The Campaign for Domestic Happiness – Isabella Beeton (1861) – Part One

book309You know me – I love reading about social and domestic history of times past, and so when I rediscovered this book on the TBR piles, it took my fancy. Plus, I had just been reminded of the (slightly younger) version of the U.S. domestic handbook by Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe (pub. 1869) and so this book won the lottery of What-To-Read-Next.

beetonThis title is actually a collection of different pieces taken from Beeton’s well-known Book of Household Management, a valuable guide for the domestic householders of Victorian times and an intriguing social history document as seen through today’s eyes. It’s part of the Penguin Great Food Series which looks interesting in and of itself.

This post will be in a notes format as that seems to be the most sensible way to approach this:


  • Morning calls (which actually happen after lunch) should be short (15-20 mins) and are required after a dinner party, ball, or picnic. The visiting lady may remove her boa and her neckerchief, but not her shawl or bonnet. (The latter being removed implies that the visitor is planning to stay much longer than the allotted time – what horrors!)
  • About gargling at the dinner table: “The French and other continentals have a habit of gargling the mouth; [sic], but it is a custom which no English gentlewoman should in the slightest degree, imitate.”


  • Re: “French beef”: “It is all but universally admitted that the beef of France is greatly inferior in quality to that of England, owing to inferiority of the pastures…”
  • It’s recommended to serve boiled Brussels Sprouts in the shape of a pineapple: “A very pretty appearance…”
  • Cucumbers should be “excluded from the regimen of the delicate” as it’s “neither nutrition or digestible…”
  • Other options suggested for dinner parties: fried ox-feet/cow-heel, veal cake (“so convenient for picnics”) and lark pie (especially with lark tongues). Potted partridge is also another option.


  • Ices/Sorbets: “The aged, delicate and children should abstain from ices or iced beverages…stilton as they are apt to provoke indisposition” in the digestive process.
  • Milk: “This bland and soothing article of diet is excellent for the majority of thin, nervous people.”
  • Cheese: “A celebrated gourmand remarked that a dinner without cheese is like a woman with one eye.” Also, Stilton (which my dad used to love) was also called British Parmesan, but Beeton warns that “decomposing cheese” is “not wholesome eating, and the line must be drawn somewhere…” (My dad would wait until his Stilton was almost walking away and then he would eat it. Chuckle.)

As this post was getting somewhat unwieldy, I’ll end here and post Part Two at another time.

P.S. WordPress has changed. Wah. (Although I have no right to complain as it’s free.) :-}


The American Woman’s Home – Catherine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe (1869)

Book cover

Subtitle: Being a Guide to the Formation and Maintenance of Economical, Healthful, Beautiful and Christian Homes and dedicated to the women of America in who [sic] hands rest the real destinies of the Republic.*

The wise woman seeks a home…, she will aim to secure a house so planned that it will provide in the best manner for health, industry, and economy, those cardinal requisites   of domestic enjoyment and success.

Meet the original Martha Stewarts…

This was a mid-Victorian American best seller of domestic advice and was a successful collaboration between two sisters, Catherine** E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe (younger sister of the two). Their mother died when Catherine was 16 and Harriet was five, and Catherine took over the running of the house then. She became a teacher during her 20’s and was engaged to be married but her fiancé died at sea before that could happen. Instead, she started a school for girls which included a more rigorous “male” education than usual. Catherine was instrumental in promoting schools out west in the US pioneer territories.

Catharine Beecher
Catharine Beecher

Interestingly, Catherine did not believe that women should have the vote, but then so did a lot of other people at that point in time. (The National Woman Suffrage Association was founded in 1869, and Wyoming was the very first state to give women the vote (trying to lure women there to provide a source of wives for all the speculators), so it was an ongoing political battle at that point. Just FYI.) Younger sister Harriet was a mover and a shaker in the abolitionist world (especially for the writing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin), and the  U. S. Civil War had only just finished a few years ago before this was published, and would be fresh in the cultural memory. Also, the Emancipation Proclamation and 13th Amendment were recent historical events as well.

