Monday, 8 April 2013

The Household Guide and Domestic Cyclopedia

So in case you have not heard, I am being the Ideal Housewife these days. Whatever that means. It is like a quirky social experiment, whereby the girl (okay, woman) who used to scream inside her own head at the prospect of staying at home and keeping house does just that with vigour and enthusiasm.

Maybe not every day, but I try. I make homemade granola, for heaven's sake, and the infamous $49 muffins. As I wrote in this post, I am inspired by my grandmother and strive to find the joy that she found in everyday life.

Lately I find myself turning to an unlikely source for inspiration. A few years ago, a gorgeous old volume of home-keeping appeared in a box of donated books I was sorting at the library. It was pleasantly smelly, as only very old books can be, and pages were falling out, but I simply could not throw it out. Published in Toronto in 1897, The Household Guide and Domestic Cyclopedia was created to help women in more ways than we can imagine, instructing on everything from how to clean nickel plate to making puddings, looking beautiful to writing a proper invitation, homeopathic remedies to comportment, nursing typhoid fever to the dangers of overfeeding children.

At times hilarious, this book is a goldmine of insight into the lives of our foremothers. While I question some of the advice (like how to make a pork and onion poultice for wounds), some words still ring so true. While the authors state that laughter is a great tonic, "giggling" is most definitely not:
There is no outward mark which demonstrates the woman of shallow mind so unmistakeably as that of giggling. There is no sense in the giggle; no benefit to be derived from it. It makes a fool of the person, and renders everyone about uncomfortable.
Well, then, I guess I am in trouble, having a giggle that was once described lovingly by my oldest friend as "machine-gun fire."

The interesting fact about this book is that the only part actually written by a woman is the last section, one of recipes and cooking tips. All of the other chapters, all 398 pages of them, are written by two men, who also co-wrote a book on Eugenics, which Wikipedia defines as "a social and political philosophy that tries to influence the way people choose to mate and raise children, with the aim of improving the human species."

Yowza. A little creepy, but anyhow, back to THIS book, our Domestic Cyclopedia. The authors have this to say about the fairer sex:
The organization of the home depends, for the most part, upon woman. She is the queen of domestic life. The management of the home depends upon her. Her character, her temper, her power of organization, her business management is what brings comfort and happiness to the home.
(I think this is true, since Katherine told me last week that I was Queen Mummy, Boss of the House.)

Some of the more amusing parts of this very amusing book are the sections on personal beauty and care, including tips for "cosmetics and cheerfulness":
Cosmetics are generally good for nothing but the drug business. One merry thought, one kind word, and the smallest contribution to another's happiness, will do more for the complexion than a tableful of cold cream, violet powder or other skin whiteners.
...Young lady, do not deceive yourself. You cannot use cosmetics without the knowledge of your gentleman friends. They will respect you more if you forever abandon the use of such subterfuge. 
Huh. I guess he told us. Abandon the subterfuge, ladies, that lipstick isn't fooling anyone! 

Love this workout for the busy Lululemon here.
Now let us remember this is all written by MEN. Which makes it especially fun when the instructions for how to develop the chest and bust come up later in the chapter. It is most definitely written by a man, and could be a man of 2013: The best treatment is gentle rubbing. This gentle friction night and morning (oh, in your dreams, buddy boy), five minutes at a time, will generally produce the desired results.  

On the bright side, they are proponents of breastfeeding, and give a truly excellent description of all different varieties of baby poop and what each colour and consistency might mean. Seriously, this is useful information if you have a baby and have NEVER ever in your life seen poop like THAT. This section is appropriately titled "Evacuations of a Child."

On a more serious note, the authors point out that out of 987,000 people who died in 1890, 400,647 of them were under the age of five. In their opinion, "this terrible mortality among children is undoubtedly largely the result of ignorance as regarding the proper care and treatment of sick children."
Never mind whether your little boy or girl stands first on the roll of honor or not. See to it that no honors or rewards are gained at the expense of vigor and health. Never slight the beginnings of a cold. From six to ten drops of turpentine will generally arrest a cold at the beginning...
It was really solid advice up until the turpentine, don't you think? Here are another couple of gems that stand the test of time, and that I just might adopt as my new mantras:
A successful life is nothing more or less for man or for woman than living as well as we know how and doing the very best that we can. 
The Art of Happy Living
Happiness is not an indescribable something always beyond one's grasp, but is in the reach of all, if we but look for it in the common path of life, in the ordinary routine of everyday duty.

More next time on this irresistible volume...


  1. This is great, Stephenie! Especially the technique for developing the bust:)

  2. Makes me wonder what people 100 years from now will think of our ideas today. And if they'll even have access to them, or if they will all be lost in the Clouds.

    Thanks for an entertaining read.

    1. That is a funny thought, Rita...probably those future folks will think we were quirky and quaint! I must say, though, the Luddite in me is afraid of anything called the Cloud. : )

  3. I found this book at discount second hand/bargain consignment store. Trying to figure which edition is from. There are several editions of this book. My book doesn't have the front and back covers and about 10 pages are missing