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Edwardian Housekeeping: The Ideal Nursery


edwardian day nursery

Light for the Nursery

Baby is at last counted worthy to share with its elders the advantages of all the health-giving devices of the twentieth century, and the deplorable remark, ” What a pity to turn this fine room into a nursery! ” is now but rarely heard. This is as it should be, for it is as impossible to rear fine, healthy children in dark, airless rooms as it is to rear healthy plants in out-of-the way corners, inaccessible to sun and air.

No matter whether engaged in the momentous task of preparing the nursery for its first tiny occupant, or whether it is already overflowing with little olive-branches, see, at all events, that the aspect and position of this all-important room is as good as it can be.

The Aspect

Never mind which way the spare room faces, or how many steps lead up to it, but choose a south or south-west aspect for the children; for, no matter how costly and hygienic the fittings, a sunless room facing north will never make a healthy nursery. The excuse is made sometimes that a sunny room is too hot in summer, and makes its youthful inmates pale and listless. This is certainly the case. But our English summers are, alas! too short; and even if the nursery cannot be changed during the heat, at all events some other room can often be temporarily given up, or, best of all, the children kept in shade and shelter out in the open air.

If it can be managed, the nursery ought not to overlook the street – a quiet room is very necessary – and never be persuaded to ” sky the little ones. Have you ever noticed that in hundreds of homes the window-bars that denote the position of the nurseries are often on the highest story, in order to banish childish voices and restless feet as much as possible?

Now, rooms at the top of a house are often less lofty, have smaller windows, gain additional heat and cold from proximity to the roof, and last, but not least, receive all the used-up air from the lower rooms, because heated, impure air rises. Cramped nursery quarters are very undesirable.

The Necessity Of Ventilation

The size of a room for a nurse and one child should not be less than fourteen or fifteen feet square, and eleven or twelve feet high. Where this is quite unattainable, take extra precautions to ensure good ventilation. Pure air, fresh air, is as important for children as food. True, they may live in vitiated air that has been breathed in and out and contaminated by other human beings, but only at the expense of mental and physical health. Well-ventilated rooms are easily secured in quite simple ways.

Firstly, there must be an open chimney in the room, for this acts as a most efficient ventilating shaft. Therefore, the register must never be closed, or the chimney blocked in any way. Secondly, direct that the upper sashes of the windows are left open night and day – and see the order is carried out. If the weather is too inclement or there is any special reason against doing this, have ready for such an emergency a piece of wood the width of the window and about four inches deep.

Open the lower sash, fit in the piece of wood, shut the window down on to it, and a space will be left between the upper and lower sashes in the vicinity of the fasteners through which the outer air will rise without draught. Never imagine that fresh air means draughts through badly-fitting windows and ill-laid floors. If these exist, tack the india rubber tubing made for the purpose, and costing but a few pence per yard, under the doors, etc., and fill cracks in the floor with putty or cement.

Nursery windows should be protected by outside iron bars, for children simply love to look out, and in no other way can their safety be ensured. Supposing bars are not possible for some reason, hammer a strong nail into the window frame above the lower sash, so that it cannot be raised more than about six inches. The most hygienic plan is to have the nursery windows free from blinds, as, with the exception of the Venetian variety, they all exclude air, and the latter, alas! are veritable dust-traps unless constantly washed.

Still, it is convenient to be able to screen the windows at times, in order to soften the light or make the room cosy in winter; so soft casement cloth curtains, in tints to harmonise with the room, are often used, for they wash perfectly, and only need to be plainly ironed.

The Ceilings And Walls

A few years ago whitewashed ceilings were thought good enough for anybody, but baby nowadays has his painted in white or pale cream enamel, washable distemper, or covered with white washable paper. If, however, the old method is preferred, the whitewashing should be done every spring. Ceilings and walls give wide scope for artistic and original ideas, as long as the rule that ideal nurseries must be washable throughout is always remembered. Perhaps the greatest favourite for nursery-wall coverings is some form of washable distemper, or enamelled paint in pale tints, with decorative bands or friezes of paper made in designs of quaint figures, animals, birds, etc., affording the youngsters something bright and entertaining to look at during meals or rainy days.

If liked, washable papers illustrating nursery rhymes, etc., can be used instead of the self-coloured paint or distemper; but they do not make a restful background, and need to be purchased from good firms, or the designs and colourings injure, instead of educate, the children’s perception of colour and form. In some nurseries the dado is made of pretty oilcloth, fastened to the wall with a dado rail above of a darker contrasting colour. This scheme is simple, costs little, is very strong, and easily kept clean.

