My Favorite 19th Century Housekeeping Guides

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Anna Madeley in The Secret Life of Mrs Beeton

Anna Madeley in The Secret Life of Mrs Beeton

When I was a teenager first exploring the world of book clubs, one of the things I came across were facsimile reprints from the 19th century. Since I also love to cook, I found the title “Housekeeping in Old Virginia” intriguing.  This classic by the granddaughter of Patrick Henry became my portal not only into another time, but my introduction to the fascinating world of 19th century domestic management.

Since I am working on my Victorian paranormal Queen Victoria’s Transmogrifier,  I continue to have reason to dip into my favorite books in the 19th century social history genre. Along with etiquette books of the era, architectural guides, and secondary sources that analyze the mores of the period, the housekeeping books give me great insight into the attitudes and hands-on activities in 19th century households.

I just discovered that both of my favorite books are available in full text,  downloadable as pdfs, at Google Books. Frabjous Day! So for others who might be interested in this subject, and since this information is literally at your fingertips, I wanted to share a little about the two bibles of domestic management I find so useful:  the aforementioned Housekeeping in Old Virginia, and the better-known classic, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management.

Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management

Beeton Title PageIn London in the mid-1800s, Samuel Beeton published a series of guidebooks. At the age of 21, his wife Isabella compiled a collection of recipes and domestic management instruction initially released as one of the Beeton’s guidebook series. In 1861 it was published as a standalone book retitled with “Mrs Beeton” in the book’s name. The resulting tome – nearly 1200 pages, over 900 of which were recipes – was an instant hit.

This book had the advantage of serendipitous timing: it hit the market at the moment when Britain’s middle class was burgeoning and intent on creating respectable upscale households.  Mrs. Beeton instructed housewives how to create a household that was a gracious haven, superior for its well-implemented domestic features.  Her philosophy is clearly stated in the introductory comments:

“As with the Commander of an Army, or the leader of any enterprise, so is it with the mistress of a house. Her spirit will be seen through the whole establishment; and just in proportion as she performs her duties intelligently and thoroughly, so will her domestics follow in her path.” (pg 1)

Mrs. Beeton’s opus featured color plates illustrating many of the recipes (very unusual for cookery books in 1861), and pioneered the recipe formatting we take as standard today, with a proportional list of ingredients at the start, followed by preparation details, cooking time and serving suggestions. This orderly approach revolutionized how cookery was presented in books of the period.

Color plate of desserts in Beeton

Color plate of desserts in Beeton

The one-third of the book dedicated to household matters other than cooking is a treasure trove of detailed instructions, from how a maid-of-all-work needs to polish the grating on the stove, to the proper manner of serving at table for footmen, recipes for furniture polish, the requirements of a tackroom, and all manner of associated details.

I think the most intriguing thing about this book is the applied use that it received. Once this collection of information was available, vast numbers of women bought it and did in fact use this as a reference and instructional manual for how they should be running their households. Not all met this ideal but many came close, while many others would pick and choose among the methods that suited their needs. The result is that what Mrs Beeton describes is indeed what transpired in a good many households in mid-Victorian Britain.

An added bonus is that even today anyone interested in homemade remedies, cleaning products, and historic cookery can work directly out of this book to replicate the items and foods described in its pages. The work is so much the essence of its era that it was used as one of the reference sources in the PBS Frontier House series, providing frontier wives with recipes and other household management tips for the House project.

As a sad footnote, the intrepid Mrs. Beeton died at the early age of 28, of syphilis, which she contracted from her husband. Even in her passing she was emblematic of the experience of her age, when prostitution was rampant and married men routinely transmitted disease to their wives. The story of this fascinating woman is told in a wonderful biopic, the Masterpiece Theatre production “The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton” (2007); there is a great review of the movie here. You can find her delightful book at Google Books at this link.

Housekeeping in Old Virginia

Housekeeping in Old Virginia (1879)Marion Cabell Tyree was the last surviving granddaughter of Patrick Henry, daughter of Spotswood Henry. She was well-known in Virginia in the Lynchburg area, with a broad circle of friends and acquaintances including many famous upper-crust persons, and had a reputation as a bright, energetic, outgoing lady. During the Civil War she created one of the sanitariums in the area and cared for wounded soldiers and the sick in her establishment.

