AGAINST all the odds, which included industrial pollution, Black Country housewives loved and cared for their back-toback, sort of jerry-built Victorian terraced houses.
Just as these days, they were obsessed by their homes, keeping them clean, and in fashion with trends of interior design.
Every house was the same, two or three windows facing the street, and when they sat in the downstairs front room locals passed by within feet of the events of their everyday family life.
Even though it bristled with community spirit, and was no way a slum, most ladies preferred a barrier between both lives. It was easier to have nothing draped on their windows, but with the need they ended up with lace curtains.
Their circumstances required some course of action, consequently their obsession with this form of drapery knew no bounds, and this was realised by Mr T. Skidmore of 2, Bilston Street, Wolverhampton; therefore he decided to provide the ladies with the finest lace curtains to adorn their pavement side little windows. Was this the beginning of the saying whereby twitching curtains became the euphemism for nosy neighbours; but of course, then they were needed to hide from prying eyes.
Mr Skidmore saw the opening and decided to take control of the commercial undertaking by means of an auction which he organised between February 18th and 19th, 1880.
To attract local shop owners, and the dedicated housewives, he placed an advertisement in the Wolverhampton Chronicle, hoping his new stock of Nottingham lace would soon be displayed for all to see at local houses. His wording was very convincing.
"Unreserved and very attractive, Sale of a Large Consignment of Nottingham Lace Curtains, Suitable for the bedroom, dining and drawing rooms, embracing newest Designs in Floral Insertions, Vandyke Lace, Coral, Palm Trees, Begonia, Pomegranate, Fruits, Ferns, Flowers, Stripes, and together with a large quantity of Lace Table and Bed Covers in magnificent designs, Antimacassars, Window Valances, which will be sold by Auction."
A fine selection of window decorations to tempt the houseproud Victorian lady! These lace curtains, supplied by Messrs. Peach and Son, Manufacturers in Nottingham, were nothing like the nasty nylon nets, which if you recall appeared at windows in the 1950's when nylon was first used to conceal from sight the trappings of Fifties life. The only trouble was these new fangled window dressings had a habit of turning yellow. However, when curtains were made in Victorian times they were woven from cotton from the colonies, and it was this raw material until the 1950's.
Handmade lace was costly, but in 1896 John Heathcoat at his factory in Loughborough invented a machine that produced lace quickly. But, despite that, it may appear machine made lace could have been manufactured as early as 1880 in Nottingham.
Surely Mr Skidmore wasn't selling and auctioning hand made lace, it must have been the very early exquisitely machined lace. The lace making machine was classed as one of the marvels of the commercial world. Imagine a machine carrying reels, set one above the other, with the finest cotton threads, then the power was thrown on, and then shining little flattened bobbins danced in and out between the close-set threads.
Sometimes they darted swiftly over one thread and under the next, sometimes they stopped and vibrated rapidly a fraction of a second before they moved on. This vibrating movement twisted some of the warp threads fastened to the reels. Combs quickly pressed down through the threads to the completed pattern to make it more compact.
Patterns of fruit and flowers were churned out just as Mr Skidmore advertised in Wolverhampton. He had realised the widths being produced were perfect to be draped or gathered into the bow or sash windows of Black Country homes; cons equent l y the auction was arranged at his saleroom in Bilston Street, hoping he could please housewives who wanted something both delicate and unobtrusive, while giving privacy.
Of course, cotton lace curtains during Victorian times were not as hard wearing as modern day equivalents. This prompted Aunt Ann, a regular contributor to the Wednesbury Herald in 1898 to write "If a hole is discovered in a lace curtain, when ironing, take a piece of an old curtain a little larger than the hole, dip the edges in cold starch, place over the hole, and iron. If neatly done, the patch will be scarcely noticeable."
The word "window" comes from "wind eye" or "wind hole," having had no glass, and being sometimes made a little weatherproof by the use of parchment or waxed linen.
But, not every family could afford expensive coverings, consequently they usually resorted to open-weave sacking.
Even during Victorian times curtains were too extravagant for most ordinary people, though they did make cloth blinds if they could no longer stand the sight, smell and dust of the sacking. Life for some was quite different from that of their wealthier counterparts who spared no effort on their Victorian homes with affordable furnishings.
Whatever people's social level during Edwardian times, it was felt that they should at least make an effort to decorate their homes as attractively as they could and this included the outward appearance of their windows. These days, "the must have" is uPVC windows bedecked with slatted plastic blinds, how so very different from the Edwardians who favoured to dress their windows with prettily patterned lace panels which had been puckered and gathered, onto simple hooks on the window frame or stretched on a tension wire.
Illustrated are windows which have been treated in this way at homes in Dudley, Wolverhampton and Bilston.
However, some owners and their children actually distract the eye from the fancy drapes.
To acquire a home then was to buy or rent a Victorian back-to-back or a newly built Edwardian terraced house with it's own indoor separate kitchen. The reality was, this represented a significant advance in social conditions, so why not stare out of the window and admire the view - no wonder lace curtains were put up in every home.
Wednesbury was a town where there was a spirit of thrift and perseverance which found it's expression, so far as circumstances allowed, in the outward appearance of many homes. Although there was a saying I heard so many times during my old stomping ground in Wednesbury, "they're all kippers and curtains."
This was a jibe at locals going without food in favour of outside show.
Yet, this photograph (bottom right) of a fine house, with fine curtains and two fine well fed little girls has an interesting address. It was the "Royal Liver Friendly Society, Wednesbury," and the view was sent on December 24th 1908 from Dorothy, to Miss Eve Mann at 110, Vicarage Road, Wednesbury.
Those societies were mostly conducted in public houses, perhaps in this case the agent was taking contributions at his own home. Consequently, he was one of the best paid gentlemen in town, he could afford one of the best houses and his wife could buy the best lace curtains.
Ironically, the must have these days is still a lust for a translucent curtain that transmits light, but is not transparent.
These light delicate curtain panels for windows are nothing like grannie’s lace curtains or the new synthetic plain nets of the 1950's.
They are sold in every colour of the rainbow, in fact, anything but white, and far from vintage.
Even if this contemporary fashion leaves you twitching at it's starkness, at least it won't leave you feeling dated.
A good indication if your diaphanous curtains are a hit; is if the net curtains across the road start twitching, and whisperings begin about your outlandish taste.
I hate nets, because I am basically lazy, and you need the patience of a saint to prink and pucker their headings into even gathers.
I did once surrender to their prissy neatness, but that was only on account of the fact we lived on a High Street and they were useful for maintaining privacy. Even so, someone found a peep-hole!