The Important Question Of Floors

What shall our babies walk and crawl on is another absorbing question. Try a good cork carpet with a pattern (not self-coloured, as these show the dust too much). It is warm, wash-able, strong, and pretty, and affords no resting-place for the dust fiend. A few washable cotton rugs in blue and white or other colourings can be laid down here and there, but care must be taken that children do not trip over them.

Baby’s Furniture

There is still a tendency to relegate large, old, cumbersome pieces of furniture to the nursery, either because it is roomy and comfortable, or because it has become a sort of nursery heir-loom; but it is doubtful if either reason is sufficiently good to justify their presence in valuable space that ought to be occupied by air. So far as comfort goes, nothing can beat the modern nursery furniture now procurable from many good firms. Simplicity is the rule, and furniture of best quality is made in plain oak or stained wood, for painted and highly polished surfaces too soon show the wear and tear of nursery customs.

Rounded corners to everything are necessary for sharp-pointed edges have resulted in many a serious cut and scar. Supposing the furniture now in use is of the latter description, a cabinet-maker will very soon remedy the danger. Miniature nursery tables, chairs, etc., are very popular. They are made in wood or cane, and are more comfortable and safer than high tables and chairs.

A cosy, broad sofa is an invaluable possession in the nursery. An aching head or bruised limb can be petted on it so well without keeping the child in bed, and it provides a too quickly-growing boy or girl with means of obtaining the necessary rest, not to mention its Splendid capacity for acting as a “ship,” “train, “desert island,” etc. A toy cupboard of some description is essential, or the nursery can never be called ideal. The shelves ought to be low enough to be within easy reach of the children. Not only does it help to keep the nursery tidy, but it is also a never-ending source of delight to the chicks; for is it not their very own, in which they can hoard unchecked the hundred and one treasures that unfeeling nurses are apt to catalogue as rubbish?

A toy table is considered a very great treasure. It may easily be fashioned at home. There must be an edge round to prevent marbles, etc., rolling off; it must be low enough for the children to be able to sit at it on the floor with their feet under it. It should have castors, so that it can be easily pushed about, and it must be sufficiently strong to bear the child, who will inevitably use it as a seat.

One of the latest and most successful additions to the nursery is a sort of sheep-fold, in which baby can crawl about without injury to himself or worry to a busy nurse or mother. A crawling-mat made of thick, soft material, on to which are appliqued animals and birds cut out of some bright-hued scraps, is also very useful. Babies simply love to roll and crawl on these mats, and hold contented converse with the zoological specimens adorning their surface.

Nurse, on her part, will demand a big cosy chair, in which she can cuddle and pet her small charges, a lock-up medicine cupboard to fix on the wall, far from the reach of any inquisitive fingers, and a reliable clock, but not one that strikes or has one of those aggravatingly aggressive ticks.

A very high fireguard is an absolute necessity, and one that covers the grate right over is excellent, for children seem to find anything to do with fire irresistibly attractive. If liked, an outside rail may be affixed to the guard, on which a few little garments may be warmed; but on no account allow the nursery to be used as a laundry or drying-room, for this practice, beloved by inexperienced nurses, renders the air steamy and unwholesome. Besides this there is the danger from fire. Food should never be stored in the nursery, but the nurse will want a simple dresser-like cupboard in which to keep a tin of biscuits and a few other items, as well as the children’s own special cups, plates, table-linen, and so forth.

Unless a place is provided for these, it is unreasonable to expect an orderly nursery. A few good pictures on the walls have a real educational value. Crudely-coloured and badly-drawn prints, etc., should never be permitted, for they do untold harm by wrongly forming the child’s idea of art and beauty.

In conclusion, the ideal artificial light for the ideal nursery is electric light; but if this is unattainable, provide wall-lamps with metal reservoirs – not glass or china – and a safety apparatus for extinguishing the flame if the lamp overturns. Use the best oil, and have the lamp fixed in a strong holder on the wall out of the children’s reach. Gas, though clean and most convenient, vitiates the atmosphere, and is therefore most harmful for the children’s room.

Do not allow many plants or flowers in the nursery. Above all, they should not be placed in the window where they obstruct the light and air. A few geranium cuttings or a pot of musk provide interest and amusement, and the unfolding of a new leaf or a blossom gives instruction in simple plant life, but a nursery should never be crowded with growing things. The children’s health is the most important consideration of all, and anything which prevents free circulation of the air is deleterious. Never allow anything in the way of rubbish to accumulate.

