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1900 House

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I am always behind, so being a few years late to see a dvd about living a hundred years ago is just right.

For 1900 House, a four-part series aired in 2000, PBS returned an old London townhouse to its original state, tearing out the toilet, central heating, and electricity, and re-opening the original gas lines.

The house was filled with accoutrements of a lower middle-class Victorian home, including a coal-burning stove which could not cook macaroni and cheese in less than three hours. A family was installed and instructed to live the life: no computer, no jockey shorts, no junk food.

During the first episode we see amusing family audition tapes, the massive tear-out, and the down-to-the-wire scavenger hunt for old gizmos. It was morbidly fascinating to watch the house get pulled apart and romantic to see it put back together.

After the honeymoon period – the first fifteen minutes, when the gorgeously-attired newbies gawk at the gew-gaws – the Bowlers must learn to squeeze themselves into corsets, shave with the lethal straight-edge razor, cook on the horrendous stove (very unsuccessful – the food Joyce produced was ghastly), wash and iron clothes for endless hours every week, “clean” house without a vacuum cleaner, and wash their hair without shampoo. This last, strangely, turns out to be one of the most unendurable hardships.

When the thoroughly modern mother mutinies against a life of constant cleaning, the family hires a beautiful tall young maid, who I found very interesting. She was the daughter, grand-daughter, and great-grand-daughter of housecleaners and wanted to see what their lives had been like. I would have enjoyed more focus on her experience.

We find that the Victorian home was a very dangerous place, with lead and arsenic and laudanum all about, the ever present danger of fire, and air pollution so appalling that even the garden’s toughest annuals died quickly and had to be replaced.

This show was as unreal as other “reality” shows. For one thing, Mr. Bowler and the kids went off to work and school every day, leaving the fantasy life behind. For another, the Bowlers, playing Victorian house all by themselves, were marooned by the strictures of their contract with PBS. They had no social life and few activities outside the house. No wonder the kids were bored! No wonder Joyce cried!

PBS realized for its later shows, Frontier House (2002) and Colonial House (2004), that slackers and whiners and control freaks make for more colorful time-travel. The first time out, though, they chose, from among those families who sent in audition tapes, a really nice family. The Bowlers seemed to love and help each other and get along. Even when life grated on their nerves, they showed a basic decency. The children were great: even though they got bored and lonely, they kept it together. I wonder how many of our kids would do as well.

Then, there was 1992 HOUSE (Billy Frolick, the New Yorker, 2005-01-17):

The assignment for Mrs. Stanfill’s eighth-grade social-studies class was to pick a year in U.S. history and live for a week as if it were that year, without any of the conveniences available in today’s modern society. I chose 1992, and for extra credit I persuaded my family to participate in the experiment along with me. Bill Clinton was elected President in 1992. A postage stamp cost twenty-nine cents, and Whitey (sp?) Houston had a No. 1 song with “I Will Always Love You,” from a movie starring someone named Kevin Costner, on whom my mother apparently had a major crush…

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  • My wife and I really got into yet another version the BBC did called Manor House that aired several years back. The big difference with that series was the emphasis on the servant class versus the actual residents. It was a big old Upstairs Downstairs/Gosford Park scenario and was really engrossing. Highly recommended.