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Living in the Early Modern Past: the 17th Century Home


A recent open day enabled exploration of an early 17th century private home, built in South Derbyshire during the 1620s to house a wealthy yeoman and his family.[i] This provided a useful opportunity to revise knowledge of early modern domestic contexts,[ii] which when considered alongside other bodies of evidence – such as burials and mortuary memorials of this period – so as to potentially allow for a more rounded consideration of life in the early modern past.[iii]

Posts specifically on this building will be published soon, but before doing so, it seemed appropriate to produce a post that might provide a basic background on the Early Modern home. As a counterpoint to the forthcoming post on the yeoman house, this post will concentrate upon mid – late 17th century cottages occupied by less wealthy families of the nascent ‘middling sort’:[iv] artisans, trades-people, and small holders, with means beyond those of the poor husbandmen, but not as substantial as those of the notable yeoman landowner.[v] This expanding group benefited from financially, and enhanced their own comfort (and increasingly social position), from recent and continuing growth in trade and commerce, and concomitant consumerism, providing a broader range of household material culture, with more opportunities to emulate wealthier and higher status homes. Material culture from high status households will be illustrated below in briefly noting the changes in domestic space and in the functions of rooms, and occasional comparisons made with the housing of poorer families.[vi]

The early modern house: new ways of everyday life[vii]

The geography of what is commonly seen today as the ‘traditional’ family home (comprising entrance hall, two or three ground floor rooms, and two or three bedrooms above), is in essence a product of the early modern period. This time was one of widespread change that bought opportunities to some (through manufacturing and trade – marking the advance of consumerism, and social and political change), but also declining fortunes to many (through the many epidemics, famine and social dislocation – to some extent provoked by civil war).[viii]

The medieval hall influenced the development of the Tudor and Stuart yeoman hall house; internal space had become increasingly divided (both horizontally and vertically) so as to provide separate rooms beside the communal hall (and corridors to allow movement around and through the house), for storing, preparing, and eating food and drink, and domestic chores. The ceiling of the hall, previously open to the roof, had been lowered by the addition of a first storey floor, providing rooms above for sleeping, and for more private socialising.

Late medieval hall, Haddon Hall, Derbyshire, showing later fireplace and chimney

Late medieval hall, Haddon Hall, Derbyshire, showing later fireplace and chimney (©Grand Tours)[ix]

By the end of 16th century, chimneys had been fitted in place of the central hearth of the hall, often within (and sometimes blocking) a cross passage between doorways that opened onto the front and rear of the property dividing the building; stairs to the first storey were typically fitted beside the chimney.

In turn, these houses influenced those of less well-off yeoman (which for convenience will below be referred to as ‘yeoman cottages’), which were inevitably smaller with access to fewer funds (with less ‘curtilage’)[x] than the occupants of the post-medieval hall.

Outside the modest 17th century yeoman’s dwelling

117 West Street, Alford, Lincs

Mid-late 17th century cottage (with 18th century modifications), 117 West Street, Alford, Lincolnshire (from Google Maps)[xi]

Yeoman’s cottages in this era were typically half-timber framed, the timber walls resting upon low stone walls, the spaces between the timbers in-filled with wattle panels or lathes, covered with daub (clay and / or dung, containing binding material such as horse-hair). However, since the late 16th century, bricks were increasingly used in place of wattle and daub, and by the end of the 17th century in many areas, houses were more commonly brick built. Thatched roofs were typical, although ceramic tiles, and later slates, soon replaced this highly flammable material in built-up areas.

Diane Earl NEN Casement window

Above: 17th century style casement window with leaded lights in iron frame (Photo NEN); below: excavated remains of 17th century iron casement window frame, Jamestown, Virginia, US[xii]

Jamestown window

Dwellings were frequently double-fronted (and typically one room deep, commonly built of two, three or four ‘bays’), with a centrally placed front door between one or two ground floor timber casement windows, and dormer windows above. Over the century, small leaded lights, sometimes fitted within iron frames, were increasingly fitted, which in turn were often replaced with sash-windows during and after the 18th century. This layout immediately demonstrated to neighbours and passers-by the relative affluence of the householders, whose home had not the single ground floor room that was typically occupied by labourer’s families (examples of which can be seen here), but two rooms, facilitating the cultivation of social relationships with a degree of privacy. However, in built-up urban areas, cottages were often one room wide, and two – four deep, extending into land at the rear of the road.