Every Woman’s Encyclopaedia v1

Edwardian Housekeeping: Lighting


Highclere Castle drawing room

At the start of the Edwardian era, the use of electricity gradually made its way from public buildings to smart homes in cities and newly-built houses in the suburbs–though it took a while for this new method of power and lighting to reach the countryside. In the meantime, gas had finally banished candles (save when used to light the way to bed) from all but the humblest of houses and was supplemented by oil lamps. That said, housewives had multiple methods of lighting their houses at their disposal:


Advantages: (1) It is available for cookery, laundry work, and warming, in addition to lighting. (2) It saves time and trouble. (3) It is safer than lamps or candles, especially where there are children.
Disadvantages: (1) It is certainly the most unhealthy form of light, as it dries and heats the air; and one burner alone consumes as much oxygen as two adults. (2) The smallest escape will produce poisonous effects, and serious explosions may result from it. (3) The sulphurous vapour rapidly tarnishes silver, and injures plants, leather, and gilding.

There are three varieties of burners in common use:

Argand (1) The Argand (the most costly), which burns the gas from a ring of small holes, and which on an average equals thirty candles.

Fishtale (2) The Fishtail, or Union, which is formed by two small holes bored in the top of a closed tube, inclining towards each other, producing a flame as shown.

Batwing (3) The Batwing, which is formed by a long cut through a bulb on the end of a burner. This is durable and very easily cleaned, but from the spreading of the flame it is not so suitable where globes are used as it is for kitchens and passages.

In many institutions economy in gas is secured by the use of a gas-governor, which acts as an automatic gas-tap, when fixed between the meter and the gas lights; closing and opening with every increase and decrease of pressure from the street mains. The cost varies from £1 15s. to £17, according to the size of the pipes to be controlled.

To Clean Burners: For this purpose an old toothbrush, or a corner of an old post-card should be used, not a wire, as this enlarges the holes and leads to the use of more gas. Grease may be removed by rubbing with paraffin, stale beer, or vinegar.

To Detect Leakages: If the smell causes suspicion of a leakage, the simplest way of proving this is by turning off every burner and then examining the meter. The exact spot, in an exposed pipe, may be ascertained by painting it with a mixture of soap and water, using a camel-hair brush, when bubbles will be seen forming round the leak.

To Stop a Leak: Paint the pipe with oil paint containing red lead. If the leak is in an ill-fitting bracket joint, it may be stopped by applying freely a mixture of two parts beeswax to one of tallow, used warm.

Incandescent Burners

An incandescent burner is equal to about 40 candles. The brightness is due to alternate oxidation and reduction of two parts carbon and three parts oxygen; it usually lasts from 1000 to 3000 hours, and then gradually loses its lighting powers. This loss is due to the presence of dust, which clogs the pores of the mantle and causes bits of silica to fuse on the fabric.

The most efficient form of incandescent light is that given by the “Block” burner, one alone being equal to three hundred candles, and costing one farthing per hour, using eight parts of air to one of gas. The mantle, which costs 1/3, is made of more durable materials than the ordinary varieties, and is mounted on a brass cap with a double nickel wire support, which ensures its comparative longevity. The inverted incandescent burners, which shed the light downward, and thus do not affect the ceilings, cost 6/6 each; the small inverted “Bijou” burners 4/6 each. These may be fixed to an ordinary bracket, either singly or in clusters. The “self-lighting” arrangement costs 9d. for each light to which it is attached. The pneumatic gas-lighting apparatus, costing 6/6 for each burner, is a great convenience, since by its means the gas may be switched on from the doorway in exactly the same way as the electric light.

Economy may also be ensured by turning off the gas from the meter at a given hour each night and also by day if no stoves are used. This prevents leakage through small escapes; but it is most important to see that all taps are turned off first, or when the gas is again turned on and lights applied explosions may result, if not lighted at once.

Acetylene Gas

is made from calcium carbide by the action of water on that compound; the residue is slacked lime. Acetylene comes off as a gas, great heat being evolved in the process.

A special burner is used of the fish-tail type, a large quantity of air being necessary to completely burn the gas. It gives out more heat and light per cubic foot than coal-gas, and hence is more economical. The cost of lighting by acetylene is about the same as coal gas, using ordinary burners, but twice as much when incandescent burners are used. It is less poisonous, but more explosive. The cost of plant for making and storing for a ten-light meter is about £7.0. It requires so little space that it can be accommodated in an outhouse six feet square.

Air gas is another illuminant well adapted for country houses; though it is now perhaps being superseded by petrol gas. It can be used for:

(a) Lighting.
(b) Enriching, i.e. increasing the heat and light-giving powers of coal-gas.
(c) To some extent in photography, as it shows up colours almost as clearly as daylight.
(d) Being easy to make, it is useful for heating and lighting remote schools and other buildings.
(e) With special burners it can be used as a source of heat for Bunsen’s and gas-stoves.


