Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Reading List Part Four: So You Want to Learn Some Primary Source History

With bonus jokes about how the Irish are dumb!
I recently discovered that my university has a Science and Technology library, which contains all the TX books--domestic history!  Ever since I made this discovery, I've been a veritable font of trivia about housekeeping practices of the past.  Did you know that seventeenth century farmwives gave their buttermilk to the poor as charitable sustenance?  Or that it was permissible (even admirable) for a middle-class Victorian housewife to do light needlework or knitting while receiving calls of an afternoon?

The English Housewife, written (or, more accurately, loosely compiled) by a gentleman farmer named Gervase Markham, is the only book you'll ever need for your new life as a seventeenth century English farmwife.  It offers instruction on everything: how to use your knowledge of "physic" (medicine) to cure diseases like bloody flux and pleurisy, which cheeses to put by in which months, the best methods of weaving woolen or linen cloth (not for your own use, but so that you can spot a cheating tradesman), and so forth.  Markham made his name writing manuals for farmers, and at one point there were so many editions of his books circulating that his publishers made him sign a pledge never to write another book about cow diseases.  True story.




The Family Save-All, a Victorian cookery manual, mixes recipes for food with a collection of housekeeping tips and recipes for cleaning products.  A lot of the food is recognizable--various roast meats, custards, cakes, and boiled vegetables--and if the recipes are sometimes a little vague (they often call for "a goodly quantity of flour," or "butter the size of an egg"), you can usually find a corresponding modern recipe and fill in the blanks.  The highlight, though, is the little jokes and parables interspersed with the recipes, many of which rely on such age-old tropes as "the Irish are stupid," "the Scots are stupid," and "the poor are stupid."  It's worth checking out if only for that reason, especially since it's available in full, online, for free, AND there's an epub so you can download it to your iPod and read it in spare moments like during your office hours on a slow day.  Or maybe that's just me.

Beeton's Book of Household Management is also interesting for its supplementary material as much as its recipes.  The middle Victorian era was a time of unprecedented growth of the middle class, and there were tons of newly respectable people trying to decipher the rules of conduct (as well as plenty of old money families working to create new, more impenetrable rules to maintain their own status).  Books like Mrs. Beeton's aimed to explain the rules, clearly and in minute detail, to this hungry audience.  This book explains how many servants you should employ based on your yearly income, how you should encourage and discipline them, how much independence you should give the cook or housekeeper in doing the marketing, what kind of fuel to buy for your coal range, and so on, and so forth.  It's fascinating reading, especially with the class implications in mind.

I'll add more as I read more--I seem to have Library Disease and I find myself dragging new books home from the library nearly every day--stay tuned.

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