Harrier Beecher Stowe
Harrier Beecher Stowe

Harriet was the seventh of 13 children (including six brothers who all became ministers), and was lucky enough to be educated in the school that her older sister founded (see above).  She married a preacher/theologist and moved to northern Florida where she started one of the first integrated schools in the country. Both Harriet and her hubby were involved in the Underground Railroad at times.

This particular book is very detailed on many levels with the aim of elevating “housekeeping” to a domestic science, and admittedly, there is a lot of science talked about here – serious science as well on a variety of topics ranging from heat conduction/convection, how we breathe, how furnaces and stoves work, how cells form in the human body, the different chemical elements in the human body (wrt nutrition etc.). It’s really interesting to see how the sisters matched domesticity with hard scientific fact here, and it’s clear how hard they had both worked to make this a serious reference book for women in the domestic sphere (and out) – perhaps trying to elevate the humble art of making a home?

Loaded with such intricate details to help inexperienced wives or housekeepers with few servants (if any), this is a pretty comprehensive handbook. Details are included to help readers make their own furniture or house down to the type of nails and what should match with what…  how wide the shelves should be in the kitchen… The kitchen sink was designed to be very shallow compared with today’s sinks (three inches deep was recommended with three feet wide)… Plumbing was important (as it still is today) and “must be well done or much annoyance will ensue”…

Victorian plumbing

The physical health of the family, especially for a family far removed from urban resources, was vital, and this volume does not shy from the technicalities of the human body functions. It goes into some depth about human breathing and heart and the importance of fresh air (especially in crowded houses in winter). The authors state that “they are informed by medical writers that defective ventilation is one great cause of diseased joints, as well as of diseases of the eyes, ears, and skin…”

It’s important for women to know how to care for the health of her family:  To a woman of age and experience, these duties often involve a measure of trial and difficulty at times deemed almost insupportable; how hard, then, must they press on the heart of the young and inexperienced!

Watch out for too much learning as “the thinking portion of the brain may be so overworked as to drain the nervous fluid for other portions which become debilitated by the loss… the overworked portion may be diseased or paralyzed by the excess…”  Victorians would also believe that education negatively affected a woman’s uterus and fertility so watch out for that…

This also holds for staying busy by being active: “the heavenly pleasure secured by virtuous industry and benevolence, while it satisfies at the time, awakens fresh desires for the continuance of so ennobling a good”… Getting up early is a very important trait (as rarely seen in the aristocracy in England, it seems) and it’s important the young America avoids this “aristocratic folly”… (It’s also, for reasons unknown, portrayed as more patriotic to get up early in this land of ours.)

Having a beautiful home “contributes much to the education of the entire household in refinement, intellectual development, and moral sensibility”… It even offers lists of art to buy and maintains that having a beautiful house is also important for the ongoing education of the children of the establishment:  The educating influence of these works of art can hardly be over-estimated. Surrounded by such suggestions of the beautiful, and such reminders of history and art, children are constantly trained to correctness of tote and refinement of thought, and stimulated…

 Sly-witted opinions are put in subtly every now and then:  (with reference to the practice of growing ferns in the house to add color) – “we have been into rooms which…have been made to have an air so poetical and attractive that they seemed more like a nymph’s cave than any thing in the real world…” (Watch out for greenhouse ferns as they are expensive and “often great cheats … and die on your hands in the most reckless and shameless manner…”)

As for the quality of food, as the authors state, “the American table, taken as a whole, is inferior to that of England or France”… chortle. Yorkshire pudding for all!

(French people and their cooking (their niceties and French whim-whams!) are described (for unknown reasons) as “seemingly thoughtless people” – what brought that comment about? Rather different perspective than Julia Childs, methinks… But no recipes were included which was curious. Perhaps the authors didn’t want to venture into that “women’s” territory with this project.

And I liked this bit:  “Yet in England,… their perfect cooking is as absolute a certainty as the rising of the sun…” Hmm. Not been in my kitchen then..? 🙂

American cookery books get a bit bashed here: “Half of the recipes in our cook-books are mere murder to such constitutions and stomachs as we grow here…” so it’s perfectly OK to swipe tips from other countries (notably France and UK, it seems).  Curiously enough, the authors are very conscious of being American and try extra hard to show that America (young as the country was) still had its own merits.  They are quite concerned about being “as good as” other countries (notably in Europe).

