My Year with Mrs. Beeton – Part 1

The beginning of a new year often brings with it resolutions aimed at getting our lives into some sort of order. For many this means getting more organized, decluttering our spaces, eating healthier, or making a pledge to change our way of living. The first months of any new year are full of media plugging new and interesting ways to start the new year off “right”.

This phenomenon is not new to the 21st century! Early manuals of household management and personal improvement have been around for more than 200 years. This blog post series will explore one of the most well-known and best-selling self-help manuals in history: Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Over the course of the next year, this blog series will be exploring the world of late-Victorian and Edwardian household management.

I am lucky enough to own a copy of this massive tome dating to 1912. It takes pride of place in my personal library as it was one of the most thoughtful gifts I had ever been given. I have had a great interest in early cookbooks for many years and have always held Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management as one of the most detailed and in-depth writings of this genre.

My copy of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management – a weighty volume of 2040 pages. the binding is leather with a carboard cover. This “New Edition” was published in 1912.

Let’s start with a little history of this publication and Mrs. Beeton herself.

Isabella Mary Mayson was born in 1836 in London, England. Her father died when she was only 4 years old. Three years later, Isabella’s mother re-married and moved the family to Surrey, England. Isabella was the eldest daughter in the family and as the family grew to 16 children, Isabella spent most of her time caring for her siblings. She had some schooling abroad in Germany and was fluent in French and German, was a proficient piano player, and learned pastry making. In 1856 married Samuel Orchard Beeton, a writer, editor, and journalist. Samuel Beeton was a magazine and newspaper publisher. Isabella began writing for The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine in 1857 and took on some of the more gendered content – cookery, and fiction for women.

In 1859, the magazine began publishing a monthly series of 29, 48-page supplements written by Isabella Beeton all about the topic of household management. The series was eventually published as the book: Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management. It was released in 1861 and was originally 1,112 pages long. In its first year, it sold 60,000 copies – a pretty impressive achievement! Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management has remained in print since its original publication 160 years ago. In fact, you can buy a modern printing of this book through many book sellers. You can also read the book in digital format on Gutenberg.org at this link.

The inside cover page of the book – published by Ward, Lock & Co., Limited or London, Melbourne and Toronto, in 1912.

One of the appealing things about Mrs. Beeton’s book was the in-depth coverage of all things domestic – this includes such topics as: how to manage your servants and household accounts, what kitchen equipment you need for a properly managed kitchen, recipes of all sorts, managing the sick room, butchering, and much more!! The book also included a number of colour plates to help illustrate each chapter and in each new edition, the editors ensured that all the pricing that was cited was current to the time period of publication. The book was specifically aimed at housewives who were responsible for the “government” of the household with the aim of aiding wives who were required to compete with all those things that aimed to draw husbands outdoors, i.e., out of the home.

An example of the colour plates included in the book – this one illustrates the plating and serving of fish dishes – p.353

Mrs. Beeton was the queen of self-help writers! She was committed to not missing a single area of expertise in helping housewives keep their homes organized. (the 1912 edition ballooned to a massive 2040 pages!) Similar to most organizational experts today, Mrs. Beeton’s mantra which she articulates in the introduction to the book is:

“Cleanliness, punctuality, and method are essentials in the character of a good housekeeper. Without these qualities, no household can be well managed. Order again is indispensable; by it we provide that “there should be a place for everything, and everything in its place.”

Sadly, Isabella Beeton didn’t live long enough to witness the enduring success of her work as she died at the young age of 28 of puerperal fever.

Over the course of the next 11 months, I will take you on an adventure as we explore a different chapter in Mrs. Beeton’s book. We will experiment with some of her recipes and compare some of her knowledge to what we know today about household management and organization.

I hope you will join me on this journey into this Victorian-Edwardian self-help manual which may provide us with a few tips to help with our own new year’s resolution to put some order into our lives!

Kathleen Powell is the Supervisor of Historical Services and Curator at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.

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