Open Kitchen at Cowdray Ruins

Recently, we had the pleasure of hosting PhD student Charlotte Evans and a team of volunteer researchers in the Tudor Kitchen of Cowdray on June 17th and 18th. Their objective was to study the daily lives of working women in the 18th century and their clothing. Charlotte has kindly shared her insights and observations from the Tudor Kitchen at Cowdray, providing us with a fascinating glimpse into her research.

Learning how 18th century women experienced their clothes requires doing some of the tasks that they did daily. At Cowdray, this meant preparing labour-intensive food: butter, pastry and ‘Sorrel Amulet’,’ which is rather like tortellini.

The environment was perfect, being both a suitable setting, and quiet enough for us to spend time considering and interrogating our perceptions, reflecting upon past experiences, and answering some questions. In thanks for the warm welcome, hospitality and assistance, I would like to share some of our work with you.

Question: Are the clothes restrictive or supportive when doing physical work?

Answer: The clothes are supportive, and practical for 18th-century tasks. They are not restrictive, but do influence movement – for example, we find that we move more slowly in these than our 21st-century clothes. We reflected that on past occasions, our stays have prevented back injuries when working.

Question: Are the clothes uncomfortable?

Answer: No! All the clothes, including the stays, are comfortable to wear, it is just a different kind of comfort to 21st-century clothing. You are constantly aware of your clothes, but that’s all.

Question: Are you hot in that?

Answer: We always get asked this one! The weather was very hot during our weekend at Cowdray, but we were comfortable. The kitchen was cool (an appropriate environment for the things we made; butter for example would be made in dairies, which were kept cool), but we still had to go outside. We found that, providing we moved fairly slowly and kept out of the sun, we were comfortable. It also helped to be the right temperature when getting dressed, as the layers insulated us from the heat. If we did need to cool down, we opened our jackets or sat for a while.

Another important part of the weekend was the chance to advance an exciting part of the research project. Leather stays.

All women in the 18th-century wore stays. They were as essential as bras are today, and poor women were even given them by their parishes, so they could go out to work. Many working women wore stays made of leather, which were cheaper than pairs made of layers of fabric and boning. We wanted to know what these felt like, so we made some. At Cowdray, they were worn for the first time.

We discovered that the leather stays felt exactly the same as fabric-and-bone ones. They were not more or less restrictive or flexible, they did not rub, and had only a slight pressure point (they were made by leather-working novices!). Nor were they any hotter to wear.

It may not sound like much, but the information we gathered at Cowdray is very valuable to Charlotte’s research, and to our understanding of the daily lived-experience of 18th-century women. We also enjoyed our time, and are very grateful for the chance to come and use the wonderful kitchen. Thank you to everyone who made this event happen.

Written by Charlotte Evans. 

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