It’s life, Jim …

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Domestic account books are frequently to be found in historical family archives. On display in the Long Room at the moment is an eighteenth-century account book (TCD MS 10528) belonging to James Ware (b. circa 1699), sometime student of Trinity College and grandson of the historian Sir James Ware.

Ware was a meticulous record-keeper which means his accounts are a particularly valuable research resource for students of domestic life and the cost of living. The details included here allow us to build up an understanding of the way in which eighteenth-century life may have differed from our own. Weekly shopping for example. He records purchasing items such as a scabbard for his sword and moulds to make glass bottles. Ware also records buying himself a suit of clothes lined with silk, a pair of scarlet britches and a waistcoat with gold lace.

One of the most unusual characteristics about this account book is that Ware gives the reasons why he dismissed individual servants; he may have kept these details as an aide memoire in case he was asked to recommend a member of his staff to future employers.

Here are some of Ware’s choicest complaints: sottishness and dram drinking; immoderate hastiness of temper; marrying a man ‘tho certain of his having another wife’; intolerable sullenness, obstinacy and rudeness; one man was described as ‘slovenly and prating’; another was a ‘false shirking scoundrel’; one of the nursemaids ‘gave the children the itch’ and another was ‘a little inclined to whoring’.

Reading between the lines of Ware’s record of his child’s nursemaid’s wage agreement, one can see the great fear parents had in the face of very high levels of child mortality in the eighteenth century. The nurse, upon whom the infant’s entire well-being depended, was to get a bonus on the appearance of a child’s first tooth, no doubt to encourage her to make sure the child made it that far. Perhaps this is the origin of the ‘tooth-fairy’ stories.

Jane Maxwell

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