Let me give you some advice...
For 150 years, ordinary women have delighted in offering their household tips to strangers. Alice-Azania Jarvis learns from the original domestic goddesses.
Friday 03 December 2010
"Periodicals, the daily press, billboards, and other channels pound away at the habits of the housewife. Whole industries mobilise to impress a new dietary habit upon her. Supplementing them are the new home economics courses in the schools; girls and women from 9,200 homes of the city are being taught new habits in regard to diet and other aspects of home-making."
This was the verdict reached by sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd in 1924, after 34 years spent observing the changing lives of ordinary Americans in the small Midwestern town of Muncie, Indiana. Their work covered every aspect of modern life, though the changing circumstance of the housewife was, without doubt, one of the most marked.
Household advice – recipes, home décor, gardening: the sort of thing which, these days, tends to be enveloped in the glossy pages of a weekend supplement – experienced a transatlantic boom in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.
The New York Times launched a kitchen column and a series of cookbooks, and in the UK, sections with names like "the Table" and "the Household Department" sprung up in local papers. In 1861, Isabella Beeton published her Book of Household Management – a weighty tome which would see repeated and widespread reproduction in the 150 years that followed. The first cook to exercise significant influence within the English popular press, she provided recipes and household advice for The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine and The Queen. A few decades later these titles had been joined on newsstands by a raft of others, American and British: Good Wives,Woman's Weekly, Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, Irish Homestead and Woman's Home Companion. As one contemporary editor observed, the era had been marked by "a stupendous circulation in women's magazines".
Much of this was down to one group of women in particular. In 1876, Ellen Swallow Richards persuaded the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to open a Women's Laboratory. There, she pursued a nascent interest in "scientific cookery" – a discipline founded on the principle that food was not just a means to fill a hole, but a tool. Nutrition and taste: both could be used to engineer happier families and more wholesome societies. "Eating," observed Richards' colleague Mary Lincoln, "is something more than animal indulgence, and cooking has a nobler purpose than the gratification of appetite." A university graduate with a degree in chemistry, Richards was far from your average nineteenth-century housewife – but she was one of a growing coterie. Equipped, frequently, with a superior education and, always, with a sense of messianic zeal, the scientific cooks, or Home Economists as they came to be known, preached the virtues of good housekeeping, defining the tone of household advice as it would evolve over the next half-century. Fourteen years after the Women's Laboratory, Richards established the New England Kitchen, equipped with an extensive laboratory for the construction of chemically and nutritionally balanced menus.
Richards et al may have been an elite – but as the Lynds observed, it didn't take long for their methods to find their way into the mainstream, filtering down to shape the lives of ordinary women around the world. While early editions of The New York Times, for instance, present cooking instructions as haphazard, often reader-generated things, by the time of Richards' ascendancy, the style had changed.
"In the late 19th century, readers' recipes were replaced with stories by New York Times writers," explains Amanda Hesser on this. Hesser compiled The Essential New York Times Cook Book, a collection of recipes from 150 years of the newspaper's history. As well as our shifting tastes – one early recipe advocated grilling bacon and peanut butter and serving them together as an hors d'oeuvre – Hesser noticed a clear professionalisation of the domestic realm. "150 years ago the recipes came from home cooks, so they often lacked crucial details such as pan size and order of mixing. But by the 1940s, the recipe structure that we have come to expect – with an ingredient list and actual instructions – had filtered into the paper."
In the UK, magazines were quick to pick up on the trend for culinary precision. In 1875, the Liverpool Mercury noted that "of late, one of the most popular resorts in the metropolis has been the School for Cookery in Kensington", and by the 1880s, "ladies columns" – previously dominated by fiction and matters of behaviour – were given over to discussions of dinner party planning, catering on a budget, and the nutritional implications of vegetarianism. How much notice readers took of the high standards dictated in the press is unclear – though, as Joanna Bourke, Professor of History at Birkbeck University, points out, without the demand, the advice wouldn't sell. "There is strong evidence to suggest that women wanted this. Prior to the nineteenth century, most women had been employed in some way: not necessarily earning payment, but doing things like farm work and so on. The Home Economics movement was seen as a way of professionalising housework. Advice and lessons were actively sought out by women."
