We all know that for as long as there have been houses and households, there have been housekeeping gurus. Today’s guru, Mrs. Child, wrote several such books, but today we’re talking about her 1826 volume, The American Frugal Housewife. Eloise and Martha have nothing on Mrs. Child, who isn’t well-known today, but Housewife ought to be. More on that in a bit.
Lydia Maria Francis Child was born in 1802 in Medford, Massachussetts, and while she paid for her bread and butter through her books, her biggest claim to fame is writing the poem that would become the perennial holiday road trip song, “Over the River And Through the Woods.” She was politically active, writing books championing abolitionism and standing against American expansion. Lydia’s husband, David Child, was also a political activist and while he wasn’t quite as poor as a church mouse, activism isn’t meant to be lucrative.
So Lydia was the primary breadwinner. She started out as a novelist, then founded and edited a bimonthly magazine called The Juvenile Miscellany, commonly thought to be one of the first children’s magazines ever (read an issue here). The magazine was full of poetry and stories encouraging kids to be industrious and morally upright, as well as inspiring them to cultivate their talents (One lengthy piece, “Musical Children,” told of prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s struggles to be taken seriously by the grownups).
Unlike many children’s publications of the day, Miscellany didn’t drive its points home via deathbed scenes but through simple encouragement and entertainment. It wasn’t all that different from the McGuffey Readers kids were using in school, except that in this case they weren’t being graded. The magazine got good reviews from other publications at the time and seemed to have a robust readership.
Even in its early stages, abolition was not a sedate cause. When Child published a book called An Appeal In Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans in 1833 the public were incensed at its arguments for immediate emancipation of slaves without compensating their owners. She also wanted freed slaves shipped to Africa. The public outcry was so loud Mrs. Child had to leave The Juvenile Miscellany, which soon lost readership and shut down in 1836 after a seven-year run.
Mrs. Child continued to write even during the upheaval, and The American Frugal Housewife was her most popular book, although it never made she and David rich. It was originally published without the “American” in the title, but the word had to be added later because there was a similar book in England that had the same title and it caused confusion, particularly when Child’s volume made its way to Great Britain.
And what does Housewife contain? Well…that’s a loaded question. Mrs. Child wrote for anyone who wanted to live well but simply, poor and not so poor alike, especially those who didn’t have help. In a way, her book was Mastering the Art of French Cooking long before a certain other Child of no relation made a name for herself.
Mrs. Child offers a dizzying array of hints and tips for keeping an economical household, and among other perks it gives readers a peek into how cooks managed food stores and kitchens before refrigeration was available. Iceboxes were just beginning to come into wider usage when Housewife was written, but for poor people they may have been too expensive.
Speaking of too expensive, Mrs. Child flies in the face of one bit of common advice from the time, which was buying cake and bread from a baker because it was supposedly cheaper. Mrs. Child warned that doing so was a waste for a poor person because bakers would make their wares richer than the home cook would, not to mention their customers were paying them for their time.
Housewife was all about stretching what was available, such as how to preserve meats in brine and how to clean the stuffing in a feather tick. There are a lot of recipes for simple meals, most of them involving the cheapest cuts of meat, like mutton, and there are plenty of familiar dishes, like brown or white chicken Fricassee. Some of the info details how to test food for freshness. When buying mackerel, for instance, the trick is to pinch the belly. If it’s fresh, it should feel hard like butter, but if not, it’ll make a sound like a bladder half-filled with air. Her words, not mine.
Mrs. Child also advised roasting pig’s heads because so many parts of them were good to eat. It’s funny, but a scene in Manor House shows the Oliff-Cooper family eating a pig’s head for the novelty, not for frugality. It’s pretty typical of the Edwardian era, but it does illustrate how the upper classes could afford the better cuts. Amazing what changes in ninety years.
There are a ton of vegetable recipes as well, but most of the cooking times are way too long, especially by today’s standards. Cabbage, for instance, doesn’t always need to be cooked for an entire hour. I agree with what she says about keeping onions dry, though–it’s too easy for them to turn moldy. And she gives helpful information about which vegetables are in season when and which can survive in a root cellar.
The book is a little hard to follow because it’s not really organized by topic in some places–except for the food sections it’s Mrs. Child lobbing out advice as if she’s playing a ball toss game at a fair. The index only covers the recipes offered.
That might be a good thing, though, because for every bit of sound advice, there’s something absurd, ludicrous, or just plain gross. Like treating burns with cotton wool and oil. Or curing tetanus with a poultice made from pork or turpentine. Or treating headaches with citric acid.
That’s nothing on some of the other stuff. Mrs. Child advises using ear wax as lip balm. Yeah. Ear wax. She saves that plummy tip for the appendix.
The toppers, though, are when she talked about a guy in Missouri who treated what Mrs. Child called “cancer” on his nose with a potash of red oak bark and tar. After a few days the guy took the poultice off and everything was fine. Mrs. Child was skeptical about this, so it’s doubtful this kind of remedy was in wide use.
Oh, and she also says to treat a “run round,” which was probably a wart, with a hot lye soak. It’ll be painful, she says, but it will do the trick.
No, Mrs. Child. Just no.
Ironically, Mrs. Child tells her readers to avoid all forms of snake oil, except that she doesn’t call it that. To be fair, she was probably giving out advice that would have more or less fit with her time period. Still, I have to wonder where Mrs. Child got her information and how much testing went into the writing of Housewife, but the answers have probably been lost to time. I’m guessing there wasn’t a whole lot of vetting going on.
It’s no shock that the book went out of print in 1850 because it became laughably dated even by Victorian estimation. I got my copy at a museum in Mariposa many years ago, and it is, by far, one of the weirdest things I have ever read. Come to think of it, that’s one of Housewife‘s biggest strengths.
I’ll be posting in a surprise blogathon Friday. Thanks for reading, all, and hope to see you then…
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