Submitted by By Emily Molina, SHMA Liaison to Friends of the Steilacoom Library.
Last Friday Tames Alan presented her candid one woman living history program at the Steilacoom Historical Museum.
I think many of us missed the caption found on her website: ‘Historical, educational, hysterical. One costumed woman tells you like it WAS’. There’s a great deal of truth in that statement.
Part one, Alan appears as a lower-middle class Elizabethan era woman such as the baker’s wife, or a servant. The costume consisted of smock, or chemise, with a wool or linen dress laced up the front, also known as a kirtle. Accessorized commonly with a belt which holds several keys, and a flat hat covers a caul, which serves as a kind of hair net.
Common women of this period wore no finery. On special occasions such as a birthing, she may wear a necklace or ribbon embellished with a small ornament made of clay or bone.
Her role depended on what valuable trade she offered the community. As servant, she might help change the rushes once a year, a duty ill-favored by many. This consisted of removing the vermin filled, long grasses placed on floors as coverings, or mats, scrubbing the floors, and replacing new rushes. Shockingly, on the floors atop the filthy rushes in great halls across the land is where most people slept.
If you were fortunate enough to own a mattress, it was likely stuffed with straw infested by fleas and lice. Not the glamour we’ve seen in motion pictures.
Alan affirms that bathing was not such a necessity in those times, ” One was bathed at birth, and again on their wedding day.” In fact, the Elizabethans avoided water; leisure, bathing, even drinking water.
This was mostly due to the lack of sewage systems. Unless you were wealthy and had your own well, chances are the water supply available to you came from a river full of raw sewage and trash. This may explain why ale was such a common staple.
There was no plumbing. Folks relied on a chamber pot, a piece of pottery in which they relieved themselves. Where do you think the contents ended up? In the streets, literally. If you heard the words “Hogs wallow!” being yelled nearby, you better move fast!
Females of the lower class had no formal education, or rights during this time. Unlike their counterpart, who spent eight hours a day, six days a week learning Latin, English, and a great deal of religious disciplines.
Girls could be wed as young as 12 years old in an arranged marriage to a husband two to three times her age. She was expected to bear up to ten children, even though eight out of ten women died during childbirth.
No doctors for the poor. If you were lucky, a village mid-wife may ply you with herbs, holy water, and prayer. The leading cause of death was tooth infections. The barber surgeon would come round wearing his necklace full of teeth and surgically extract the problem.
If you survived the procedure, you might not end up on the dead cart with the collected bodies of the sick and perished. Not surprisingly, a job with a high turnover rate, as the collector often became sick and died after exposure to the bodies.
Part two, Alan, with audience assistance, changes into the costume of noble lady to Queen Elizabeth’s court. This 62-piece ensemble consisted of many layers; From forming under dress, or farthingale, torso molding corset and hoops, to the bum roll, which is exactly as it sounds, a bum shaping undergarment.
Another popular clothing item was a neck ruff. These high frilled collars worn by both men and women were often so grandiose that a long handled spoon was created simply to eat.
Perhaps the most interesting article is the fur piece, or flea-fur. Often worn on the shoulder, it’s purpose was to draw fleas away from the wearer’s body.
Outer garments were brushed to clean them, and undergarments were rarely washed. Laundresses were employed at many palaces, doing the wash in the before mentioned rivers.
With silver and gold threaded brocade fabrics, and pearls, these vain ladies (and men) would powder their faces to appear very white. Face powder, and most make-up were poisonous concoctions made from lead and other toxic ingredients.
When it came time to remove the many layers of make-up, the barber surgeon would turn up to scrape them off one’s face.
Noblewomen were highly educated in languages, dancing, and playing the lute; valuable skills in order to get information out of foreign ambassadors. They lived at court, and reported to the queen. Monarchs owned many grand homes and palaces, and visited them frequently. Wherever the queen went, the courtiers followed.
Your author, while intrigued and admittedly enamored by costumes and Hollywood period films, humbly chooses the 21st century over the squalid conditions of the Elizabethan era any day.
Find out more about programs offered by Tames Alan at: livinghistorylectures.com/
Join us Friday, Dec. 13, 3 p.m. for: ‘Who was Chief Seattle?’ As we welcome Humanities Washington speaker, biographer, and historian, David M. Buerge.