Up to the Second World War, people in working-class neighbourhoods in particular lived in rather modest accommodation, usually with the kitchen and living room in the same space.
The larder cupboard can be seen at the right next to the Leuven stove, which not only heated the room but was also used for cooking. The large copper kettles provided hot water, e.g. to do the washing. Boiling water was needed for the wooden washing machine and a zinc washtub with washboard, because the pump only provided cold water. Wooden sticks were used to stir the boiling suds when washing so as not to scald your hands.
Once washed, linen was put through the mangle, which was positioned behind the wooden washing machine. It was used to squeeze out excess water, but in some cases also for ironing purposes. Mangles disappeared from households following the invention of the centrifuge.
The table is set for breakfast. The coffee in the pot was kept warm on a matching little stove. You will also notice a milk jug, a yellow pottery cheese dish and a glass fly trap.
Children used to eat sitting in a highchair and learnt to walk with a walking frame on wheels. Mum kept the tiny ones warm in their crib by the fire.
Homework was quite popular between 1870 and 1945, for both men and women, with lace making a significant source of income for the latter. Not surprisingly, therefore, that this living room includes a bobbin pillow.
Around 1900, washing was a weekly ritual, usually on a Monday: Monday washday. In fact, it started the day before, when clothes were sorted and left to soak in a tub containing water with washing soda. The most commonly used wash product was Sunlight soap, which was cut and grated. Water was heated on the Leuven stove and brought in using pans or kettles. Dirty marks were tackled by scrubbing them with a brush over a ribbed washboard. The suds were then rinsed out and the clothes put through the mangle. Clothes were pushed through two rubber rollers by turning the handle. The washing was then hung out to dry. Ironing was done using irons that were heated on the Leuven stove. A job and a half!
An ordinal is a ball-shaped glass flask, which was filled with water and placed in front of a burning candle to concentrate and intensify its light. Lace makers would direct the beam onto their bobbin pillow to allow them to continue to work after nightfall. Lace-making schools sometimes used five flasks around a candle or lamp to provide light to 20 to 25 lace makers.
Women working from home used a small foot stove to provide extra warmth. Burning charcoal from the stove was put into it and it was then placed under their skirts.
Fridges and freezers only became affordable to all in the sixties. Prior to that, people used a wide range of techniques to preserve foods, including bottling, drying, pickling and candying. Jars of jam, bottled vegetables, cured sausage and pickled fish were kept in the larder cupboard, with a mesh curtain to keep out flies.
The two candelabra are made of farmer’s silver. Working-class families could not afford household effects made from silver. In the 19th and 20th century, farmer’s silver was produced specifically for them, which consisted of glass covered with a layer of tin and mercury (amalgam). The best-known examples of farmer’s silver are candelabra that were placed on the chimney breast to enhance a crucifix. Sometimes they were decorated with white stripes and flowers. They were always sold in pairs.
Most houses in working-class neighbourhoods were not connected to the electricity network until the 1930s. Houses were lit with candles and oil and gas lamps. The lamp suspended above the kitchen table is an oil lamp or so-called Lampe Belge. In the second half of the nineteenth century, purified petroleum became readily available in large quantities. Petroleum-derived lamp oil produces more light than the vegetable and animal-based oils that were used previously, but its use is more dangerous. The reservoir has a tendency to explode when overheated. That is why lamps were developed with a safe distance between the oil reservoir and the burner.
When the Lampe Belge is lit, the wick can be moved up and down through a small wheel. A higher wick will provide more intense light. It has to be done gradually, though, because the lamp glass could crack when exposed to sudden heat. The wick is made of cotton, hence the expression in Flemish ‘give it cotton’ – ‘give it some oomph’.