A Newsletter of the White River Valley Museum

January 2005



Domestic Policy
Homemaker's GuideBooks, c 1890-1920

by Alyssa Shirley Morein, Curator of Collections


Recently, at the end of an especially busy day of working, commuting, and errand running, I purchased (rather reluctantly, mind you) a bag of ãready-packä salad greens to expedite the making of a quick home dinner. I knew it wouldnât be a sublime dining experience, but figured it would be worth the time saved working in the kitchen that evening. Later, as I rummaged through the anemic, parched-looking leaves in the bag, I thought to myself: is this how far weâve come? Would our ancestors have tolerated this?


Love in a Cottage
"LOVE IN A COTTAGE." -- "Never mind; don't cry, pet; I'll do all the cooking."
After drawing by Sol Eytinge, Jr., (by permission of Harper & Brothers), Engraved by Willard.
Frontispiece of The Buckeye Cookbook. Buckeye Publishing Co.: Minneapolis, MN, 1887.


 Nostalgic musings are easy to come by when one is in close contact with the worst results of American societyâs shift from being a home-centered culture to a workplace-centered one. It is easy to forget the amount of labor involved in doing things from scratch. I began to feel my nostalgia subsiding significantly÷and my respect for our foremothers growing in proportion÷as I became familiar with the subject of this article: turn-of-the-last-century American homemakersâ guidebooks.

The White River Valley Museumâs library contains a number of such guidebooks; those featured in this article range in date from about 1885 to 1920. These hefty tomes, which were purchased and used by the women of Auburn, Kent, and surrounding communities, served to instruct their readers in the finer points of cooking, housecleaning, and caring for family. The date range covered here is particularly educational, as it traces a timeline of the development of many salient features of modern American culture: the shift from an agrarian to a suburban lifestyle, the development of mass transportation and national commerce, and the development of labor-saving technologies, to name a few. All of these changes made marked differences in the methods of home management in America.


Meredith Corner, 1937
From Household Discoveries: An Encyclopaedia of Practical Recipes and Processes.
Success Company, 1908; rev. 1914.


The change that is perhaps most central to the subject at hand, however, is womenâs collective desire for freedom from the limits÷not to mention labors÷of the domestic realm. Except for a minority of usually unmarried women working as schoolteachers or librarians, in 1890 most American women did not work outside the home. Home was considered a womanâs sphere, and although in romantic ideology she was its queen, in reality she was more like its prisoner (and if she were solidly at or below middle class, her sentence was life with hard labor). A generation later, however, the scene looked quite different. As public citizens, women had achieved the right to vote, and many were attending college in order to obtain professional employment; in the domestic sphere, those who could afford it often had the assistance of gas, plumbing, and electricity to lighten daily tasks. By the 1920s, the typical middle-class American housewife was more likely to be found shopping in town or browsing the pages of a Sears, Roebuck catalog than at home pickling garden vegetables or slaving all day over the washboard and tub÷that is to say, while her home chores were still numerous, she had a lot more help with many of the most basic ones, like tending the fire or hauling water.


Do-it-yourself butchering diagram
Do-it-yourself butchering diagram, 
from Mrs. Owensâ Cook Book and Useful Household Hints.
Owens Publishing Co.: Chicago, IL, 1887


The authors of these guidebooks were well attuned to these cultural changes and did their best to reflect that in their advice, on all the subjects they covered. And of course the topics themselves varied depending on the bookâs date of publication: for example, in an 1887 volume, one might find directions on raising a tasty pig, whereas a 1914 guide might tell how to make the most efficient use of the basement furnace. However, while the scope of topics covered in each volume places it firmly in its time, several common themes persist. Economy÷of money, time, and labor÷is stressed throughout. Cleanliness and tidiness, both of person and of home, are continually paramount, and the idea of ãwholesomenessä is perpetually voiced, not only in relation to the nutritive value of food, but also to matters of personal hygiene. Lastly, the idea that the home is a sanctified place, and its proper care a very significant matter capable of bestowing pride and social standing on each family member, recurs frequently through all of these guides.