The façade was generally simple, with minimal decoration, although where houses were constructed of bricks, this material was sometimes used to provide some form of ornamentation, e.g. bricks arranged in patterns such as chevrons, and herringbone. Timber framing could also to some extent be used decoratively, with the plaster infill painted using lime-wash tinted with natural pigments, such as ochre or iron oxide (for information on historic lime-wash, see here). The chimney was commonly situated approximately in the centre of the building, although another layout was the placement of a chimney at each end of the house.

Such houses were often built in pairs or in short rows, and often had only a small yard or area of ground (which was frequently shared with neighbours) abutting the house at the front or rear.[xiii] Sanitation remained basic: where not beside a watercourse that might flush waste down-stream or -river, sewage was commonly thrown onto the street, or onto the household midden (a pit or surface dump of domestic waste), which was sometimes deposited as garden or agricultural fertiliser.

Inside the small 17th century home: domestic environment and material culture

Floor plan

Layout (not to scale) of a typical mid-late 17th century yeoman cottage (e.g. comparable to the example in Lincolnshire, pictured above) (©Grassroots Heritage)[xiv]

The 17th century yeoman’s cottage was accessed through a timber plank front door, either directly from the street, or from a small front garden. There was sometimes a small lobby between the door and the wall formed by the central chimneystack, with doors to left and right leading to the rooms that came to be known as the kitchen and parlour.[xv] However, corridors were rare (thus limiting privacy). In houses without a lobby, the front door opened directly into the kitchen, although the parlour was still commonly separated from this room by a door.


Diane Earl  NEN hall-kitchen table

Fireplace and table in reproduction 17th century kitchen-living room (Photo NEN)[xvii]

For the multitude of neighbours who continued to inhabit single room dwellings, the kitchen as a separate room would remain a novel and unattainable reality for many generations. The labourer’s dwelling differed from the yeoman cottage in commonly having only a single, multi-purpose, ground floor room, whereas that of yeoman might have a kitchen in addition to a living room. Though comparable in having low ceilings, the thick oak beams supporting the floor above were absent from smaller houses (which at best had a simple loft above the living space for sleeping and storage, reached by a ladder). The provision of a kitchen, in which food was cooked and eaten, and many household chores were carried out, allowed the division of domestic time and space according to position within the family and in wider community. For the household servants, it remained a living and working (and for some, perhaps also sleeping) room. Though the family may have also often used this room for various purposes (including access to the rear yard and stairs to the bedrooms above), they now had an additional, more private, space, to which they might retire, in the parlour (see below).

Fixtures and fittings

C17 fire-dog,  Jamestown, US

17th century firedog, from excavations of early settlement phases at Jamestown, Virginia, US[xviii]

The fireplace was typically located within the centre wall of this room, although was sometimes built along the outer wall of the building. A stone or oak lintel generally supported this wide and deep feature, with a brick or stone hearth. It often contained wrought iron firedogs (bars to hold logs), commonly with hooks to hold spits (the combination known as ‘andirons’), possibly ‘cup dogs’ (upright stands to hold vessels in order to war liquids). Brand tongues (large, long-handled wrought iron pincers) hung within the fireplace, being used to place and move wood upon the fire.

Late medieval bread ovens, Haddon Hall, Derbyshire (©Grand Tours)

Late medieval bread ovens, Haddon Hall, Derbyshire (©Grand Tours)

Where space (and wealth) allowed, the kitchen fireplace incorporated a brick-built bread oven (sometimes with a stone base), recognisable as a deep, arched, opening into the side of the inglenook. The oven was brought up to temperature by burning brushwood, the ashes from which were raked out (using a long-handled wrought iron or wood spade-like instrument known as a ‘peel’), before placing dough, and sometimes small cakes and biscuits, within the recess to bake. The oven was sealed by a removable wooden door, and later by a hinged cast iron door.

Peels, Haddon

Peels (above) and bread oven doors (below), Haddon Hall, Derbyshire (©Grand Tours)

Bread oven doors, Haddon

Other fitted equipment was commonly used in cooking, such as a wrought iron ‘trammel hook’ (or ‘chimney crane’: an adjustable apparatus used to suspend pots) may have been used for cooking over the open fire.

