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Archaeology of domestic life in early 20th century Britain

The aim of this blog is to publish data on early 20th century buildings, whilst this is still accessible. Much material of interest to the historian is being destroyed through 'home improvements' and DIY, and objects are increasingly being divorced from their context through dispersal after the death of their owners. By creating an easily accessible contextual record of material culture, it is hoped that those interested in this period of history may have a resource through which the details of domestic life might be studied.

If you have any artefacts of interest, or make discoveries during the process of your own investigations that you would like to share, please contact me!

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Lymehurst: doorbell

Door furniture - and features such as doorbells & name plates - are important considering the persona that residents wish to project to visitors and the local community. Much of the original door furniture remains in situ (with a few additions): the bronze handle and letter box is original, and the bronze and porcelain name plate still proclaims the identity of the house (fig. 1).

Fig. 1 Replica doorbell (early 20th century examples may have had a wooden pattress) and original house name plate

However, the doorbell has at some point been changed to a modern transparent plastic button (of a type that might be more at home beside the door of a flat, considering the integral space for a card bearing the tenant's name). The bell is of particular interest as a socially significant instrument: whilst the door provides the interface between vistitor and resident, over which the resident, to some extent, has control, the bell is more under the control of the visitor. Consequently, it may play a part in defining relationships between outside and insider (particulalry those based upon imbalance of power) - whether to announce the presence of an outsider sometimes engaged on some service for the resident (e.g. the postal worker with a parcel), or to demand the attention of the resident (e.g. door to door sales people, official visitors etc.). The role of time is important with regard to these relationships: the postal worker may be expected at a particular time (and especially considering their position, providing a service to the resident, may therefore be welcome). The same may be said of those within closer reationships, such as visiting friends. Conversely, the saleperson or official representative may not be expected: their visit may consequently be seen as an intrution.

The use of new technologies and materials may also be used demonstrate the modernity of residents: change from, e.g., brass to plastic perhaps fulfiled this function. In addition, the personalisation of an otherwise mass-produced item provides the opportunity to demonstrate the individuality of the resident: particular selections of noise or melody for the bell may be a way of demonstrating to visitors a particular part of character that one wishes to 'expose' (I am here thinking of the use of, for example, tv theme tunes etc.)

The oportunity to examine the the doorbell has highlighted transformations in the public personas of the residents over the years at Lymehurst, although of course, as is typical of archaeology, we are only left with slight traces of change, and consequently a partial picture.

Fig. 2 Replica connector housing within phase 1 cavity

Before removing the modern bell button, it was clear that an earlier fitting had covered a larger area, due to evident filling (with mortar) of the cavity that was left behind. When the modern fitting was removed, it became clear that, before this final bell had been fitted, there had been an interim bell. A piece of wood had been used to fill a hole in the bricks - which I believe had been made to hold the electrical contact housing of the first bell button (fig. 2) - and to provide fabric into which a screw might be placed to anchor the bell button to the the wall; another piece of wood had also been inserted for the same purpose (fig. 3). The use of wood, rather than plastic raw plugs, suggests a relatively early date for this change.

Fig. 3 Doorbell cavity and phase 2 wooden inserts

Considering the spread of the mortar filling, it appears that the first door bell was up to 9 cm wide. Door bells of the 1920s and early 30s seem to have been quite limited in range (I'm trying to find some copyright free images of contemporaneous doorbells, which I'll post if & when I'm able): most commonly rectangular or circular brass or bronze plates, with a porcelain button. Having taken a leisurey stroll around the neighbourhood, quite a few early doorbells (though probably not contemporaneous) remain in situ, besides the doors of the mainly Edwardian houses: most around here are circular brass. The horizontal spread of mortar filling at Lymehurst suggests that the first bell was circular. A replica bell of this type has now replaced the latest plastic example: measuring 7.5cm in diam., it just about (but not quite) covers the mortar spread.

Fig. 4 Early doorbell wire, showing worn dark fabric casing

One of the original (or perhaps 2nd phase) wires was still in situ (figs. 4 & 5): a steel wire (of approx. 1mm diam. - but couldn't get in close enough to measure this accurately), covered with purple-brown fabric. I tried to take a photo of this, but it doesn't show up very well (it can aso just be seen to the left of the cavity in fig. 2).

Fig. 5 Doorbell cavity, showing wooden plug and early wire

The screws holding the second bell were about 3cm apart, on a horizontal plane (the wooden insert may have moved at some point, making it difficult to be sure of this measurement). It may be conjectured that this door bell was a small circular type (or rectangular, although this seems less likely, considering the position of screws, unless a pattress was used) - perhaps again of metal housing, or an early plastic such as bakelite, considering the use of wood, and not plastic raw plugs. If so, this suggests a change to a more 'fashionable' fitting, although of course the first bell may have developed a fault etc.