Grand Hotel, the most prestigious hotel in Christiania. The hotel opened in 1874 and is still operational today. He was a feted guest of the Norwegian art world entertained to a banquet and a party. The banquet on 18 November was hosted by the Norwegian Art Gallery (Bildende Kunsters Styre) now the Norwegian Visual Arts Association and held at the Hotel Continental.

Eating and drinking with a famous actress

I think Mr Roberts must have especially enjoyed his night out on 13 November for he was invited to a private banquet party given for Johanne Dybwad (1867-1950) held in the Rococo Hall at The Grand Hotel.  Mrs Dybwad was a leading Norwegian stage actress and producer working then, aged 46, at the National Theatre in Christiana, the city of her birth, notable and much-honoured for her fifty-year career in the performing arts.

The menu is written in French, as was traditional in restaurants across Europe.

Mr Roberts started his meal with Windsor soup (brown beef soup) accompanied by a glass of medium dry sherry. Next came lobster in sauce served with a German Riesling white wine. This was followed by assorted Norwegian meats with French red wine then roast chicken and lettuce-heart salad accompanied by sparkling wines. Then he was served with a bombe, an individual ice-cream dessert made from fresh cream flavoured with vanilla and in this case studded with candied peel and pistachio nuts, with fruit and wine to follow.

I picture Mr Roberts staggering up to Room 71 after this boozy feast.

Edwardian banquet menus are invariably meat-heavy with no provision at all for a vegetarian option. Mr Roberts would have eaten a lot of meat in his lifetime, for he attended many banquets in the course of his employment. However, I wonder what he made of the dish served at the 18 November banquet; roast bear with a chestnut puree.

Mr Roberts’s continental practices

I always enjoy reading Edwardian menus because of what they tell us about the lavish and sometimes bizarre diets of the wealthy. When it comes to paper ephemera menus are commonly kept and not least because they are always decorative objects.

Mrs Dywbad’s party menu of 13 November is illustrated with two bacchanalian fawns dancing along with a cache of fruit, meat and wine strung between them.

The Grand Hotel provided guests with a pre-printed list of available services and extras you could purchase and have added to your bill: transport, food and wine, tea coffee and seltzers and the use of a telephone. There was a separate kiosk at which you could purchase cigars and cigarettes ‘at shop prices.’

Interestingly, a vask or wash and bad or bath were chargeable extras.

Back in 1912 hotels, even grand ones, did not provide en suite facilities in every room, as we would expect today. Washrooms or bathrooms were separate, usable by special purchase, by booking the bathroom and being issued with a key. Freely available toilets would have been provided on each floor of the hotel not in each room. You would find a jug and bowl in your private room and, in most establishments, hot water would be delivered to your room and your water jug filled by a member of hotel staff. This was especially important for Mr Roberts and his morning shave and moustache tidying.

The truth is, people a hundred years ago did not wash their bodies all over daily in the same way we do today. On his last day at the hotel Mr Roberts books and pays extra for use of the hotel’s vask although he does not book a bad, or bath. What does he do in the washroom if he doesn’t have a full bath? Perhaps he took a shower.

Ordinarily in his room Mr Roberts would have had a stand-up wash at his marble-topped wash-stand using the hot water provided and a flannel or small sponge (which he would bring with him in a wash-bag) to clean those parts of his body he deemed essential to keep fresh. Soap was used but deodorants were not yet in common use or even available. British men would have considered such a product unnecessary and indeed, dangerously effeminate or outrageously French.

Smelling of sweat at the end of the day was thought perfectly ordinary (and manly) until well into the second half of the 20th century. Scented colognes were available to men, and the Edwardian gentleman favoured heavily-scented often floral colognes. However, the use of scent was restricted to the brave and the wealthy. I wonder if Mr Roberts dabbled with a little Eau de Cologne on his continental journeys experimenting with indigenous practices the same way he nibbled at his roast bear and sipped his Château La Couronne 1904.

Mr Roberts’s laundry list

Mr Roberts’s laundry list is of great interest, as such an item is rarer than a menu. The washing list provided by the Christiania Vestheim Dampvarkeri (laundry) allows for the laundering of the following male items: shirts, nightshirts, undervests, drawers, collars, pocket handkerchiefs, stockings and socks. The laundry offers items ‘general, complete and returned in 24 hours’ with an unguaranteed quicker service at an extra 20% cost.

Mr Roberts fills out his form ‘washing for Room 71’ for 5 shirts, 9 collars and 5 pocket handkerchiefs to be laundered.

Sadly, the form is undated but I am assuming he sends his items at the end of his stay.

The last dated piece of paper ephemera in his collection is dated 20 November 1912 so I’m thinking he uses the laundry service 24 hours before he leaves Norway submitting his wash on 18 or 19 November or 6-7 days of clothing wear.

Collars would be changed daily. A gentleman would not be seen with a soiled collar. In this period collars were detachable, not part of the shirt, so they could be laundered separately. Shirts would be worn for a longer period of time depending on the individual’s personal standard of cleanliness and the number of shirts he owned. I suspect Mr Roberts would make one shirt last at least a couple of days.

What’s the evidence?

It looks like Mr Roberts wore a collar a day for 7 days and a fresh collar to go with his evening wear for 2 days equalling 9 collars to be laundered. He wore an evening-shirt twice (the same one) and a day-shirt every two days making 4 day-shirts and one evening-shirt to be laundered after a week’s stay. He has 5 (cotton) pocket handkerchiefs laundered and in the days before paper tissues this would be essential even if you didn’t have a cold. The climate in Norway in November would at least make your eyes and nose stream when you stepped outside.

What of his vest, socks and pants?

Mr Roberts does not send socks or underwear to the laundry. He has the option to, but he does not. What does that mean?

Edwardian underwear were substantial garments. Briefs and boxer shorts were a much later invention. Mr Roberts’ winter vests would have been thick long-sleeved items made of a fine to medium wool. Almost certainly Mr Roberts would have travelled to Norway in long-johns, that is wool jersey items rather like leggings worn under trousers. Long-johns were universal wear for the Edwardian man. Quite possibly they were purchased from Dr Jaeger’s Sanitary Woollen System Company established in 1884 by German naturalist and hygienist, Gustav Jäger and advocated by Edwardian men such as playwright George Bernard Shaw who believed one should always wear wool next to the skin and by the Antarctic explorer, Ernest Shackleton who would never have taken his long-johns off whilst about his profession.

I suspect Mr Robert’s didn’t take off long-johns either, hence these items not appearing on his laundry list. Very likely he wore his vest and long-johns in bed in lieu of a nightshirt. The regular changing of underwear is another far more recent practice and Mr Roberts would not have been considered anything other than perfectly normal for keeping his on and unlaundered for a week’s stay abroad. He seems to have worn the same socks too.

A tell-tale paper-trail

Taking this peek into Mr Roberts’s laundry basket has only been possible because he took the trouble to keep mementos of his trip to Norway in the form of paper ephemera. I imagine the respectable gentleman museum curator would be shocked if he could know that 108 years on his personal hygiene habits were to be publicly investigated using these documents. After all, here is the man who took great trouble to have removed from Preston Manor every item relating to the domestic and the bodily when the house changed function from private property to museum in 1933.

Later in the century, Preston Manor’s curator, Mr David Beevers, explained his predecessor’s actions in an article printed in Brighton Gazette & Herald, dated 1st January 1982, ‘there was a big sale with the disposal of things like washstands and zinc hip baths, right down to Lady Stanford’s knickers.’

Paula Wrightson, Venue Officer Preston Manor