Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2457
BEETON'S HOUSEHOLD MANAGEMENT

by John H. Lienhard

Today, Beeton's household management. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Eleven hundred pages -- that's the size of my copy of Beeton's Book of Household Management. It's a facsimile of the 1861 original, inscribed in 1971 by noted author Jan de Hartog to his wife Marjorie. He says, "Happy Mother's Day! All my love." As we turn pages in the book, we see just how tongue-in-cheek that is.

Frontispiece and title page

The book begins and ends with short sections on management, but the vast 900-page center -- deals with food. Everything you would ever hope to know about preparing food is here -- from the garden (or the carcass) all the way to the table.

And recipes! Such dishes as we'll never see again. Take Beef a la mode: six or seven pounds of thick flank of beef, a few slices of fat bacon, one teacupful vinegar, black pepper, allspice, three onions, a turnip, one glass of port wine ... and I've only begun. The recipe for roast land-rail includes advice to hunters as to where and when they might find that obscure bird. Beeton includes dinner menus for six or ten. First course: boiled turbot soup and salmon. Entrée: mutton cutlets. Second course: roast lamb or boiled calf's head. Third course: well, need I go on?

Isabella Beeton The author, Isabella Beeton, was only 25. She's married publisher Samuel Beeton at twenty and almost immediately begun writing a supplement for his Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine. Readers of this outgrowth of those popular articles imagined a much older and more seasoned author.

With such focus on food, the shorter sections on management catch us short. For she imagines households of a sort very far from anything we've ever experienced. "As with the Commander of an Army," she begins, "so it is with the mistress of a house." Her lieutenant is the housekeeper who keeps the books, manages the payroll, and has the sense to stay out of the cook's hair. Then on to the noncoms and foot soldiers -- butler, footman, coachman, groom, stable boy, valet, lady's maid, upper and under housemaids, maid of all work, and wet nurse ... my head swims.

Was there ever such a world? Mrs. Beeton's section on child-rearing is only 36 pages. The sad story behind it is that she'd already lost her first two children to croup and scarlet fever. Given that knowledge, her brief sections on the course of those diseases -- cool, detailed, and analytical -- are very unsettling.

Isabella Beeton lived only three more years. She died of puerperal fever, giving birth to her fourth child. Her husband made it to 46 before he died of tuberculosis. Life in the so-called upper-middle-classes of Victorian England was obviously less lush than this book suggests. I expect that people read it in much the same spirit as we watch Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous on TV.

So happy mother's day indeed! Our staff of servants is a match for Mrs. Beeton's: vacuum cleaner, dishwasher, cars, answering machine, spread sheets. And we live a lot longer.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Beeton's Book of Household Management. Mrs. Isabella Beeton, ed. (London: S. O. Beeton Publishing, 1861) (Facsimile publisher: New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969). ). My thanks to Marjorie de Hartog for this remarkable book. All images are from it except the image of Beeton. It is courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

See also the Wikipedia article on Isabella Beeton, and a second Wikipedia article about her book.

And here is a chilling excerpt from the book: Maid of all work job description

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2009 by John H. Lienhard.