World History Honors Group Project
Daily Life in 18 century Europe for the
Middle and Lower Classes
Labor, or laying-ins, had many various superstitions attached.
Form the sewing of a willow twig into the lady’s skirts to the
following Russian custom: The midwife would ask the laboring woman and her
husband to list all the people they had slept with. It was believed that if
they each told the truth, the labor would be easy; if one of them lied, the
labor would be difficult.
In the 18th century, a division between surgeons and midwives came
about, as medical men began to assert that their modern scientific
processes were better for mothers and infants than the folk-medical
midwives. At the outset of the 18th century in England, most babies were
caught by a midwife, but by the onset of the 19th century, the majority
of those babies born to persons of means had a surgeon involved.
Women wishing an abortion would overdose on such herbs or
alcohol, causing the womb to reject the fetus.
Common abortifacients, or herbs used to cause an abortion:
Saffron: Exotic herb also
used for jaundice, baby colic, and to get rid of menstrual periods
Pennyroyal: Also used in
teas to aid in menstrual flow
Common Rue: Also called
Herb-of-grace, used for colic, gas pains, and improving digestion.
Before 1753 it was very easy for two people to get married, of whatever
class, and however many times they wanted.
Before the Marriage Act of 1753 all that was required was an
exchange of words of consent in front of two witnesses, the vows must be
said in the present tense and the two to be married must be of age.
That is to say, 14 years old for men, and 12 for women.
It was also easy for parents to take away any dowry that might exist and
remove names from wills and in some cases, even cast out of the family.
Before the Marriage Act, it seems to have been quite common for
the woman to abandon her “spouse” because there was nothing in writing
to keep them there by law. Some men would "marry" one woman and desert
her and then go "marry" another.
As Sir Dudley Ryder expressed in 1753: "...when a young
gentleman or lady is entitled to a large estate, the advantage
to be got by marrying them is so great, and consequently the
temptation so strong, that our laws have never been able to
prevent the evil.''
Sir Dudley also says "every gentleman that has been
conversant in the practice of the law knows, what a
number of expensive law suits are thereby occasioned
about the legitimacy of children; and how difficult it
often is to determine whether the parents were married
or no: nay, sometimes a clandestine marriage is set up
after a man's death, which was never heard of in his
life time, and by an incontestable proof, which by ways
and means may be obtained, his whole effects are carried
away from his relations by the children of a woman whom
he never acknowledged as his wife."
This act required that the marriage take place
with banns and they couple must purchase a
marriage license. If the two are under the age
of twenty-one, then they must have their
parent's permission. The wedding must take place
between eight in the morning and noon. The
wedding must be recorded in the Marriage
Register along with the signatures of the two to
be married, witnesses, and the minister, and
this must take place in front of witnesses and a
Because of this act, verbal contracts were no
longer considered marriage, which made “secret”
marriages illegal. Anyone who did not follow
these rules in marriage could be banished for
Was expensive and hard to get.
Lots of legal processes to work through. Marriage was more a “jail
sentence” for some, but divorce was not often a viable solution, save
for the very rich and very determined.
A man’s infidelity was not grounds for a divorce.
However, a woman’s was.
Divorced woman often had no rights, unless she was independently rich.
In such a case, she often enjoyed more rights and legal freedoms.
Child labor was common in Britain during the late 18th century, when
children could sometimes worked up to 16 hours a day. Conditions were
often dangerous for them, especially for those who worked in mines.
These children usually received very little to no formal
"Miss B____rn. No. l 8 Old Compton Street, Soho Close in the arms she
languishingly lies With dying looks, short breath, and wishing eyes.
This accomplished nymph has just attained her eighteenth year, and
fraught with every perfection, enters a volunteer in the field of Venus.
She plays on the pianofort, sings, dances, and is mistress of every
Maneuver in the amorous contest that can enhance the coming pleasure; is
of the middle stature, fine auburn hair, dark eyes and very inviting
countenance, whichever seems to beam delight and love. In bed she is all
the heart can wish, or eyes admires every limb is symmetry, every action
under cover truly amorous; her price two pounds."
(Maccubbin 6) - excerpt from Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies
(1788), a listing of prostitutes published annually [written by
impoverished poet, Samuel Derrick]
Berlin - required medical inspection in 1700
Paris – began to register
prostitutes in 1785
Great Britain - Contagious
Diseases Prevention Acts (1864, 1866, and 1869) required
periodic medical examination of all prostitutes in
military/naval districts; detention of all those found to be
Washer women, seamstress,
“Flower seller” (England), “Orange
Seller” (France) were synonymous with prostitution
"Molly houses" – places where
homosexual men could meet safely.
“Buggering” or sodomizing was
Male prostitutes, if found at all,
were poor, working boys “that would do anything for a little money”.
Lesbians were as common if not
more than gay men. In Fanny
Hill (John Cleland), the protagonist was introduced to lesbianism.
Syphilis – common STD among
prostitutes; caused rashes, insanity, and death; also called “Great
Pox”; huge health concern
Small pox – common among all
classes, very deadly, highly contagious (by touch/body fluids, not air
Syphilis – "A night in the arms
of Venus leads to a lifetime on Mercury". Mercury was a common treatment, given by mouth, caused brittle
bones and mercury poisoning (insanity was noted sooner than the
degradation of the nervous system caused by Syphilis)
Small pox – no cure at the time