Lessons in Homemaking: Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management
The Book of Household Management by Mrs. Isabella Beeton is probably one of the most well-known homemaking books of all time. It was published in 1861, and explained the duties of the mistress of the house and various servants, talked about etiquette for dinner parties, calls, etc., how to care for an infant, the history behind various foods (along with numerous recipes), and more. It must have been a real treasure-trove for the Victorian household, and indeed was extremely popular.
Though it may seem like such a book is merely an interesting look into a different time period, Mrs. Beeton has advice and suggestions which are useful for any homemaker in any time. Although it is certainly fun to read about aspects of life which are not terribly relevant to most of us today (I personally quite enjoyed reading about the servants and their duties), there’s more than just enjoyment to be gotten out of Household Management.
Here are a few pieces of Mrs. Beeton’s advice for the mistress of the house, which you may find helpful in your own homemaking journey.
- “As with the commander of an army, or the leader of any enterprise, so it is with the mistress of a house. Her spirit will be seen through the whole establishment; and just in proportion as she performs her duties intelligently and thoroughly, so will her domestics follow in her path.”
How true this is! Your household is necessarily going to reflect you, your personality, and your homemaking style. I doubt if many of us have to worry about our influence on the domestics, or servants, but the advice holds true for your family members too. Your spirit is going to infect the people you live with, so think about what kind of spirit you want to be giving them.
- “…to be a good housewife does not necessarily imply an abandonment of proper pleasures or amusing recreation; and we think it the more necessary to express this, as the performance of the duties of a mistress may, to some minds, perhaps seem to be incompatible with the enjoyment of life.”
You’ve probably heard this advice before, applied to schoolwork or something like that, but it applies to homemaking too. You need some time relaxing, some time enjoying yourself. It refreshes you and in fact helps you work more efficiently.
- “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.”
When you get a head start on the day, you have the chance to get everything running smoothly in the household early on, and so set things up for a good day. Getting up early will also set the tone for the whole day – lying in bed and getting up late will put you in a lazy mindset, while getting up early will put you in a productive mindset.
- “The choice of acquaintances is very important to the happiness of a mistress and her family” and “Friendships should not be hastily formed, nor the heart given, at once, to every new-comer.”
This may seem like strange advice to have in a household management book, but Mrs. Beeton gives advice not only for the physical aspect of homemaking, but every aspect of the mistress of the house’s life. This is good piece of advice for anybody, homemaker or not. Whom you spend your time with will affect your own behavior and shape you, and it is true that people are not always what they seem on the surface – therefore, it isn’t wise to immediately become best friends with someone you just met.
- “Hospitality is a most excellent virtue; but care must be taken that the love of company, for its own sake, does not become a prevailing passion; for then the habit is no longer hospitality, but dissipation.”
At its core, what this is saying is that you should be thinking of the happiness and enjoyment of your guests, and try to be giving them pleasure when you have them as guests, not have them as guests just because it is enjoyable for you or makes you look good in some way in the eyes of others.I think this also holds true for our online communications – we shouldn’t discuss with people online for the sake of being admired or getting a lot of “likes,” but with a sincere wish for the good of the people we’re talking with.
- “Good temper should be cultivated by every mistress, as upon it the welfare of the household may be said to turn; indeed, its influence can hardly be over-estimated, as it has the effect of moulding the characters of those around her, and of acting most beneficially on the happiness of the domestic circle. Every head of a household should strive to be cheerful, and should never fail to show a deep interest in all that appertains to the well-being of those who claim the protection of her roof.”
This may seem like a bit of a tall order! We all have those days when being cheerful is the last thing we want to do, and sometimes we’re so caught up in our own concerns that it seems a near-impossible effort to try to show “deep interest” in our family members’ affairs. Although of course none of us are perfect, consistent good temper is a good thing to strive for, even in those times when we may not feel very good-tempered. (One note on this, though – if you are feeling seriously unhappy or unsettled about something, don’t try to just ignore it and pretend to be cheerful. Talk to a parent or trusted adult about it.)
- “In purchasing articles of wearing apparel, whether it be a silk dress, a bonnet, shawl, or riband, it is well for the buyer to consider three things: I. That it be not too expensive for her purse. II. That its colour harmonize with her complexion, and its size and pattern with her figure. III. That its tint allow of its being worn with the other garments she possesses.”
You might have initially thought that this would be one of those parts that’s not very relevant to us today, but Mrs. Beeton’s three things to consider are actually still an excellent test that you can use when shopping for clothes now.
- “The dress of the mistress should always be adapted to her circumstances, and be varied with different occasions.”
Mrs. Beeton was referring to wearing the proper outfit for the time of the day (as in a simple dress for breakfast, more formal dress with jewelry for dinner, etc.). This is true in a more general way as well, however. If you are going to be outside doing yard work all day, you shouldn’t wear your nicest outfit. On the other hand, if you’re going to Mass, you would want to wear that nice outfit, and shouldn’t wear something you could do yard work in.
- “Charity and benevolence are duties which a mistress owes to herself as well as to her fellow-creatures; and there is scarcely an income so small, but something may be spared from it, even if it be but “the widow’s mite.” It is to be always remembered, however, that it is the spirit of charity which imparts to the gift a value far beyond its actual amount, and is by far its better part.”
Again, very good advice for everybody, not only homemakers…and really needs no commenting on, as Mrs. Beeton puts it so well!
- “Frugality and economy are home virtues, without which no household can prosper” and “A house-keeping account book should invariably be kept, and kept punctually and precisely…The house-keeping accounts should be balanced not less than once a month; so that you may see that the money you have in hand tallies with your account of it in your diary. Judge Haliburton never wrote truer words than when he said, “No man is rich whose expenditure exceeds his means, and no one is poor whose incomings exceed his outgoings.”
Mrs. Beeton says that frugality and economy should be practiced even by those with a large fortune. Wasting your money isn’t good no matter how much you may have. Keeping an account of your expenses is also a very good habit to get into, as it will both make you realize if you need to cut back on your expenses, and make sure that there has been no error anywhere with receiving the right amount of money. Also, this will make it easier to see how much money you’ve been giving to charitable causes, and perhaps adjust the amount you have allotted for that.
As you can see, there is a lot that can be learned from homemakers of the past! If you want to read The Book of Household Management, the unabridged version can be found here. Comment with your favorite piece of advice from Mrs. Beeton, or any other homemaking books that you found helpful!