Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management: A Victorian Phenomenon

Beeton’s Book of Household Management, Coloured Plate.

Published in 1861, Beeton’s Book of Household Management is perhaps one of the most famous non-fiction books to come out of the 19th century.  At over one thousand pages long, it was the first publication of its kind to address all aspects of household management, covering everything from cooking and cleaning to childrearing and animal husbandry.  It even includes a section on the law, providing the inquiring housewife with general information on leaseholds, the legal rights and obligations between husband and wife, and the questionable validity of an I.O.U.

Beeton's Book of Household Management Original Title Page, 1861. (Image via Wellcome Library.)
Beeton’s Book of Household Management Original Title Page, 1861.
(Image via Wellcome Library.)

In the first year alone, Beeton’s Book of Household Management sold more than 60,000 copies.  Over the next decade, it would sell 2 million more.  The book Voices of Victorian England, edited by John Wagner, explains the enormous popularity of Beeton’s Book of Household Management, stating:

“By the 1850s, middle-class wives were expected to frugally and efficiently run their husband’s households, and thus had to be skilled in such tasks as hiring, firing, and supervising servants; planning and cooking meals; dealing with tradesmen; and teaching, nursing, and disciplining children.  Because many girls were no longer automatically learning these skills from their mothers, there existed a need for a practical handbook on household management, which the Beetons recognized and sought to meet.”

Isabella Beeton was only twenty-five at the time she wrote Beeton’s Book of Household Management.  Married to publisher Samuel Beeton, she was a working journalist herself.  She began her career in 1857 by contributing three articles a month to The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, one of her husband’s most popular periodicals.  By 1860, she was one of the magazine’s editors, as well as its fashion correspondent.  Parts of Beeton’s Book of Household Management originally appeared in The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine.  Explaining her reasons for expanding those separately published columns into one, comprehensive guide, the Encyclopedia of British Writers quotes Beeton as saying:

“What moved me, in the first instance, to attempt a work like this, was the discomfort and suffering which I had seen brought upon men and women by household mismanagement.  I have always thought that there is no more fruitful source of family discontent than a housewife’s badly cooked dinners and untidy ways.”

Isabella Beeton, 1860.
Isabella Beeton, 1860.

Beeton’s Book of Household Management was not the first book of its kind.  In 1845, English cook Eliza Acton published Cookery for Private Families and in 1848 French chef Alexis Soyer published The Modern Housewife.  Beeton’s book, however, far eclipsed those of her predecessors.  Not only did it cover every aspect of household management, Beeton’s particular “tone and form of address” offered inspiration and assurance to her readers.  As the book Consuming Culture in the Long Nineteenth Century explains:

“Any woman who felt her position to be unimportant and useless could be persuaded by the strength of Mrs. Beeton’s rhetoric: the mistress is ‘the first and last, the Alpha and Omega in the government of her establishment’ and ‘it is by her conduct that its whole internal policy is regulated.’  In her opening sentence, Mrs. Beeton compares the mistress of the house to ‘a Commander of an Army’ who attains the ‘highest rank’ of the female character when she enters into knowledge of household duties.”

Beeton's Book of Household Management, Coloured Plate.
Beeton’s Book of Household Management, Coloured Plate.

It was not only the rhetoric that made Beeton’s book a Victorian phenomenon.  Her guide included innovations that changed the face of cookbooks for generations to come.  For example, Voices in Victorian England reports that Beeton was the first writer to place the list of ingredients at the start of the recipe.  She was also the first writer to supply recommended cooking times.  This was all part and parcel of Isabella Beeton’s genius for “compiling and organizing information.”  She was not an accomplished cook herself.  In fact, very few of the recipes in her book are her own.  Even so, she possessed a talent for making the recipes of others easier to follow and conveying ideas on every aspect of household management to a middle-class audience without challenging “the more conventional notion of bourgeois femininity.”

