Domestic Life in Wales

Domestic Life in Wales

Tecwyn Vaughan Jones

Domestic Life in Wales. By S. Minwel Tibbott, edited by Beth Thomas, with a foreward by Trefor M. Owen. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2002. xix + 164 pp. Illus. 13.99 [pounds sterling] (pbk). ISBN 0-7083-1746-4

In 1969 Minwel Tibbott joined the staff of the Museum of Welsh Life (at that time, the Welsh Folk Museum) as a Research Assistant in the Department of Oral Traditions and Dialect. She was expected to organise fieldwork and to spend time collecting information on dialect words and oral traditions relating to cooking in Wales. Her interests broadened to include sewing, knitting, and quilting. By the time she retired in 1995 she had progressed to Assistant Keeper and the scope of her interest incorporated all aspects of Welsh domestic life. She spent almost thirty years collecting oral history and testimony in all parts of Wales. The oral archive in the Museum contains hundreds of tapes of interviews that she conducted and her enthusiasm and scholarly background enabled her to make a pioneering contribution to the study of domestic life.

This book is an indispensable source of information on different aspects of domestic life in Wales based on a combination of oral testimony and documentary and literary evidence. For many years before her untimely death in 1998, Minwel Tibbott had been working towards publishing an anthology of her articles. In the event, the work of editing was completed by her colleague, friend, and mentor, Beth Thomas, and the publication is certainly a fine tribute to the author as well as an excellent contribution to the study of folk life and women’s studies in Wales.

Minwel Tibbott deals with issues such as the covering of table legs (a Victorian prudery that appealed to the puritanical side of non-conformity)

from a historical and social perspective. She catalogues the experience of the Welsh housewife and the changes instigated by the introduction of electricity. The introduction of electricity to the rural kitchen between 1945 and 1955 brought revolutionary changes, and some of the informants seemed overwhelmed by the possibilities of the new technology. It is interesting that most of the informants featured in this article had grown up in pre-electric communities and the insight provided is unique and telling.

The domestic art of cheese-making was becoming obsolete in Wales in the 1960s and yet from the 1980s onward it has been revived and Welsh cheeses are now known throughout the world. In 1974 Minwel Tibbott published an illustrated collection of traditional recipes, which appeared in English in 1976 as Welsh Fare. This popular publication ensured her role as the spokesperson on Welsh foodways and, latterly, her Welsh language publication Geirfa’r Gegin (a dictionary of Welsh dialect words relating to food) was recognised as a scholarly contribution to the study of dialects.

Her interest in food was comprehensive and while she collected hundreds of variations in the preparation of basic foods, she also observed how individuals communicated through the rituals that surrounded meals and eating. In the first article she describes instances where eating “plays a significant role in establishing relationships between members of society.” The Sunday meals in Wales–dinner, tea, and supper–were ritualised family meals where expectations were defined and where members of the family had specific roles to play. Seasonal celebrations always culminated in ritualised eating sessions such as the Harvest Supper, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year dinners. While these celebrations changed over the years–some becoming obsolete, others invented, adapted or revived–communication remained a focus of these occasions. Hospitality was also ritualised and expectations were again culturally defined.

The second article describes the history of laundering in the Welsh home. The washing of clothes was probably the most ominous task facing the Welsh housewife until the mid-twentieth century, for it involved so many different efforts and processes. This weekly grind, or the “Monday blues,” was a communal and social event in many communities. The washing dolly, the washing tub or bucks, the mangle, types of water, fuller’s earth, soap, bleaching agents, blue, starch, bats, and washboards were keywords in the washing process. After the washing came the drying and then ironing, goffering, and crimping before the laundry process was complete. The material culture is described and illustrated, as is the craft terminology, both standard and dialect. The social and domestic impact of these crafts was unique but often unrecorded.

Dietary oatmeal in nineteenth-century Wales produced words such as Sucan and Llymru, which today are often used as parodies of uninteresting folk foods, where eating for survival was the norm and eating for enjoyment was often a rare treat. Both foods were combinations of oatmeal, milk, and water, and were the staple diet of upland Wales until the middle of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century in some parts. These words are often associated with deprivation and were rapidly confined to family histories with the progression of consumerism in the twentieth century.

The final article is dedicated to the domestic craft of knitting stockings, which was an occupation traditionally practised by men as well as women. Again the stages of manufacture are described in detail, and keywords such as the choice of wool and its preparation, knitting needles, yarn hooks, skeins, type of stockings, stocking markets, and stocking men or hosiers are described fully and provide an unique insight into this craft in rural Wales.

This anthology “demonstrates the variety and depth of Minwel Tibbott’s research as well as offering a particularly accessible and readable introduction to Welsh domestic history.”

Tecwyn Vaughan Jones, Cardiff University, Wales

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