C17 trammel jamestown

Early wrought iron trammel hook, found during excavations at the colonial settlement at Jamestown, Virginia, US;[xix] and in use within a reconstructed fireplace (centre of image), with cast iron fireback, and ceramic curfew, bottom right (Photo NEN)[xx]

C17 fireplace Diane Earl NEN

Horizontal wrought iron spits were placed across the andirons, and used to turn large joints of meat to ensure even cooking over the fire, whilst smaller pieces of meat were cooked within an iron gridiron or basket spit (cages suspended horizontally over the fire); drip pans were placed beneath spits. Various devises (spit jacks), using ropes, chains, and pulleys, regularly turned the spits, either powered by hand, by the hot air from the fire, or, in some larger houses, small dogs within treadmills![xxi]


Engraving showing the dog-powered turnspit c. 1800 (Image Wikipedia)[xxii]

Although the kitchens of the royal, aristocratic, and otherwise wealthy had long benefited from the most advanced technologies of the day, there was a delay – in many cases, of several centuries – before small houses had access to even basic amenities. Consequently, most early post-medieval kitchens significantly differed to those of today in that they were rarely built with sinks before the development of the ‘standardised’ terrace house in the mid-late 19th century (which incorporated a scullery extension off the ground floor back room).[xxiii] Water would instead be brought inside from the outdoor source (at this stage usually a well) within earthenware or wooden bowls, and laundry would usually be done outside in the yard, using wooden troughs. However, a shallow stone sink was often fitted in the buttery (see below), or a scullery frequently built as a lean-to extension, or where space allowed, a wash-house built in the back yard, in later years.


This room would have been sparsely furnished in comparison to modern kitchens, containing simple stools or benches, possibly an oak fireside chair, and a table, commonly of ash, to withstand regular scrubbing (with a concoction of salt, rosemary, and vinegar – for abrasion, antiseptic treatment, and to degrease, respectively). The floor of bricks or stone flags, which provided a surface that was less expensive and could be cleaned with water without damage to the material. The windows may have been shuttered at night, although these features seem less common during the 17th century with the wider adoption of glazed windows.

C17 recon farmhouse fireside chair Diane Earl NEN

17th century fireside chair (Photo NEN)[xxiv]

Objects and Ornaments

Bell-metal mortar, Haddon

Bell-metal mortar, Haddon Hall, Derbyshire (©Grand Tours)

Although occupants spent much time in this room, ornaments generally had little place in the 17th century kitchen; however, this room was often filled with numerous objects associated with food preparation, cooking, eating, and drinking, which could to some degree be decorative. The range of artefacts kept and used within the kitchen inevitably depended upon income, need, location, and availability, and changed over time, though often with a long delay between the development of innovations, and their acquisition and use beyond the elite household. Some items were seen as essential by most, in all periods (that is, up until the late 20th century), and where unaffordable to the poorer household, improvisation or community cooperation and exchange became necessary.

17th century cast iron cauldron from Jamestown, Virginia, US[xxv]

Round-bottomed copper alloy (‘bell-metal’ – lead and zinc rich bronze) and brass pans, cauldrons, and skillets (that could be placed directly onto the open fire – requiring the use of long-handled wooden spoons to prevent injury to the cook), had been used for centuries. These continued to be used in many households into (and in some cases beyond) the 19th century; cast iron, though still at this time of poor quality, was also used for these vessels during the 17th century, improving in quality as casting technology developed during the 18th and 19th centuries. But with the provision of the chimney within lower status houses during and after the late 16th century, a wider range of kitchen equipment developed, particularly vessels that could be suspended from the fireplace chimney interior, over the fire. By the 17th century, these included brass, and later better quality cast iron, hanging griddle pans, frying pans, and kettles (which at this time generally consisted of large open pans).

17th century bell-metal cauldron, wrought iron firedog andiron spit jack DE NEN

17th century bell-metal cauldron, wrought iron firedog, andiron, and mechanical spit jack (above); and brass roasting pan, skillet, and wrought iron pot hanger and toasting fork (below) (Photos NEN)[xxvi]

Brass roasting pan skillet toasting fork Diane Earl NEN

Although the kitchen fire was often kept alight for long periods of time (not least due to the difficulty of relighting), a tinderbox was usually kept close by. Kitchenware was often stored on nails in, on and around the fireplace, and on an oak mantel, over which oak spit racks were sometimes kept. Wooden wall racks and shelves were also often used to store equipment. Where there was no pantry, consumables were often stored within a ‘food-safe’: a perforated cupboards (so that air might flow), mounted on the wall (away from vermin).

Table artefacts Diane Earl NEN

17th century table and artefacts, showing taper holder (within pewter bowl, foreground) (Photo NEN)[xxvii]

Vessels both familiar and unfamiliar to us today were used in the kitchen for eating and drinking, with food served in a ‘saucer’ (shallow bowl), on a trencher (by this time a flat round or square plate), platter, a pottinger (or porringer, i.e. deeper bowl), and drink served in beakers, mugs and tankards. They were made from materials that are now rarely used sycamore or beech, or pewter, for plates and bowls; and horn, wood, sometimes leather, and pewter for beakers, mugs (handled drinking vessels), and tankards (lidded mugs).