Upon its publication in 1861, Beeton’s Book of Household Management was met with instant acclaim.  A review in the November 9, 1861 edition of the Edinburgh Evening Courant closes by declaring:

“Mrs. Beeton has endeavored to adapt her book to nearly all circumstances and conditions of life.  She shows that, while luxurious repasts and sumptuous hospitalities rightly belong to the high and wealthy, there is no monopoly of good digestion or of appetite, and that enjoyment may be found in a ragout of yesterday’s cold meat, and even a relish imparted to our traditional ‘kailbrose.’  It is on the cook rather than on the materials, on the preparation rather than the cost, that a good dinner mainly depends; and hence the value of a book like this, which duly studied by mistress and cook may yield us a different and enjoyable dinner every day, whether our means be great or small, and whether one dish or twenty be set before us.”

Beeton's Book of Household Management, Coloured Plate.
Beeton’s Book of Household Management, Coloured Plate.

Recipes were, indeed, a large component of Beeton’s Book of Household Management.  Beeton provides instructions for the preparations of staples like meat, potatoes, and various puddings.  She also provides recipes for foods which are very much of the moment today, such as boiled sea kale.  In addition, Beeton advises on the best diet for livestock, the dangers of ‘rust’ in bacon and ‘rot’ in rabbits, and the perils of poisonous mushrooms.  In the final segment of her cookery section, Beeton even includes recipes for beverages, such as the following for Cowslip Wine:

Recipe for Cowslip Wine from Beeton's Book of Household Management, 1861.
Recipe for Cowslip Wine from Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861.

Perhaps the best bits of Beeton’s Book of Household Management, at least in my humble opinion, are those sections where she imparts advice to Victorian housewives.  For instance, in the first pages of the hefty tome, she writes:

“Early rising is one of the most Essential Qualities which enter into good Household Management, as it is not only the parent of health, but of innumerable other advantages.  Indeed, when a mistress is an early riser, it is almost certain that her house will be orderly and well-managed.  On the contrary, if She remain in bed till a late hour, then the domestics, who, as we have before observed, invariably partake somewhat of their mistress’s character, will surely become sluggards.”

And later, in her chapter on Domestic Servants, she addresses the lady’s maid, advising her on her duties to her mistress and providing helpful recipes to assist her in her work, such as the following recipe for shampoo:

Recipe for Hair Wash from Beeton's Book of Household Management, 1861.
Recipe for Hair Wash from Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861.

The chapter on Domestic Servants also provides guidelines for the hiring and firing of servants, the writing of a character reference, and the respective wages commonly paid for each position in the household.  For those of us who write novels set in the 19th century, this section of the book is invaluable.

Guidelines for Servant Wages from Beeton's Book of Household Management, 1861.
Guidelines for Servant Wages from Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861.

On February 6, 1865, less than four years after the publication of Beeton’s Book of Household Management, Isabella Beeton died from puerperal fever contracted during the birth of her fourth child.  She was only twenty-eight years old.  Samuel Beeton initially suppressed news of her death so that he could continue to publish under her now famous name.  This strategy was ultimately not a successful one.  Within only a few weeks, newspapers were printing reports of her death.  The following appeared in the February 18, 1865 edition of London’s Illustrated Times:

February 18, 1865 , Illustrated Times , London, England.
February 18, 1865 , Illustrated Times , London, England.

Beeton’s Book of Household Management has been in continuous print since it was first published in 1861.  Now popularly known as Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, it has remained a perpetual bestseller and can be purchased in its various incarnations from booksellers all over the world (*though being a purist, I advise the original edition which is currently free in the public domain).  If you are at all curious about Victorian life, I highly recommend you give it a look.  It is much, much more than a mere 19th century cookbook.

**Author’s Note: This article was originally published on the English Historical Fiction Authors’ Blog in November.

Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

Sources

Beeton, Isabella. Ed.  Beeton’s Book of Household Management.  London: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1861.

Beetham, Margaret. Ed.  Victorian Women’s Magazines: An Anthology.  Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001.

Hartley, Cathy.  A Historical Dictionary of British Women.  London: Routledge, 2013.

Krueger, Christine L. Ed.  Encyclopedia of British Writers, 19th and 20th Centuries.  New York: Facts on File, 2003.