In the late 1870s, Marion decided to compile a cookbook, and solicited her network of friends and associates for their favorite recipes. The result was Housekeeping in Old Virginia, published in 1879. Like other “housekeeping” books of the era, it includes several sections on more general household how-to, ranging from how to run a sick room (which she was well qualified to write about), to advice on a thorough spring cleaning and recipes for restoring old clothes and removing stains.

Marion has an interesting observation on the style of domestic economy which prevailed in the Virginia of her time. As she explains, Virginia – once a royal colony – always took pride in elegant entertainments and fine dining. Then, when the Revolution occurred, belt-tightening and innovation alike hit the ladies and the households of the Old Dominion. As she writes in her preface,

“Tearing the glittering arms of King George from their sideboards, and casting them, with their costly plate and jewels, as offerings into the lap of the Continental Congress, [Virginia ladies] introduced in their homes that new style of living in which, discarding all the showy extravagance of the old, and retaining only its inexpensive graces, they succeeded in perfecting that system which, surviving to this day, has ever been noted for its beautiful and elegant simplicity…This system, which combines the thrifty frugality of New England with the less rigid style of Carolina has been pr pronounced…as the very perfection of domestic art.” (pg viii)

If you can navigate the lack of detailed measurements (“a lump of butter the size of a walnut” is typical), and are not adverse to a little kitchen experimentation, you will find your efforts cooking from this book well rewarded. Incidentally, the flour used in the 19th century was a denser grind than what we use today, so when doing flour measurements from this book, it may help to increase the flour called for by up to 1/3. (You can also find a list of helpful measurement equivalents here, if you end up wondering what a gill or a teacup’s worth of something is in today’s measurements.)

These recipes produce tasty food and a number of dishes long since forgotten by mainstream American cookery.  One of my favorites is the dish of peas and tomatoes (copied below), which was offered by a former slave. Other recipes are clever innovations that may be of special interest to modern health-conscious cooks. For the gluten-free there is the “Delicate Cake”, made with cornstarch instead of flour; for the fat-gram watchers there is “Cornstarch Cheesecake,” which contains no cheese but has the texture of a cheesecake.  Many of these recipes would find a happy place today in any all-natural, healthy-foods-oriented cookbook.

The recipes for wine work, as well: I made my first batch (or started it) following the instructions in this book, and had such success with the fermentation process that it cracked my mother’s thick wooden nut bowl that I had dragooned for my experiment.  (Thanks for your forbearance, mom!)

And if Marion Tyrell’s collection needs any further endorsement, Julia Child liked this book well enough to donate a copy to the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. In fact, that is the copy you will find scanned online at Google Books.

A Favorite Recipe

This is one of the more unusual recipes in the book, because it is written in the dialect of a semi-literate man who was a former slave.  I first tried this because just reading the recipe was so captivating. In the actual cooking, I substituted as needed for lack of handy peas growing on the vine, and salt pork in place of middlin’). It’s been a go-to dish in my cooking now for several decades.

Resipee for cukin kon-feel pees

Gether your pees ’bout sun-down. The folrin day, ’bout leven o’clock, gowge out your pees with your thum nale, like gowgin out a man’s eye-ball at a kote house. Rense your pees, parbile them, then fry ’em with som several slices uv streekt middlin, incouragin uv the gravy to seep out and intermarry with your pees.  When modritly brown, but not scorcht, empty intoo a dish.  Mash ’em gently with a spune, mix with raw tomarters sprinkled with a little brown shugar and the immortal dish are quite ready. Eat a hepe. Eat mo and mo. It is good for your genral helth uv mind and body. It fattens you up, makes you sassy, goes throo and throo your very soul. But why don’t you eat? Eat on. By Jings. Eat. Stop! Never, while thar is a pee in the dish.

– Mozis Addums (pg 254)

I’ve enjoyed reading both of these books, and have used their information in my daily life as well as my fiction writing. Some of the recipes from Old Virginia have become staples in my own kitchen; I’ve removed stains with recipes from these books, and have recreated fantastic Victorian desserts and holiday table spreads from Mrs. Beeton’s. If old fashioned lifestyle tips and recipes interest you, I hope you will enjoy these resources as much as I do.

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Thank you so much for this very helpful post and for including the info re these two valuable resources. I was trying to find out how 19th Century servants would clean a wooden floor. I was hoping for the scent of beeswax. Now I can find out!

Glad you found it useful, Beth! I like using these old-timey recipes for home cleaning/waxing/polishing, etc. They are easy to make with common ingredients and environmentally friendly, and still work just as well as back when. 🙂

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