Shelf pewter plates mugs Diane Earl NEN

17th – 18th century oak shelf with pewter plates and mugs (above), and wall-mounted food safe (below) (Photo NEN)[xxviii]

C17 style wall food safe Diane Earl NEN

The range of cooking utensils was expanding. Elaborate toasting apparatus, made from cast iron, were also sometimes used. With the acquisition of sugar colonies, sugar was increasingly consumed in Britain, giving rise to the need for sugar cutters (large wrought iron pincers), to cut sugar from the ‘loaf’. A mortar and pestle of stone, marble, iron, bronze, brass, or wood, was also usually used in the kitchen, as were brass ladles and nut roasters, and dairy equipment, such as milk skimmers. Cutlery was limited, with personal multi-purpose knives used to stab and cut food, and horn, wooden or pewter spoons (with deeper bowls later in the century) used to eat broths and cereals; simple (two-pronged) forks were only slow adopted, and did not appear in many houses until the 18th century.

C17 cutlery Jamestown

17th century kitchen utensils, with pothooks, bottom right (above), and cutlery (below), found during excavations of Jamestown, Virginia, US[xxix]


Other vessels and containers were made of wood and leather, such as leather water buckets, and wooden storage containers, for example for flour. The kitchen salt box was often a wooden lidded box stored next to the fireplace, to keep dry larger amounts of salt than that used when dining socially (see below: The Parlour). Wooden bowls were used for mixing ingredients, and wooden troughs used when kneading and proving dough; and wooden moulds used in making gingerbread.

17th C17 ceramic kitchen storage cooking vessels Jamestown

17th century ceramic kitchen storage and cooking vessels, from excavations of Jamestown, Virginia, US (made both in England and locally)[xxx]

These utilitarian objects were capable of withstanding long use, and the numerous accidents that occur when carrying out domestic chores; some cooking and storage vessels were made of less durable pottery. Being easier to clean, and not affecting the taste of contents, ceramics were the most suitable material for dairying (see below: The Pantry and Buttery). Other ceramic objects include the ‘curfew’: a large ceramic (in later years, metal) dish called a ‘curfew’ was placed over the fire at night, letting the embers smoulder thus both conserving fuel, and as a safety measure.[xxxi] Some cooking vessels were occasionally ceramic, such as the skillet and pipkin.

C17 ceramics Jamestown

Above: 17th century ceramics (including pipkin, bottom centre), from excavations of early settlement phases at Jamestown, Virginia, US[xxxii]

Below: wooden mixing (or blood / keeper) bowl and salting trough, Haddon Hall, Derbyshire (©Grand Tours)

Wooden bowl salting trough, Haddon


(An)other small room(s), to store food and drink (where space allowed subdivided into pantry and buttery), sometimes led off the kitchen (the pantry reached through the buttery, or vice versa). The pantry would be fitted with wall-mounted wooden storage shelves, and a brick or stone ‘thrall’ (plinth) on which items were placed to cool. The Buttery was used to store ale – which was made in many households. Pantries and butteries were often fitted with sinks in later years.

C17 dairy vessels,  Jamestown

17th century dairy vessels, from excavations of Jamestown, Virginia, US, with a pancheon, top centre[xxxiii]

Dairy products, many of which were made in the home, were usually stored within the pantry, within ceramic vessels (which remained cool, and were easy to clean). The ‘pancheon’ (a large deep bowl, with an interior glaze to overcome the porosity of the earthenware body, which continued in use until after WWI) was commonly used in 17th century dairies and kitchens. Locally made undecorated (with the exception of coloured glaze) earthenware jugs and bowls were also useful in making and storing dairy products. The wooden (or in larger houses, stone) salting trough – within which meat was preserved – was commonly stored in the pantry.


On the other side of the entrance was a room that over the course of the 17th century becoming known as the ‘parlour’. The primary function of this room was as a space for private conversation, entertainment (particularly dining), and recreation (away from domestic servants), and in some situations as a bedchamber, though it was also put to other uses (such as storage) when necessary.