Wagner, John A. Ed.  Voices of Victorian England: Contemporary Accounts of Daily Life.  Greenwood, 2014.

Wagner, Tamara S. Ed.  Consuming Culture in the Long Nineteenth Century: Narratives of Consumption, 1700-1900.  New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010.  


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17 Comments on "Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management: A Victorian Phenomenon"

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Angelyn
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I am always startled at the mounds of food, colorful desserts, great haunches of meat pictured in these Victorian manuals on housewifery. My own copy (1870s) was being used in a mid-Atlantic household up until the 1940s when it was finally given to my family as a curiosity.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Me too, Angelyn. It’s hard to imagine them cooking such elaborate things in a middle-class Victorian kitchen. But then, I’m sure servants did a lot to make up for the lack of modern technology.

paper doll
Guest

Totally fab, thank you!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

You’re very welcome :) Glad you liked it!

Selina Stambi
Guest

Amazing read. I’m a fan of Victoriana! Loved the post. Thank you.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

So glad you enjoyed it, Selina :) Thanks for commenting!

bristlesandthread
Guest

I love your posts! So neat to hear the history behind things…takes my mind into a different time, if only for a few minutes. :)

Mimi Matthews
Guest

I’m so glad you enjoy them :) The 19th century was a fascinating time. It’s always nice to escape there once in a while!

Jody Rossel
Guest

I have often thought I would of liked to live in the Victorian era. There dresses were so beautiful. Seemed like a very romantic era to me. But, unless your husband had money it was not a good life. The poor woman would of had it very hard as she would not of had kitchen help. Everything would of been accomplished by her or her daughters. I think I like the 21st century :)

Your post was very informative, liked reading it very much, thank you for sharing with us.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

You’re very welcome, Jody. And I totally agree. The 19th century was far better for those in the middle and upper classes. The working classes and the poor had a much more difficult time. It’s a wonderful era to research and write about, but I’m always glad to return to the conveniences of the present day :)

alightedpathsite
Guest

Love, love, love! I adore the 19th century and have studied it quite extensively…nut nowhere near enough. It’s interesting that ax a woman she was allowed to write and publish – likely because she was writing about the “separate sphere” of domesticity which was the goal for women in the newly-created middle class.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Very good point! She wrote about acceptable topics for 19th century ladies, fashion, housekeeping, & the like. Her popularity may not have been as great had she wrote on something else. Then again, you never know!

Adrienne Morris
Guest

A good housewife is an amazing thing to behold. It also may be that it was what women wanted to read. We still have fashion and housekeeping blogs and magazines today and they seem to do pretty well. This reminds me of Martha Stewart’s prison sentence. She took back the “lowly” world of women’s work and elevated it again. I don’t know who hated that more, men or women. She definitely got punished more than a man would for insider trading.

Mimi Matthews
Guest
Very true, Adrienne. Fashion and housekeeping have always been popular topics with women. A large part of this in the 19th century was because they were considered appropriate areas of interest for women and women were conditioned to feel that that was their realm. Naturally, there were those women in the 19th century who made a name for themselves in more masculine fields like politics and science, but it was far less common. As for today, there are still many who underrate/undervalue the role of housewife. As we see in Beeton’s Book of Household Management, it takes an enormous amount… Read more »
Adrienne Morris
Guest
I wonder when in history women were first “conditioned” to feel motherhood and keeping house were noble and extremely important to society. I suspect it’s more biological than most people would like to admit these days. Hunter/gatherer societies were in existence for a long time with different realms of influence or jobs for men and women. I’m always curious about the nature/nurture thing with women since even in our modern times some women in the western world even with modern luxury, scholarship and a wider range of opportunities still seem dissatisfied. Being conditioned to believe we can do it all… Read more »
torijimie
Guest

Thanks for posting this was a wonderful article, I have a small bookshop here on the island, crossing my fingers the collectors sections has at least one copy of this book! looks like an incredible read.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

You’re very welcome :) It’s a great read – so much historical information! If you can’t find a hard copy in your bookshop, the link at the end of the article will take you to a free e-copy of the original.

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