Television Reviews

DVD Review: The 1900 House – Could You Live as Victorians Did?

With all of the reality television shows popping up in the earlier part of this decade, PBS decided to enter the foray in its own unique way. By teaming up with Channel 4 in Britain, they created a series of shows where modern families were transported to an earlier era to see if they could live as those people did and endure the same hardships.

In 1900 House, a house is retrofitted to be just like those back in 1900 in suburban London. Gone are the luxuries of electric lights, television, central heating, indoor plumbing, and more.

While all of this is going on, a family is selected to live in it. This is hard because they will be leaving behind all of the modern conveniences. While this sounds appealing in many ways – sort of a “drop out” of modern society – it really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, as the Bowler Family learns. They are a family of two parents and five children, although the oldest daughter will not be participating in the project.

The father, Paul, is a Commando in the Royal Marines, so the family is used to moving around. He will still be a military recruiter, albeit in the traditional uniform of that time. Joyce is a school inspector who will take time off to be a stay-at-home wife during the era. The children will be allowed to shed their Victorian dress to attend school, but will still have to eat a home-made lunch. There are daughters, Catherine, Hillary, and Ruth as well as a son, Joe.

It’s funny to watch some of the reactions of the family as they experience things for the first time, such as the toothpaste of the era or using a straight-edge razor. Learning how to use the coal stove to get hot water through the boiler to the bathroom is an art they have difficulty mastering.

As it comes out that the family is vegetarian (or at least Joyce is a staunch one; Paul seems less so), I found that to be one aspect that really didn’t seem realistic to the time. Even the butcher who brings round sausages to sell remarks that families couldn’t afford to be vegetarians during this era.

1900 House shows a lot more of what goes into setting up the show than any other show I’ve seen before like this. Seeing what the crew does to restore and prepare the house for the project is both interesting and amazing. Likewise, the modern-day local government has something to say about certain aspects of the project, such as the need to burn modern, cleaner coal versus the coal of the period which poisoned the air something terrible.

In all of these “House” specials, there seemed to be one common thread running through all of them that the men had it much better during these times than women did. The same is true in 1900 House. Joyce seems to have to work harder than anyone else to keep the house looking decent as well as have meals prepared for her family.

Things change when Joyce hires a servant, Elizabeth, to do a lot of the dirtier work in the house. Elizabeth must assimilate to the Victorian era as well. This is great at first, but as the family gets to enjoy time together and at leisure seemingly at the expense of Elizabeth, she begins to feel differently about the situation.

Near the end of the show, some of the new inventions of the time, such as the Kodak camera and typewriter, were shown.

The Bowlers don’t seem to struggle the way other families do in other series. They are middle class, but that seems to mean they do have sufficient funds for a lot of things we don’t have today. I don’t know of any middle-class families who have servants any longer. They don’t seem to have the oppression of worrying about not having enough food or food shortages. Their biggest obstacle is doing the work of the household without modern conveniences as well as sticking to the strict “moral” standards of the time.

It was interesting to see how the family’s modern values intruded into the era. Joyce had a difficult time treating Elizabeth as she would have treated a servant during the era. In the end, she made a choice that Elizabeth didn’t seem to understand – I wonder if she understood better after viewing the show. Although there were many positives about the time, the level of work was extremely difficult.

That is what I get from most of these shows. We have become so used to the conveniences of modern life that to take away those conveniences leaves many people lost. Being able to clean a carpet in a few minutes by plugging in a vacuum pales as a chore in comparison to the way they cleaned one a hundred years ago. Something as simple as preparing breakfast required hours of preparation, rather than just popping something in the microwave or turning a knob on the stove. I don’t even want to talk about laundry, with eight people in my houseā€¦

The Bowlers were quite likable as well, which made the series very good. There were points that were somewhat unrealistic (the whole vegetarian issue was one for me) and they did occasionally break the rules keeping them immersed in the project. However, they definitely seemed committed to what they were doing, even as they were complaining about the hardships. Unlike other participants in other projects, they didn’t seem to be spoiled and self-indulgent. I could see myself and my family having the same gripes they did, rather than thinking it was nice to see them taken down a peg.

For those who have liked the different series in this line, this is most like 1940’s House in that there is just one family as a part of the project, rather than multiple families. If you enjoyed the conflict that went on between participants, that’s missing here, although introducing Elizabeth did bring in some class-based resentment.

I found 1900 House to be quite enjoyable. The family was terrific and the attention to detail to make an authentic experience was fascinating. It’s educational as well as being fun to view. I guarantee you that most people who watch it will never view their appliances the same way again.

7 replies »