Back to the kitchen…. Beware of using pepper, mustard and spices – they “quicken the labors of the internal organs” … “a person who thus keeps the body working under an unnatural excitement [using such spices], *lives faster* than Nature designed, and the constitution is worn out just so much the sooner…” At the same time, beware of cold foods (such as ice cream) as the stomach needs to have a certain degree of warmth or it “ceases to act….” And if you’re going to eat whale oil, add sawdust to give it heft.

Despite its age, the book offers some very valid advice though, still applicable today:  The fewer man-made mixtures there are in cooking, the more healthful is the food likely to be… the idea of growing local (of course since transport was difficult), and eating for appetite and due to exercise etc. as opposed to just sitting down at the table and gobbling everything there is.  Lots of fruit and veggies etc.  but watch out for the evil potato as it belongs to a “family suspected of very dangerous traits…” (i.e. deadly nightshade et al.)

As for serving cold bread, the authors report: “the unknown horrors of dyspepsia from bad bread are a topic over which we willingly draw a veil…

Victorian tea pot
Source: Henry Willis Antiques

Healthy drinking choices were also covered, including the hazards of using stimulants (alcohol, opium mixtures, tobacco, tea and coffee). This habit often goes to “such an extreme that the passion is perfectly uncontrollable, and mind and body perish under this baleful habit…” (Goodness me – I don’t remember having this reaction from a cup of PG Tips…)

Drinking hot tea can (will?) also lead to loss of teeth (as a study from Mexico demonstrated – drinking tea at almost boiling point was the chief cause of the “almost entire want of teeth in that country..and it cannot be much doubted that much evil  is done in this way by hot drinks”…

However, a later chapter reports really positively on drinking tea with the following: “The first article of … faith is, that the water must not merely be hot, not merely have boiled a few moments since, but be actually boiling at the moment it touches the tea. Hence, though servants in England are vastly better trained than with us, this delicate mystery is seldom left to their hands. Tea-making belongs to the drawing-room, and high-born ladies preside at “the bubbling and loud hissing urn,” and see that all due rites and solemnities are properly performed—that the cups are hot, and that the infused tea waits the exact time before the libations commence.”

Fashion  – according to the authors, wearing tight corsets may lead to dreadful ulcers and cancers… In fact, the authors conclude that “the horrible torments inflicted by savage Indians or cruel inquisitors on their victims or the protracted agonies that result from [using confining corsets etc.] sometime the former would be a merciful exchange… and tender parents are unconsciously leading their lovely and hapless daughters to this awful doom…

I do think that quite a lot of people would benefit from reading chapter Fifteen (about manners). What’s interesting is that both the Beechers argue that people in America are too repressive in their expression of feelings, and they need to loosen up a bit, but I think that that’s been overcome by people now. 🙂

The Beechers also make rather a radical point for the time: that husbands need to honor the wishes and happiness of wives as of equal value of his own – I’m not sure how popular that sentiment would have been with the Average Guy back then.

Related to being polite to people is also a whole chapter on keeping your temper when you’re a housekeeper – “There is nothing which has a more abiding influence on the happiness of a family than the preservation of equable and cheerful temper and tones in the housekeeper.” So you remember that as you’re cooking dinner for ten on an unpredictable stove in a far outpost on the Pioneer Trail in a dust storm….

And on the handbook goes – principles and advice about almost everything from giving to charity, saving time,  taking care of infants and the “aged”, what to do if someone gets struck by lightning, lighting a fire, propagating plants, how to build and maintain an “earth closet and its excrementitious matter”… (That’s not a typo there…)

I think this book must have been HUGE to hold and read (or published in multi-volumes) as it has so much info in it. This was a fascinating journey into the housekeeping world of the nineteenth century of Victorian America, and if you are remotely curious about how earlier generations of women maintained their houses, this is for you. Great to dip in and out of….