Paraffin or petroleum oil is apt to explode when heated above its flashing point, which in the case of ordinary oils is about 73° Fahr. In order to be secure from accident, it is wise never to buy an oil whose flashing point is under 100° Fahr.; this will cost lod. or 1 1d. per gallon. If bought in large quantities it is, of course, cheaper, but there is always risk in case of fire. Large amounts should be kept well corked in an outhouse or cellar. A lamp will always burn better when the oil is moderately warm; so that if the oil has been stored in a very cold place it is well to allow it to be in the kitchen a short time before filling the reservoirs.

The wick should be loosely plaited and should fit the burner. New wicks should be held to a candle for a minute to burn the top evenly, otherwise it is difficult to get them level. They give a better light and are less liable to smoke if, when new, they are steeped in vinegar, and dried before being placed in the burner. The required materials are a piece of American cloth, one duster for the stand, one for the chimney and globe, a lamp mop, old pair of gloves, soft tissue-paper, oil-filler, oil, and a little bristle brush.

Should a lamp be upset, and the oil set on fire, never throw water on it, as this only acts as an agent for floating the burning oil from place to place, and thus adds to the danger; the flames should be smothered by a heavy rug or mat, wet earth, or damp sand.

Lighting a Lamp: For this purpose a match or taper should be used—not paper, lest the ash fall on the wick and make the flame uneven. The light should not be turned on full for a minute, to allow of the gradual expansion by heat of the glass, when the cloudiness on the chimney—caused by the damp air inside—has passed off. It is a mistake to believe it an economy to keep a lamp turned down low, as quite as much oil is consumed, and an unpleasant smell is the only result.

Extinguishing a Lamp: Where there is no patent extinguishing arrangement it must be remembered that blowing down the chimney leads to pernicious results; the wick should be turned low, and one sharp puff be given across the top of the chimney. Another method is simply to lower the wick, and to place a circular piece of metal over the top of the chimney.

Electric Light

This, no doubt, will, in the not very remote future, supersede gas, just as gas, early in the nineteenth century, took the place, more or less, of candles and oil.

There are many advantages in its use as compared to other modes of illuminating.

1. It is cleaner than any other.
2. It gives no trouble, and is easily kept in order.
3. It is cooler.
4. The light is better.
5. It is safer than lamps or gas.
6. It is more economical (a) in that it can be switched off and on at once; (&) being more cleanly, it involves less labour, fewer new wall-papers, repainting, etc; and in some places is actually cheaper than gas.
7. It does not destroy gilding, tarnish silver, or injure plants. An electric meter is very similar to those used for measuring gas.

Where electric mains are in the street, it is not an expensive matter to have the house wired and connected. The average cost per light is 23/- to 25/-, which includes wiring, a plain pendant, fitting and shade. Electricity is sold by the unit, and one unit will light an eight-candle power lamp for thirty-five hours. The small glass bulbs, which vary in cost, become darkened after some months of use. When this is so, they should be renewed, as the light is consequently somewhat dimmed. The old bulbs cannot be cleaned, because if opened the carbon filament and the necessary vacuum would both be destroyed. To prevent waste of light (1) use suitable lamps for the voltage supplied (eight candle-power lamps for small rooms and passages); (2) switch-off at once after use. There is not likely to be any loss through leakage if the wiring is well done. There is also a minimum danger of fire now, provided the fittings comprise a fuze-box to cut-off the current received at too great pressure.


These are the most costly method of illuminating; but no light is so soft and restful to the eyes. Care should be taken in carrying a candlestick to hold it straight so as to avoid dropping grease about. Lighted candles should not be set in a draught, as they “gutter” and waste. They should be bought some time before use to harden. If wax candles become discoloured with keeping they should be gently rubbed with spirit of wine.

Before use all candles should be firmly fixed into the sockets of the candlesticks to avoid spilling the wax or burning crookedly. For this reason self-fitting candles with a graduated base are to be recommended—a small band of neatly folded paper may be used as a substitute, or if the candle be dipped into very hot water, it can then be moulded to fit the space exactly.

Night Lights: The best fat for their manufacture consists of drippings or small ends of candles, to which has been added some white wax (3d. per oz.) thinly shredded. These ingredients should be melted together, then poured into tin rings or bottoms of pillboxes. When cooling, but not solid, a wick made of twisted cotton should be put into the centre of each.

Manual of Household Work and Management (1913) by Annie Butterworth

Read more about Edwardian lighting at this post on the National Trust’s Treasure Hunt blog.