My Year with Mrs. Beeton – Part 3

This plate from page 32 of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management shows the Housekeeper in her domain!

Month three of my adventures with Mrs. Beeton and we are finally venturing into the kitchen. Before we are allowed to even consider trying to cook anything, however, we need to know all there is to know about being a housekeeper, what are the general duties of the Cook, and how to set up and arrange our kitchen. So this month’s adventure will get us up to speed on all we need to know before we start trying to cook anything!

Mrs. Beeton has set aside 95 pages to all the things we need to get in order before we can truly prepare a meal! If nothing else, it’s safe to say that Mrs. Beeton is always thorough!

As we have already learned from the first two sections of the Book of Household Management, Isabella Beeton believed that a well-run household needed to be well-organized and operated with almost military precision and planning. In order to reduce the stress a middle-class Victorian / Edwardian wife and mother would be subjected to in keeping her house, she needed all the advice and preparation she could get! In the Book of Household Management, there are copious amounts of advice on all manner of subjects to do just that!

To follow up on the last month’s exploration of Victorian/Edwardian servants, Mrs. Beeton continues her next two chapters on the Housekeeper and the Cook – the two most important servants in a household’s employ. Of course, most middle class households in Canada would not have employed two servants to fulfill the duties of these roles. In reality, it was more likely only the upper classes who could afford to hire more specialized domestics. Similar to the themes that Mrs. Beeton espoused in her introductory chapters, again she notes that “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.” (p.32) One of the most important people in the household then, was the housekeeper! She should be a good manager of people, resources and money and would have been considered the “right hand” to the mistress of the house. To that end, there was an expectation that the housekeeper knew how to do everyone else’s job in the household. Otherwise, how would it be possible to supervise them!

Next in importance is the Cook. According to Mrs. Beeton, “A good cook has every reason to magnify the office she holds, for her work influences not only the comfort but also she will take care to study both the needs and tastes of those whose food she prepares. … Try and realize for yourself the importance of your post. Whether your employers are working hard in professions or business, or leading a comparatively leisured existence, whether they have poor appetites or large ones, good cooking of their food is absolutely necessary to their health.” (p.40) Mrs. Beeton’s powers of advice to the Cook extend from making sure the Cook is well dressed for her job, to making sure the sink doesn’t get clogged with grease and everything in between! By the way, her advice to unclog drains is: “At least three times a week, pour a pailful of boiling soda water down every trap, for this prevents accumulation of fat, which more often than anything else stops up sink pipes.” (p.42) For the record, this blog does not advocate you try any of these untested home remedies as we cannot guarantee the outcome you will get.

Mrs. Beeton, and writers of a similar nature in the 19th century were strong advocates of a more scientific approach to household management. Housekeeping is replaced with home economics or domestic science. Organization and categorization become more prevalent and the design of kitchens and household spaces is developed with the health and welfare of the family and their domestics in mind. There is a growing recognition that lighter and airier spaces help to keep the household healthier and by extension happier.

According to Mrs. Beeton with regards to the kitchen: “It must be remembered that it is the great laboratory of every household, and that much of the family “weal or woe,” as far as regards bodily health, depends upon the nature of the food prepared within its walls. In the construction and disposition of a kitchen, therefore, the following conditions should be secured.

1 – Convenience of distribution in its parts, with largeness of dimension.
2 – Excellence of light, height and ventilation.
3 – Easy of access, without passing through the house.
4 – Walls and location so arranged that odours of cookery cannot spread about the house.
5 – Plenty of fuel and water, which, with the scullery, pantry and storeroom, should be so near the kitchen as to offer the smallest possible trouble in reaching them.

In addition to these important points, the equipment of the kitchen demands careful consideration.” (p.44)

Of course, as we are used to seeing, Mrs. Beeton then goes into minute detail of the kitchen equipment required. As a start she even details all the important considerations required of the empty box of the room – walls, ceilings, floors, fittings, tiles, furniture, etc. One important piece of equipment that is indispensable to the efficient running of a kitchen of course is the clock! “…no kitchen can be regarded as being completely furnished without a clock. … The best position of the clock is over the mantlepiece, as in some culinary operations it has to be frequently consulted, and the cook should be able to do this without turning away from the fireplace.” (p. 47)

This lovely colour plate on page 81 shows just a few of the required pieces of equipment to keep the household running smoothly.

Mrs. Beeton starts at the walls and then goes on to explain all aspects to consider when choosing a kitchen stove / range as well as explain the use and utility of every possible kitchen implement a cook should have on hand – divided up based on the size of the establishment. A middle class household for example would require 134 pieces of equipment, including the broom, at a total cost to purchase in 1912 of 14 British pounds, 3 shillings, 2 pence.

Now that we have considered all that we need to outfit our kitchen establishment, in our next installment of our adventures with Mrs. Beeton, we will see what advice our intrepid household goddess has to say about marketing and an introduction to how to cook!

*** Note: all references in the text are from the 1912 edition of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management.

Kathleen Powell is the Supervisor of Historical Services and Curator at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre and the proud owner of a copy of a 1912 edition of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management.

Leave a Reply