Fixtures and fittings

Modern firedogs and cup-irons, Haddon Hall, Derbyshire (©Grand Tours)

Modern firedogs and cup-irons, Haddon Hall, Derbyshire (©Grand Tours)

In the early 17th century, this room was fitted with a wide open stone and / or brick fireplace, containing wrought iron fire-dogs, ‘cup dogs’ (see above: The Kitchen), and cast iron back. However, this arrangement was frequently modified in later years to suit fashionable tastes (particularly the aspiration towards more ‘genteel’ surroundings), and for efficiency. The grate became increasingly enclosed over time, often culminating in the insertion of a cast iron hob-grate in the 18th century (the recess sometimes decorated with blue and white tin-glazed Delft tiles from Holland, or with English imitations, portraying Biblical stories, or decorated with other simple images), and in the 19th century a register grate. But changes began early in some houses – especially those within coal-rich areas – as coal was increasingly burnt as an alternative to wood. This required a dog grate (a fire-basket: essentially fire dogs with horizontal bars between) to hold the coals; the fender was later introduced to prevent the coals from falling from the hearth.

Modern fire-basket, Haddon

Modern fire-basket, and fragment of mid 17th century rush matting (below), Haddon Hall museum, Derbyshire (©Grand Tours)

C17 rush matting, Haddon

The room would have been lit by the fire, and (only when necessary) by rush tapers in wrought iron holders (see image of kitchen table, above, and as shown here), tallow (and on occasion if sufficiently well off, beeswax) candles in pewter, brass, or ceramic candlesticks, and later in the century, sconces. Oak wainscoting (wall panelling) was fitted in the early 17th century (as reproduced here), and pine panels, which would have been painted, in later decades (as reproduced here).

Candlesticks wick-trimmers Jamestown

17th century candlesticks and wrought iron wick-trimmers, from excavations of early settlement phases at Jamestown, Virginia, US[xxxiv]


17th century oak stool, Haddon Hall, Derbyshire (©Grand Tours)

17th century oak stool, Haddon Hall, Derbyshire (©Grand Tours)

In comparison to humbler dwellings (but more sparsely and less comfortably furnished than the living rooms of most houses today), this room would have been well furnished. Furniture was generally of oak, although mahogany became fashionable in the second half of the century in wealthy households (the expansion of trade to the New World providing access to this timber). The parlours of larger dwellings might house a substantial rectangular table in the early 17th century. However, the oval gate-leg tables of the later 17th century were more suitable for the smaller rooms of less affluent households, as the leafs could be folded when not in use.

Oak gate-leg table and bench, Haddon Hall, Derbyshire (©Grand Tours)

Oak gate-leg table and bench, Haddon Hall, Derbyshire (©Grand Tours)

The room may have contained chairs for adult family members (upholstered if sufficiently well off), and perhaps benches or stools. For those with the means, a court cupboard (display sideboard) and corner cupboard were used for display and storage.

C16-7 Upholstered chair Haddon

17th century (possible reproduction) chair and late 16th – 17th century gate-leg table (above), and court cupboard (below), Haddon Hall, Derbyshire (©Grand Tours)

LC16-7 court cupboard Haddon

Wooden shutters may have enclosed the windows at night (although see above: kitchen), and a single panel of plain woollen fabric, hung from an iron rail, would have kept out drafts from the windows, although pairs of curtains, often decorated, became more popular in later years. Tapestries and painted cloths (perhaps in imitation of tapestries) were often displayed on the walls, and the wide oak floorboards were typically covered by rush matting (see above).

Tapestry, oak table, and chair, Haddon Hall, Derbyshire (©Grand Tours) – much grander than the furnishings of a yeoman cottage!

Tapestry, oak table, and chair, Haddon Hall, Derbyshire (©Grand Tours) – much grander than the furnishings of a yeoman cottage!

Objects and Ornaments

In the earlier 17th century, ornaments were few in comparison to later centuries; many were decorated functional items, predominantly used in social dining, which provided opportunities to exhibit expensive tableware. But with increased trade and manufacturing both provoking and responding to a rise in consumerism, a greater range of objects became available not only to the wealthier ‘middling’ sort, but also those of lesser means, such as the husbandman.

17th century English wine glasses Jamestown

17th century English wine glasses (above), and bottles (below), Jamestown, Virginia, US[xxxv]

17th century English wine bottles, Jamestown

Within affluent households, objects of silver, and imported ‘china’ (porcelain), could be displayed to demonstrate status and position – particularly if embellished with the heraldic device of the family. Glass vessels were not yet commonly used, but were increasingly found within such houses, as were glass bottles.

C17 farmhouse shelf Diane Earl NEN

Reproduction 17th century slip-decorated earthenware, pewter plat, and glasses, on oak display shelf (Photo NEN)[xxxvi]

Yeoman households used pewter (in imitation of silver), and when affordable, tin-glazed earthenware (cobalt blue decoration on a white – pale blue ground) imported from Holland (and subsequently made in England), Italy and France, some of which imitated finer, eastern, ceramics. Stoneware from Germany was also used (up until the middle of the century, brown salt-glazed Bellarmine ‘Bartmann’ or ‘beardman’ ware, shown here, and from the later 17th century, grey and cobalt blue Westerwald ware, shown here, both illustrated in the image beneath the photo below).

