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Damp was a prevalent affliction in 18th-century homes, affecting the health of the tenants and possibly even resulting in death. Living amongst and inhaling toxic mould spores and allergens would more than likely have caused allergic reactions and irritated any breathing or skin problems, which could have been life-threatening when combined with the effects of pollution.

Damp could be mostly found in city homes that were built close together out of thin, cheap materials. It was often caused by a combination of poor ventilation, overcrowding and the poor quality of the building materials. Opening and closing the windows to stabilise the temperature of the house was often the cause of condensation and, subsequently, mould. Cheap houses also might have been built directly into the soil without any foundation, meaning that moisture from the earth would be drawn up and into the brickwork, causing rising damp. Back then, damp was almost impossible to get rid of and people weren’t certain how they could get rid of it.

There are a few different ways that homeowners of the 18th century tried to deal with damp. Out in the countryside, a lot of buildings were made out of chalk. Traditional building materials like chalk and stone are more absorbent than most modern day building materials. Houses built from these particular building materials managed to absorb most of the moisture in the air of the house, preventing it from condensing on cold surfaces and forming damp. If the house had a fireplace, lighting a fire was another very effective way of preventing damp, although it’s uncertain whether or not people would have been aware of this at the time. Fire was one of the only sources of heat in the house, so often it would be lit and left burning for as long as the family needed it. A fire would draw air into the house through the windows and doors as well as draw out any water the building materials might have absorbed. This was one of the best methods to prevent damp in houses with wooden structures and floorings, which otherwise would have rotted very quickly.

Houses were built very differently back then. The materials used in the houses of the 18th century and earlier were chosen with the purpose of letting the house ‘breathe’. They were designed to allow air to flow freely through them. This way, water vapour could travel in and out of the house without settling and stimulating mould growth. In comparison, modern houses are designed to be protective and to prevent drafts. Thanks to central heating and air conditioning, we no longer need fires and open windows to maintain a comfortable temperature in the home. Instead, the house should be reasonably airtight to ensure that our temperature control systems are working efficiently.

There came a time when houses built from those traditional materials were starting to be repaired and made damp proof with modern building materials which was often caused more problems than it solved. The problems caused by the clashing properties of these materials became a key cause of mould, including water vapour entering the home but being unable to escape. Nowadays, modern damp proofing methods have adapted and are more conscious of the house’s building materials. The old, breathable materials are either replaced entirely or a method for preventing damp is organised which focuses on the house’s ventilation and the way the homeowners take care of their property.