I cannot believe that I lived in Glasgow for several years without ever visiting The Tenement House.
We decided to make the short (about 50 minutes) train ride over to Glasgow from Edinburgh to tour the house as part of my 30th birthday celebrations (slightly hungover from cocktails the night before!).
Described on The National Trust website as a ‘time capsule of life in early 20th century Glasgow’, this museum exceeding my expectations and made me (an 18th century lover) very, very jealous at how many wonderful, original items you could see there – including a jar of plum jam made in 1929! The house, located in the very cool Garnetthill area of Glasgow (also home to the Glasgow School of Art, numerous excellent coffeeshops, bars and pretty, residential streets). It was once owned by Miss Agnes Toward, who worked as a typist. She lived there from 1911 until 1965, and the house is full of the belongings of her and her mother. Agnes was a bit of a ‘hoarder’ and kept everything, which is to our benefit, since the house really feels like not only a snapshot of a time but also a quirky, personal archive. That makes the site very special. It’s one person’s home, filled with things they loved.
There are four rooms, so it’s very compact: a parlor, bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. And if you have lived in tenement flats in Scotland before (as I have!) you will recognize the layout. By the way, for international readers, ‘tenement’, at least in Scotland, refers to these old, kind of Victorian buildings with high ceilings and individual flats inside. I used to live in one such building in the West End of Glasgow and when I had a friend from America come and visit she was confused when I called it a ‘tenement’, perhaps thinking of the overcrowded tenements of early New York, for instance, aka a kind of ‘slum’. And while overcrowded tenements were a problem here too, especially in Glasgow, the word doesn’t have that same negative connotation here. Actually nowadays ‘tenement houses’ are often sought after and expensive because they have big rooms, period features etc. If you look up ‘tenement’ on Wikipedia, some of the first images are of the very fancy and well-kept tenements in upmarket areas of Glasgow and Edinburgh, built in the late 19th and early 20th century.
This ‘tenement’ flat, as I mentioned, was home to Agnes and her mom. They were middle-class women, living and working Glasgow. Agnes was a typist and her widowed mom worked as a seamstress before she died. Let’s take a look inside their house!
The first room we visited was their parlor, filled with all sorts of charming personal things like their piano, their china tea cups etc. This is where Agnes’ mom would have received ladies she was making dresses for too, for their fittings etc.
We also saw the recess bed in the parlor – tucked away in an odd little corner. Beds in the living room was actually a common thing in tenement homes like this until they were apparently banned since you could lock people in there?
My old living room in Glasgow had a strange shape, with a little square nook at one end, and I realize now that this was for the BED! Funny how buildings carry these sorts of stories, often without us knowing.
Next we saw the bedroom and I actually think the coolest thing in there was a letter that Agnes’ father had sent her mother when they were courting, in which he was freaking out that he’d called her by her first name (shocking!) and offered her. I was such a delightful thing to read and quite funny! You can really feel the young man panicking that he has offended this girl that he’s obvious really into and who did, eventually, become his wife (so I guess the slip in etiquette didn’t bother her too much…).
Next was the bathroom and in there it was really cool to see all of Agnes’ little soaps and toiletries, especially the early version of sanitary napkins (aka pads) for your period. Kudos to The Tenement House for having this and for having a wee plaque about how menstruation (although it affects roughly half the world) goes largely unmentioned in historical homes (and let’s face it, everywhere!). I could do a whole Madeira Mondays post on this if people are interested in how the heck women in the 18th and 19th centuries managed their periods…
Next was the kitchen, which might have been my favorite room! Here we had another fireplace, as well as a sink and loads of dishes and cookery stuff.
I wish I’d taken more photos in this room – in all the rooms, really! – but I did manage to snap a picture of the cabinet beneath the sink and it was very cool to see the old school cleaning products. I liked especially the ‘Mothicide’ (we have had some difficulties with moths in our current tenement flat – I know several friends who have also struggled with this common indoor pest!) and the fact that it was from Boots, which, as all my UK readers will know, is still a big chain of pharmacies here, with the same logo.
Also – I don’t know what ‘Brooke’s Monkey Brand’ is but I should have asked. Does anyone know?
So that was it – our visit to The Tenement House! If you are there, be sure to also check out the fabulous display of letters from Agnes’ collection on the top floor, next to the flat itself. Sadly, we didn’t have time to see what was on the bottom floor near the entrance, but I assume it was more things from their collection and background information on the family. Also I should mention that the guides in the flat itself were all great, super knowledgable and passionate about the collection.
The Tenement House is run by The National Trust for Scotland, aka the charity that I volunteer for here in Edinburgh at The Georgian House. It’s currently open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, with more information on how to book your visit here. And if you happen to be in Glasgow during Cop26 (the huge, global environmental summit happening in the city right now) then I know it will be open during this period (and I heard a lot of other museums will be closed).
And if you’re looking for a nice place to have a drink or a bit to eat afterwards, try the CCA: Centre for Contemporary Arts. It’s right around the corner (about a 5 minute walk) and often has fun exhibitions and screening as well as two nice bars.
If you enjoyed this post about The Tenement House, check out some of my posts on The Georgian House here in Edinburgh, including this one about Christmas traditions or this one about what you’d find in an upper class 18th century bedroom.
‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every first Monday of the month and thanks for reading!