17th century English tin-glazed earthenware  Jamestown

17th century English tin-glazed earthenware (above), and German stoneware (below), found at Jamestown, Virginia, US[xxxvii]

17th century German stoneware  Jamestown

Decorated regional ceramics, such as slipped- or scraffito- decorated earthenware, were also often displayed, and used in serving food, and for ‘salts’, used at the table when dining socially. Cutlery developed and became more widely adopted during and after the 17th century (see above: The Kitchen), with simple dining forks, rounded knives, and deep-bowl spoons, slowly adopted outside the elite household, though in houses occupied by lower status families, of pewter rather than silver. Depending on income, paintings and prints may have adorned the walls.

17th century English scraffito-ware Jamestown

Above: 17th century English scraffito-ware, Jamestown, Virginia, US[xxxviii]

Below: 17th farmhouse century table laid with slip-decorated ceramics (Photo NEN)[xxxix]

C17 farmhouse table Diane Earl NEN


17th century bedroom Diane Earl NEN

17th century bedroom, within relatively prosperous household (Photo NEN)[xl]

The relatively high roof and wide dimensions of the ground floor rooms of the 17th century yeoman cottage provided sufficient space for an upper floor that could contain bedrooms – an improvement on earlier, and contemporaneous poorer, dwellings (which had only a single ground floor room, with limited loft space above, entered by a ladder when used for sleeping; see above). Wooden stairs to the upper floor were typically placed beside the central chimneystack, and entered by a door beside the fireplace, by the interior rear wall of the kitchen; or in houses built with and entrance lobby, sometimes facing the front door.

The top of centrally placed stairs often led directly into the bedrooms, although a small landing lobby, with doors either side to each bedroom, which were entered by a plank door, were frequently later constructed. In houses with chimneys in each end wall, the stairs would lead into one bedroom, through which the second bedroom was reached. Where there were three rooms of the floor below, there might be a small third bedroom upstairs, again reached through other rooms.

Fixtures and fittings

The bedrooms, being within the eaves, had sloping, often un-plastered, ceilings, and were lit by dormer windows; thick, low, roof timbers might have to be carefully negotiated in the dark! It was not unusual for one bedroom to be more carefully finished in comparison to the other, and used by servants, lodgers, or children. Grates were not usually fitted at this time on the first floor, although upper rooms were lightly warmed by the heat of the chimney.


During the 17th century, beds with wooden frames (as opposed to a mattress placed on a pallet on the floor) were becoming more common for those who could afford this expensive piece of furniture. A typical form was the oak or walnut ‘four-poster’ or ‘tester’, which had several components. Below a mattress of feather and down (contained within ticking) was one of straw, which lay upon the bed-strings: a rope lattice (which had to be often tightened to limit sagging) strung between the rectangular horizontal frame closest to the floor, which was joined at each corner to the upright bedposts. A woollen canopy covered the horizontal rectangular frame closest to the ceiling, and curtains hung from rods attached to this frame to provide warmth, and some degree of privacy. Servants may also have slept within the room, on a truckle, foldout or pallet bed – families commonly slept within the same bed as a matter of course, the children laying either side of their parents). The bedroom would commonly contain an oak chest, used to store clothing, bedding, and private possessions; the room might also contain a stool and / or simple chair.

Late 17th century oak chest Diane Earl NEN

Late 17th century oak chest (Photo NEN)[xli]

Rush matting (see example above) may have been used to limit the drafts that came through the wide oak floorboards; wall hangings may have also kept out drafts (although any expensive tapestries are more likely to have adorned the parlour than the bedroom). During the early 17th century, curtains were likely to have been of plain wool, though more decorative fabrics may have subsequently been used. Bedclothes would have been simple in less wealthy households, with linen being increasingly used for sheets and counterpanes, alongside woollen covers.

Objects and Ornaments

Paintings of sentimental significance may have been hung in the bedrooms of those with sufficient means (although, as with tapestries, such expensive decorations may have been restricted to the parlour) and occasional prints might have decorated the walls. By the 17th century, the bedroom may have had a chamber pot, for use during the night, and during illness. In the less wealthy yeoman’s house might be made of earthenware (a regional sherd of which can be seen here; and complete pot here), although pewter examples are known (e.g. see here).