Homespun Advice in Victorian Times
First and foremost, these homemakersâ guides were cookbooks, or ãcookery books,ä in Victorian parlance. The copious recipes offered in pre-twentieth century books focus on seasonal meats and vegetables, home-raised livestock and game, and÷quite heavily, unsurprisingly÷on inexpensive grain-derived foods like bread, biscuits, pastries, and pies. Also given is a wide range of methods for curing meats and canning and preserving fruits and vegetables. Throughout all, there is an emphasis on making a lot from a little: readers were encouraged to prepare the finest and prettiest meal possible, regardless of whether their ingredients came from the local grocer, the backyard, or the back woods. For example, in Mrs. Owensâ Cookbook and Useful Household Hints (1887), a recipe for beaver begins, ãFirst, catch your beaver·,ä and it is recommended that opossum be served ãwhole on a platter, [with] a baked apple in its mouth.ä Whole chapters are devoted to hash and croquettes, and of course, soups, all of which were excellent ways to make scraps or cheap cuts of meat palatable and presentable. Mrs. Owensâ even includes a chapter on garnishes, which seem to have been of equal importance whether one was presenting a plate of hash or an entire roast turkey.


A holiday feast
A holiday feast. From Smileyâs New and Complete Guide for Housekeepers, c1900


Recipes were approximate, not exact. This was a time when the concept of the cookbook÷with recipes written down rather than passed from one generation to the next by watching, and doing÷was fairly new. Amounts given were ãa teacup,ä ãa walnut-size dollop,ä ãsome,ä or ãa pinch.ä Ovens were not heat-regulated. As Mrs. Owensâ cookbook rather foretellingly laments, ãIf stoves had a thermometer attachment· the invention would be of incalculable benefit.ä Until then, housewivesâ experiments with their own ovens would be encouraged by batches of rock-hard cookies or soggy loaves of bread.

Nutrition was addressed, in books of this era, in an unscientific, anecdotal way, but nonetheless frequently and with great solemnity. In general, the heartier the food, the more nutritious it was thought to be: after all, this was a time when the majority of work in this country required physical, not mental, labor. In The Buckeye Cookbook (1887), fish is deemed ãless nutritious than meatsä and best for those ãwho perform much brain work,ä (except for salmon, which the author praises as ãextremely hearty foodä). In fact, claims the author, ãgood muttonä is ãthe healthiest meat in the world.ä Vegetables were considered hard to digest and thus were to be cooked ãthoroughlyä ö with spinach clocking in at one to two hoursâ boiling time.


An elaborate table setting for a fish dinner
An elaborate table setting for a fish  dinner.
From The Century Cook Book and Home Physician.
Laird & Lee: Chicago, IL, 1894.


Medical advice was given in much the same fashion: homegrown, often sketchy-sounding remedies were dispensed with dire seriousness. While certainly many of these cures have proven sound enough÷such as a mixture of hoarhound, lemon juice, and glycerine for a cough, or ãcalcined magnesiaä dissolved in water for ãacidity of the stomachä (both from Smileyâs New and Complete Guide for Housekeepers, c1900)÷others sound highly questionable. One is at a loss to understand how poisoning by prussic acid could be remedied by a ãdash [of] cold water from a height upon the head,ä followed by smelling salts and artificial respiration (from The Century Cookbook and Home Physician, 1894). Some remedies sound dangerous and certainly objectionable for the patient. For instance, ãto keep off mosquitoes,ä the Buckeye Cookbook recommends rubbing ãexposed parts with kerosene.ä For a ãmad-dog bite,ä the same guide instructs readers to ãapply fire in some form to the wound, thoroughly and immediatelyä÷one can only hope that the mosquito-protected picnicker did not encounter a rabid dog!