Their eagerness was no doubt driven, in part, by their belief in the scientific cooks' message: that wholesome food guaranteed a functioning society. It was also, says Bourke, a way of ennobling their position. "It made housewifery into a profession that men couldn't influence; it was specialised. As such, it was a form of domestic feminism." It produced concrete results. As the era's advice culture expanded, women well-versed in it achieved prominence in the previously male-dominated sphere: across Britain, they were increasingly appointed to council boards and asked with shaping policy relating to health and sanitation. In the US, professional home economists were commanding upwards of $20 per lesson – higher than many a male teacher.
With the dinner table thus conditioned, it was only a matter of time before the burgeoning culture of advice extended its reach. Seven years after Richards launched the New England Kitchen, she opened the Boston School of Housekeeping, broadening her ambitions to the rest of the home. She wanted, she said, "a professional school for home and social economics". Cleanliness and hygiene became matters of crucial importance. Processes and systems were devised and advocated in the popular press. As the American household writer Christine Fredericks wrote in 1907, "even the simplest one-process task may be standardised, and a better way found". Magazines ran elaborate diagrams and 13-point plans for doing the laundry. Dishes, readers were told, must be left just so to dry correctly. "There cannot be a properly cleaned room if some one step is forgotten," stressed Fredericks.
By the early twentieth century, the culture of advice had spread to childcare. A falling birthrate in the UK and the emergence of such child-centric professions as paediatrics and child psychology in the United States prompted a growing preoccupation with the well-being of the younger generation. "Poor parenting," wrote G Stanley Hall, a childcare expert, "is a problem comparable with the origin of sin and evil ... whatever role heredity plays, the youth who go wrong are, in the vast majority of cases, victims of circumstances."
So it was that, in 1912, the US government created a Children's Bureau, with Julia Lathrop – one of the first women to serve in government – at its helm. Child psychologists used the press to urge housewives to resist maternal instinct in favour of "scientific motherhood". In 1910, Cosmopolitan asked its readers: "Will children reared under the new scientific methods be superior mentally and physically to those reared in the old-fashioned ways of our mothers?" US publications dedicated solely to the job of childrearing sprung up, such as Parenting magazine in 1926, while British newspapers ran editorials on maternal education and the state of tomorrow's youth.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, evidence suggests that the ordinary housewife didn't always benefit from all this advice. While home economics did its bit to ennoble the home sphere, so the advice culture it produced chipped away at the confidence of its readers. By 1920, renowned psychologist Dr Abraham Myerson claimed to have identified a new condition amongst his patients: "The Nervous Housewife ... complaining, fatigued, and disillusioned, one of the commonest and saddest transformations." A raft of new ailments was identified: neurasthenia, psychasthenia, hysteria – products partly of a newfound interest in psychology and partly of genuine mental distress. The culture of advice may have been intended to help, but it came with its own ability to hinder.
Still, it lasted: the scale and reach of women's magazines and newspaper supplements only expanded. New areas – interior design, diet, fitness – fell under their sway; arguably, each one producing similarly mixed benefits. The celebrity chefs, the quick home makeover, the bikini blitz, the super-nannies all followed. The field of household advice – sparsely populated until the mid-nineteenth century – now overflows, spilling from books to newspapers to television and the internet, taking into account not just housewives but househusbands, students, people living alone and people sharing homes. In the 1920s, Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly proclaimed the accomplishment of a "Grand Domestic Revolution" – if only they'd known the half of it.
The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century by Amanda Hesser is published by W W Norton, £30. The School of Life is hosting a "Supper With Mrs Beeton", including wine, canapés and a talk from food historian Polly Russell on Monday 6 December: www.theschooloflife.com
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