Domestic Economy

Maintaining the household and keeping it fed in early nineteenth century London: or, first make sure your kitchen utensils are not about to kill you… see the warnings in the contemporary manuals of cookery and domestic economy linked below about the dangers that lurked in your pots and pans, and how to avoid them.

Then consider the problem (also addressed in these works) of the pervasive problem of food adulteration.The extensive documentation of the extremely ick-making state of food safety (not) in London that emerges from the Medical Officer of Health reports only commenced in 1848 with the appointment of John Simon as MOH for the City of London, now available digitised and searchable free online at London’s Pulse, there is certainly evidence that the conscientious cook and domestic manager had to keep out an eagle eye for contaminated and adulterated food.

While the reports of cows being kept in London parks may give a charmingly pastoral impression, a very large number of metropolitan cows were necessary to supply the demand for milk in such a large conurbation and most of them lived in unhygienic sheds or even cellars. The problems with the milk supply were already considerable before it came to the question of whether the milkman was watering it. Here is an article on the milk-borne diseases which were still posing threats to health in 1932.

The itinerant milk-seller figures among the various other Itinerant Traders of London in their Ordinary Costume, portrayed by William Marshall Craig, 1804, several of whom would have been callers at the mews door of Clorinda’s pretty little house.

There was no refrigeration. Some establishments had ice-houses, well-insulated underground buildings in which blocks of ice would be placed in winter, which would preserve a chill interior for some months. But other means of preservation of seasonal foods were used: pickling, salting, smoking, potting, drying, jam-making.

A recent major advance in kitchen technology was the development of the cooking range in place of open fires. This was more fuel-efficient and much safer and usually also provided areas with different levels of heat, as well as heating water.

Keeping London houses clean was a major task. Coal fires might have been a considerable advance in home heating but the downside was dirt, not merely in the domestic space but air pollution in the wider environment, where coal smoke combined with the mist and fog produced by the micro-climate of the Thames Valley to produce smog.

Some popular cookery books and domestic manuals from the Regency era, available to read online:

Maria Rundell, A new system of domestic cookery: formed upon principles of economy, and adapted to the use of private families (1819)

Elizabeth Hammond, Modern domestic cookery, and useful receipt book: containing the most approved directions for purchasing, preserving and cooking meat, fish, poultry, game, &c. in all their varieties. Trussing and carving: preparing soups, gravies, sauces, made dishes, potting, pickling, &c. with all the branches of pastry and confectionary; a complete family physician; instructions to servants for the best methods of performing their various duties. The art of making British wines, brewing, baking, &c. (1819)

Mrs Smith, The female economist; or, a plain system of cookery, for the use of families; containing upwards of eight hundred & fifty valuable receipts (1819)

A Lady, The modern cookery: written upon the most approved and economical principles, and in which every receipt has stood the test of experience (1818)

Duncan MacDonald, The new London family cook; or, Town and country housekeeper’s guide … With the respective branches of pastry and confectionary, the art of potting, pickling, preserving, &c., cookery for the sick, and for the poor; directions for carving … Also a collection of valuable family recipes in dyeing, perfumery, &c. An an appendix, containing general directions for servants relative to the cleaning of household furniture, floor-cloths, stoves, marble chimney-pieces, &c. forming in the whole a most complete family instructor (1812)

John Farley, The London art of cookery and domestic housekeeper’s complete assistant. Uniting the principles of elegance, taste, and economy : and adapted to the use of servants, and families of every description (1811)

The classic predecessor of the better known Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, Eliza Acton’s Modern cookery, in all its branches; reduced to a system of easy practice (1849)

Wednesday 17th August 2022

L.A. Hall, FRHistS