The second chamber on this floor may have had a variety of functions, depending upon the composition and needs of the household. Where a family member of similar status to that of the ‘bread-winner’ (e.g. a parent or sibling) occupied this room, it may have been furnished well, if not as well as the main bedroom. However, if occupied by domestic servants, apprentices, or farm workers, it would not have been furnished as well or as extensively as the other bedroom (i.e. may have contained only pallet or folding beds, and had no ornamentation), and may also have been used as a store- and / or work-room.

Keys Haddon

17th century iron door keys, Haddon Hall, Derbyshire (©Grand Tours)

The following posts will explore Upper Hall – a manor house built during the early 17th century in South Derbyshire – against which above the information might be compared, bringing the higher social status of the Hall into sharp relief.


[i] In comparison to terms previously used to denote social status (e.g. see here for the 16th century) those used in the 17th century (such as within wills and inventories) are less easily defined. The changing nature of commerce, economy, and social organisation at this time may resulted in greater ambiguity surrounding the terms ‘yeoman’ and ‘husbandman’, as opportunities to accumulate capital beyond landownership expanded. For example, potters of the late 17th century might be defined as yeomen, it might be presumed due to their independent social position and accumulation of wealth through trade (e.g. see Lorna Weatherill 1971 The Pottery Trade and North Staffordshire, 1660-1760, p 148). However, in representing landownership (the ‘yeoman’ being of the higher status, as a freeholder), they appear to remain significant well into the 19th century.

[ii] A major element of coursework as an undergraduate student (many years ago now!) at the University of Nottingham was the production of a portfolio. With the benefit of specialists in vernacular architecture on the teaching staff, including Philip Dixon, the requirement of archaeological standing building surveys were informed by a superb series of lectures. I was fortunate enough at the time (1994) to have access to a mid-late 17th century cottage in Lincolnshire. Staying in the property for several days (with my 2-year-old son as surveyor’s assistant!), this proved a fabulous opportunity to study the building in detail over several days, unhindered by furniture or furnishings.

[iii] Photos (which are more quick snaps than technical images) taken during visits made over the past couple of years, to a number of churchyards in and around Derby, are available here; annotations will follow when time allows.

[iv] A large body of work is available on the growth of the ‘middling sort’; freely accessible resources include  ‘The Search For The ‘Middle Sort’ of People’ In England, 1600–1800‘, by H R French (2000); and in Google Books, sections of Margaret R. Hunt’s 1996 The Middling Sort: Commerce, Gender, and the Family in England, 1680-1780.

[v] See note i.

[vi] Images of material culture dating to or around the period covered by this post have been obtained from photos taken of artefacts recovered during excavations of a 17th century site in Virginia, North America, where many English objects were discovered in association with domestic contexts (from the 1957 excavation report, available via Project Gutenburg here. Further, more up-to-date, information on this site can be found hereherehere, and here (several articles and books are also available, some of which can be easily found through internet search engines).

Other images of in situ objects of a similar date were taken by the author at Haddon Hall, Derbyshire (a location full of fabulous late medieval – early post-medieval artefacts), which is certainly worth a visit if in the area: further information can be found on the Haddon Hall website.

The remaining images (except where otherwise noted) have been obtained from the National Education Network Gallery of educational photographic resources, and are the work of Diane Earl, who retains copyright ownership. Please contact this website if their use here is considered as inappropriate.

Unfortunately, there was a dearth of appropriate copyright free images available for bedroom interiors and material culture, though illustrations will be added as and when they may be encountered. Any pointers to more suitable images (i.e. copyright free, non-commercial, and contextually correct) would be welcomed.

[vii] The chronological brackets of this era vary according to geographical location, and often differ within as well as between the various fields of study concerned with historic buildings, remaining a matter for debate.

Archaeological studies in Britain tend to conflate the start of the Early Modern period with that of the post-medieval era (which again has varied definitions, beginning at various points in the late 15th – mid 16th centuries). The termination of the Early Modern era is usually seen as coinciding with the widespread effects of the ‘industrial revolution’, i.e., broadly the late 18th century. Here, the beginning of the post-medieval period, as defined by English Heritage and Historic Environment curators, i.e. AD 1540, will be adopted as a very general starting point for the Early Modern era.

However, it should be remembered that such dates are used merely for the purposes of organising research and source material, and do not reflect the disparity of cultural and social change in the past, which inevitably depend upon access to resources and knowledge, and are affected by economic and political circumstances.

[viii] For example, see Peter Jupp and Claire Gittings (eds.) 1999 Death in England: An Illustrated History.

[ix] For information on this building, see the Haddon Hall website.

[x] Private land around and associated with the house: usually comprising a yard, and often a garden, which became increasingly defined by walls and fences from that of neighbouring properties.