In guides of this era, the subject of housecleaning was presented as being as important to human health as it was to the appearance of oneâs home÷and certainly it was, even much more so than people of the time were aware. However, many of the recommendations were quite sensible given the materials composing the typical home of the day. Mattresses, which contained straw, or worse, horsehair, were breeding grounds for bacteria (not to mention bedbugs). Therefore, advice to open all windows and shades for several hours each morning in order to expose them to sunlight (a natural disinfectant) was common. But not all recommendations were scientifically valid. The subject of ventilation was frequently discussed, this being a time when any ailment or disease was suspected to be communicable by air. And much of the time, assessments of the unhealthiness of ãvaporsä seem to have been based on the smell test. One case in which the smell test was right, however, was in the universal admonishment against a damp, enclosed basement. Not only was such a cellar known to encourage the development of harmful molds, but also, rotting fruits and vegetables were seen to attract disease-carrying flies and vermin.

A hint of the labors of wash day
A hint at the labors of wash day. 
From The Buckeye Cookbook, 1887.


On the subject of clothes and laundry, these books had their work cut out for them. Most women still made their familyâs clothes by hand, and new dresses or suits were an infrequent luxury (the ubiquitous black dress of the Victorian era is neatly explained in the Buckeye Cookbook: ãThe wearer of a showy dress is so soon recognized by it· A plain black or dark dress can be made stylishly· and will not be remembered· even if it is worn on every occasion for a long whileä). When washing day came around, surely, the fewer clothes, the better. In Smileyâs, the author states that thanks to ãthe improved methods of washing now known ¸ the labor can be savedä and spends the next 18 pages instructing on the finer points of washing, rinsing, drying, starching, bluing (de-yellowing whites), folding, and ironing. Thankfully, there was recognition of the immensity of these home tasks, and the toll they might take on a womanâs body, in Mrs. Owensâ Cookbook: ãSave yourself. In the first place, sit all you can· slight [in household chores] where it will do to slight.ä


A hint of the labors of wash day
From Smiley's, c 1900.


Lastly, what was the use of all that good cookery and cleaning if you never had any guests? Well, actually, most of these books contend that oneâs everyday family dinners deserve almost as fine a table setting as do formal dinner parties, the idea that a woman should take great pride in a perpetually attractive, orderly household being heavily stressed. However, the etiquette of hosting social events at oneâs home is discussed in detail, from issuing invitations (Mrs. Owensâ advises that, for everyoneâs comfort, guests be ãsimilar in taste and in the same social scaleä), to the quality of table linens (they should always be crisp white), to the hostessâs manner of eating (never appear to have finished until the last guest has). Certainly, readers put this advice into practice in varying degree, but these guides were most emphatic that such conformities shaped the very foundation of civilized society and must not be neglected.

The Progressive Eraâs Scientific Approach
As science and reason moved to the forefront of Americaâs consciousness, the social rules and structures of the Victorian age began to feel increasingly arbitrary and frivolous. Additionally, issues of social equality and justice began to be more broadly recognized and appreciated. Jacob Riisâ 1890 How the Other Half Lives, a photographic journal of New York Cityâs tenement slums, was one of the earliest widespread awakenings; and by the first decade of the twentieth century, regular reports of deadly factory fires in newspapers throughout the nation served to raise social awareness ÷not to mention fire safety regulations÷acutely. This convergence of heightened social awareness and increased scientific knowledge led to many great health advances in America, among them, home sanitation methods.


From Household Discoveries
From Household Discoveries: An Encyclopaedia of Practical Recipes and Processes.
Success Company, 1908; rev. 1914.