* “dedicated to the women of America in who [sic] hands rest the real destinies of the Republic” – this reference is very striking as it seriously undermines the current thinking of that time (i.e. that women could not be smart/powerful/involved in politics). By phrasing this “in whose hands rest…”, the Beechers smartly make a point without sounding too “aggressive” for the people who were threatened by increased female involvement in society. Nice tricky touch by the sisters there.

** It’s not clear to me whether the name “Catherine” is spelled “CathErine” or “CathArine” as it’s spelled in various ways throughout the net in different sources. The original book cover photo that I found says “CathErine” but other places say to use an A – any confirmations either way out there?

Edited to add: The author Charlotte Perkins Gilman (who wrote the iconic short story, The Yellow Wallpaper, in 1890) was a grandniece of Catharine and Harriet Beecher, and earlier in her writing career, Perkins Gilman wrote a domestic sci book which became very popular (published in 1898).  Book title was “Women and Economics: A Study in the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution”, and is thought to have established her as “the leading intellectual in the women’s movement”…. Not too shabby.

Another edited to add: Beecher Stowe went to FL to work on Reconstruction efforts down there. Some sources report that she only summered down there whilst others say otherwise. She eventually set up a school and church for freed people in Mandarin, a small settlement south of Jacksonville. Additionally, she went down south to help rehabilitate her son Fred. He had been a Union soldier, and had been both physically and emotionally wounded. Hoping he would improve, Beecher Stowe made him the overseer of a cotton plantation and then later on, an orange grove.

(That’s interesting that the son was the overseer of a plantation when Beecher Stowe was instrumental in working with freed slaves. Did Fred have slaves on his plantation to do the work? If so, what kind of overseer was he? Enquiring minds need to know.

Readin’, Readin’, Readin’….

It’s been slightly tough for me to find a book that I absolutely adore lately – one that I hate to put down for a break (and to do life things). There was a great read in David Grann’s The Devil and Sherlock Holmes (post to come), but then I was faffing about trying to read some Halloween-ish writing. I had enjoyed the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe earlier in the summer, so picked up a huge collection of his work and read some of those. However, I didn’t seem to find any that were half as a good as the short stories I had read earlier and I wasn’t ready to plough through his verbose writing. So – took that book back to the library.

Now, I am trying my first real ghost story – “The Woman in Black” by Susan Hill. I have not read her fiction before, but have really enjoyed her non-fiction writing so I have hopes. I am just not very sure how much courage I have with the scary stuff though. It can’t be too over-the-top though as this book has been made into a play in London, so perhaps it’s more spine-tingling than anything.

Been messing about choosing a classic to read, but I think I am going to start another Elizabeth Gaskell (except this one is not as well-known as Cranford): Mary Barton. I do enjoy Gaskell’s writing so fingers crossed for a good read in this title.

Finished up an earlier Anne Tyler (“Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant”) which was a good read but I have absolutely nothing to comment about it. It’s a solid read, but a bit forgettable (to me). Sorry – I know that Tyler has legions of fans out there, and she is a good writer. It’s just this one didn’t really provoke any serious thoughts of any kind.

And then – trumpet volley indicated here – it’s getting closer to the Friends of the Library booksale event (at the end of October), and I have been clearing some old titles off the shelves to make some room for whatever I happen to come across there. (You know – in case I find a book I want…)

TV-wise, we are now thoroughly addicted to the ITV-TV production of “Doc Martin” about a cantankerous physician who moves from London to a small village in Cornwall due to his fear of blood. (He was a surgeon before.) Just a solidly good drama with interesting and believable characters set in a very picturesque Cornish village where there is never a cold rainy winter day. It does rain, a bit, but  only on warm days as the producers are very serious about portraying this village as an Edenic bliss so it’s rather nice to watch and pretend that it doesn’t really get very cold, damp and rainy in England during the winter. 🙂

Oh, and cooked up a batch of red velvet cup cakes (courtesy of Duncan Hines), and I do admit: they taste great but oh my god – a face only a mother could love. Why did they not come out like the pictures on the box when I did *exactly* (sort of) what was asked of me as cook?