[xi] See note ii. The plans, drawings and photographs from the archaeological survey and interpretation of this building carried out in 1994-95, were unfortunately mislaid by the institution that used them in a display / as a teaching aid, and have yet to be found and recovered. More information on this property can be found on the HER here.

[xii] Top image obtained from the National Education Network: http://gallery.nen.gov.uk/asset60101_218-.html (accessed 3-10-14), ©Diane Earl. Bottom image from John L. Cotter & J. Paul Hudson 1957 (2005), New Discoveries at Jamestown. Site of the First Successful English Settlement in America (accessed 17.30, 2-10-14).

[xiii] Families headed by labourers would occupy less substantial dwellings than those of artisans, generally comprising a single room, sometimes with loft above, and might share such buildings with other families. The poorest families that had some form of roof over their head might reside within a roughly constructed, essentially temporary, building. Archaeological site reports often continue to place such dwellings – alongside the single room cottage with loft – within the somewhat broad and barely defined category of ‘hovel’. Unmarried servants and labourers of this period commonly lived within their employer’s house, or in temporary shelters at their place of work (e.g. shepherd’s bothies).

[xiv] This possibility requires verification; the information was obtained from personal communication with the owner at the time of the building survey (see notes i & v), and derives from associated property documentation.

[xv] Where the chimney had been fitted within a cross-passage, a small entrance lobby would be formed (however, lobbies were also often added later by constructing a diving wall between the front wall and fireplace).

[xvi] The kitchens of medieval halls were located within an associated outbuilding, due to risk of fire and to avoid cooking smells; but due to limited space (and perhaps fewer servants) was situated within less high status dwellings.

[xvii] From NEN (see note vii): http://gallery.nen.gov.uk/asset60057_218-.html

[xviii] Cotter & Hudson, op cit..

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] NEN (op cit.): http://gallery.nen.gov.uk/asset90309_2922-e2bn.html

[xxi] For information on turnspit dogs see, e.g. herehere, and here; the remains of reputedly the last turn-spit dog (the 19th century ‘Whiskey’) was preserved by taxidermy, and is on display at Abegavenny Museum

[xxii] Image accessed 13.30, 6-10-14: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6d/Turnspit_Dog_Working.jpg

[xxiii] There are various reasons for this change (the confines of time and space precluding discussion here – though this topic will likely be considered in future posts). One significant factor was change in credit regulations that enabled those on lower incomes to take advantage of ‘HP’ for more expensive domestic goods such as a gas or electric cooker, which could replace the dirty and inefficient kitchen range. The small ‘portable’ cooker would fit into the scullery, transforming this room into a kitchen-scullery, and the kitchen into a dining room. Sculleries were often used in conjunction with the washhouse, but where no additional washhouse was provided, many terrace houses had a second sink within the cellar (basement); where neither cellar sink nor washhouse was possible, sculleries were often referred to as scullery-washhouses.

[xxiv] NEN (op cit.): http://gallery.nen.gov.uk/asset90312_2922-e2bn.html

[xxv] Cotter & Hudson, op cit..

[xxvi] NEN (op cit.): http://gallery.nen.gov.uk/imagelarge60060-.htmlhttp://gallery.nen.gov.uk/imagelarge60063-.html

[xxvii] Ibid.: http://gallery.nen.gov.uk/asset60069_218-.htmlhttp://gallery.nen.gov.uk/asset60065_218-.html

[xxviii] Ibid.: http://gallery.nen.gov.uk/asset60068_218-.htmlhttp://gallery.nen.gov.uk/asset60079_218-.html

[xxix] Cotter & Hudson, op cit..

[xxx] Ibid.

[xxxi] I must thank the owner of the South Derbyshire house for reminding me of this object, which I had forgotten since being taught about such artefacts in the early 1990s (although my experience of ceramics ‘curfews’ was of those dating to the medieval period).

[xxxii] Cotter & Hudson, op cit..

[xxxiii] Ibid.

[xxxiv] Ibid.

[xxxv] Ibid.

[xxxvi] NEN (op cit.): http://gallery.nen.gov.uk/asset90323_2922-e2bn.html

[xxxvii] Cotter & Hudson, op cit..

[xxxviii] Ibid.

[xxxix] NEN (op cit.): http://gallery.nen.gov.uk/imagelarge60066.htmlhttp://gallery.nen.gov.uk/asset90314_2922-e2bn.html

[xl] Ibid.: http://gallery.nen.gov.uk/asset57988_73-.html

[xli] Ibid.: http://gallery.nen.gov.uk/asset60120_218-.html