The 1,200-page tome, Household Discoveries: An Encyclopedia of Practical Recipes and Processes (1908; revised 1914), is a veritable compendium of scientific wisdom of the age, at least as it related to all things domestic. It includes instructions on building sanitary privies, keeping your infantâs bottle from becoming a ãbaby killerä (see illustration at right), using a fire extinguisher properly, and vaccinating your family members against disease. ãIt would be difficult,ä the author states, ãto overestimate the [resultant] savings in time, in money, and in human suffering· if every family· would observe the teachings on diet, on home sanitation· and on the prevention of communicable diseases.ä The tone of the book is matter-of-fact and rather dismissive of its unscientific predecessors, and the author claims that each ãdiscoveryä it contains was ãchecked against the best scientific authorities.ä Of course, although many of the claims in this book are known today to be erroneous, the fact that incredible advances in health and hygiene had occurred by its time is undeniable.

Another radical difference from the prior century that was reflected in books of this period was in advice regarding home design. The previous eraâs architecture and home furnishing styles were viewed by these authors as overly fussy and therefore mentally obfuscating. Befitting Household Discoveriesâ cutting-edge approach, the arts-and-crafts-style home was deemed best, with its simple lines, soothing colors, and durable construction techniques÷all epitomized by the Morris chair (see illustration below). As in home design, also in standards of grooming and appearance was there a revolution afoot. In keeping with the simpler aesthetic of the time, dress was pared down and made more practical. In hairstyles as well, a more natural and straightforward look was appreciated, with the Gibson girlâs loosely piled mass of hair being the ideal. With an emphasis on health and cleanliness, Household Discoveries recommends that hair be washed ãas often as twice a month.ä Hair dyes were considered unnatural-looking and therefore ãvulgar,ä and were only to be used for covering errant gray strands.

From Household Discoveries
The Morris Chair. From Household Discoveries, 1908; rev. 1914.


As in earlier guidebooks, recipes for homemade beauty concoctions were included in great number in books of this time. In fact, prior to the 1920s, most people held a deep distrust of mass-made, bottled beauty formulations. There was a pervasive suspicion that such mixtures were the work of dishonest salespeople, who used ãimpureä or possibly even ãpoisonousä ingredients and marked up their prices significantly. Therefore, books like Household Discoveries gave numerous recipes for each type of beauty preparation, all involving ingredients from your local chemist. And chemistry it was: the mixer was thoroughly briefed on the various roles of liquid or powder bases (e.g., rendered animal fat or ãFrench chalk,ä respectively), ãremedial agentsä (in modern parlance, the ãactive ingredientsä), ãdiluentsä (such as lavender water added to thin out a thick cream), and perfumes and colorants. Most of the recipes offered were for creams, tonics, or washes, each with its own curative mission, such as the ãremovalä of freckles (an obsessive, if futile, endeavor throughout this and the previous age), the freshening of dull complexions, or the soothing of chapped hands. Recipes for make-up and perfume glorified the ãdaintyä and condemned the ãvulgar.ä A dilute, liquid form of blush called ãbloom of youth,ä was the most popular make-up recipe (see recipe to the right), and Householdâs author expresses relief that ãstrong perfumes [appear] to be going out of fashion.ä The most artificial technique recommended is the darkening of the eyelashes with India ink or burnt cork ãif that is thought desirable.ä By the mid-twenties, obvious make-up would become acceptable, as would mass-produced beauty products, thanks largely to colorful magazine ads featuring Hollywood starlets÷but until then, these guides provided all the information needed to create safe, discreet beauty potions at home.

Bloom of Youth
From Mrs. Owensâ Cook Book, 1887.


It is great fun to poke through these guidebooks looking at recipes for toiletries, furniture polish, or seven-course meals, and we invite you to come in and do so anytime. However, they tell us much more than that. Through them, we can gain a better understanding not only of some of the catalysts for American advancement in areas like health and technology, but also of the underlying attitudes which some might say shape the American mind-set as much today as they did in 1887 or 1914: our long-standing belief in the value of hard work, practicality, and economy; our continuing struggle for fairness and equality (between genders as well as other groups); and the fundamental optimism which continues to drive American ingenuity and inventiveness. Iâm sure someone out there is working to improve that wilted bag of lettuce÷until then, Iâll just be glad for the help.

by Alyssa Shirley Morein, Curator of Collections