Notice how in the box pic, the icing is all thick and fluffy. (Not in real life.) Notice how in the box pic, there are no big gaping holes in the tops of the cakes (where I was instructed to jam the icing bag in). Not in real life.  Notice how the cakes are quite white on the top with the icing in the box. (Not in real life especially after one day and they get red and all streaky somewhat appropriate for Halloween, one thinks).

Possible reasons (and this is just me thinking aloud here)… :

  • I *might* have forgotten to adjust the temp on the oven since we found out it was 25 degrees off by using an oven thermometer the other day…
  • I *may* have overstirred the icing just a tad (a little too enthusiastic but it looked very pretty in the bowl so I just kept stirring…)
  • I may have been just a* bit* impatient and not waited for the cup cakes to cool down enough from the over and thus melt their icing coats…

Conclusion:  Just another excuse to cook up another batch, methinks.

I am going to weigh 500 lbs by the time I get this baking thing sorted out. I suffer for my soup. 🙂

A Snowy Dough-y Day…

Here in West Texas, the weather can be somewhat unpredictable and extreme at times – extremely hot, extremely cold, and sometimes in the middle. Yesterday meant a huge snow storm (for around here). We knew the storm had been coming – lots of it on the news – but still, I was surprised at how persistent the snow was. It snowed on and off (but mostly on) for all of the daylight hours of Sunday. As I do not have that much snow experience, I found it to be hypnotic when I gazed out of the window at the flakes falling from the leaden sky. There were a lot of really huge snowflakes floating around, and it was easy to fall into a reverie after a while if you weren’t careful. Perhaps you get used to this if you are exposed to snow a lot where you live – to me, it was fascinating.

This is what the front looked like when we got up in the morning:

This is what it looked like around tea time:

(I recognize that this small amount of snowfall is paltry compared to some places. It’s just exciting when it happens in a place where it doesn’t come much. This snow fall (and the accompanying ice) led to Monday’s school cancellations, the university closing for half the day, and numerous other delays. Lubbock tends to err on the side of caution about snow.)

So, whilst all this snow was falling from the sky, I read my book (shocker!), made bread (much more of a shocker), and made loads of beef stew. It was a good day to be in the kitchen. (If ever there is a good day to be in the kitchen, it’s a rare snowy winter day here in Texas.)

So, the bread:

After having been seduced by the gorgeous and enthusiastic writing of Jane Brocket’s “The Gentle Art of Domesticity”, I wanted to make bread to see if it was really that hard and complicated.  I found a whole wheat bread recipe on (great site, btw), and just followed all the instructions. I had read that it’s important to follow the directions to the “t” with baking, so didn’t do my usual “caution to the winds” style of cooking that I usually do (being approximate with measuring ingredients etc.). The only thing puzzling – all the bread recipes I found kept mentioning “bread flour”, but when I went to the grocery, there was no bread flour anywhere that I could see. “Bread flour”? Is this a special kind of flour? (I presume that it is.) Anyhoo, I just used normal whole wheat flour, and it seemed to work out ok…

The finished product (above). (Shiny because the recipe made a big point about brushing the crusts with melted butter right when the loaves came out of the oven to prevent a hard crust.) I thought the loaves would be taller (i.e. rise more), but perhaps that is what the elusive bread flour does.

The loaves tasted really good (especially warm from the oven and slathered with strawberry jam), and the kitchen smelled fantastic. I think someone should bottle that smell as an air freshener. Yum. So, this was my first experiment with the bread world (without using a bread machine which we had, never used and sold), and I quite enjoyed it. I don’t think making bread will become a regular habit, but this was the perfect day for it and I actually had all the ingredients and the time to do it. Good times.

(I also made two hundred gallons of beef stew which is perfect for snowy days and freezes well for future cold days.)

MONDAY UPDATE: This being Lubbock, Texas, most of the snow is now melting, it’s going to be a high of about 70 degrees, and the sky is bright blue. Odd weather. It was about five degrees yesterday (as the high when 32 is freezing).

Avi Puppy loved the snow as well. Muttley the Ancient One, not so much. Both cats, of course, bolted into the house as soon as the door was opened. They know a warm place when they see it.