But try not to attract too much attention, warns Jane Matthews
There's a great temptation to sneer at the pile of books on Jackie Percival's desk. For the past 15 years, since she first stumbled on a Victorian anthology of household hints, the OU history student has been a collector of this type of good housekeeping guide.

The genre is still familiar: tucked away behind modern picture cookbooks produced for people to salivate over rather than cook with; they have hard covers in beige or sage; tiny text on poor quality paper; and a tone alternating between the twee and the dictatorial for an audience with as much spirit as a damp mop.

If we consult them at all, it is in the same mood of disbelief as museum visitors regard medieval instruments of torture. Did our ancestors really spend three days dismembering and glazing a boar's head, then carefully reinstating its eyes and tusks so it could take pride of place on the table? How could our grandmothers have believed that to draw attention to themselves in the street by laughing aloud - even in 1911 - was virtually the equivalent of hitching up their skirts and sticking a red lamp in the window? According to The Woman's Book published that year, "it is not (a lady's) aim to attract the eye of the crowd, but to escape its notice".

As her collection has grown, Jackie has become increasingly unwilling simply to dismiss books of household hints and tips as comfortable glimpses of a way of life - and a way of womanhood - which has disappeared.

She says: "I do enjoy their cosiness. They are all very insular and go on in roughly the same vein about how good it was to be at home. There is very little about marriage or divorce apart from the laws governing them. None deals with death, though there is something about laying out a body. Men appear mainly in the adverts, or concerned with bills, gardens and cars, but never anything as lowly as a shopkeeper. And babies appear as if by magic after you've got married."

However, she is also convinced that the books have a serious historical value in their own right: not because they are worth much - like most mass-market women's literature the trade does not value them and she has never had to pay more than pounds 2 for a volume - but as an astonishingly detailed record of what real life looked and felt like for generations of women over the last century.

Says Jackie: "We were taught very dry economic history at school, but when you start to read these books and think about the home - how people lived, how much it cost them to live - it fleshes out those outlines. It's easy to dismiss the books as silly and frivolous, and yet there were so many published over such a long period they must have been a part of every home.

"Three years ago I studied family and community history with the OU and one of the things I took from it was the value of original source materials to piece the past together. I have never come across any text which describes what home life was like for women in the 1930s from the women's point of view - and yet it is all here."

Which explains why the texts are now spread on the desk of her Gosport home. Inspired partly by her OU course, Jackie hopes to fill that particular gap in the literature.

Undoubtedly, her own home would have the authors of her collection pulling on their perfectly laundered white gloves and making their excuses. She is not especially interested in housekeeping in its own right: apart from an odd phone call from friends wanting an outlandish recipe, the only time she can recall using any of the hints and tips was an experiment with a 1940s recipe for oil to use on clock mechanisms.

Jackie is even more dismissive of the 1990s equivalent: the homes and gardens' glossies groaning on newsagents' shelves are as packed with perfect pictures of perfect homes - and as convinced of their readers' need for proper guidance - as anything in her collection. She can't avoid the conclusion that things may not have changed as much as we'd like to think. Then it was social death to find cockroaches in the kitchen. Now we worry about listeria, and race out to buy new kitchen tools made of something clever and scientific that cuts down the risk of household germs.

Then, if a bride bought the wrong brand of china her friends would whisper among themselves; now, according to the homes magazines, if you haven't got a chrome cafetiere your friends won't bother to call at all.

One of the ironies of Jackie's collection is that it shows how - even if the details have changed - our obsessions remain the same: keeping clean and keeping control; doing, saying, buying and being the right thing.

Skim through women's magazines from the 1950s and you find sketches of models with the same non-existent figures - straight necks, straight legs and terrifying bone structure - as provoke heated debate today.

The message connecting us with our mothers and their mothers is that whatever else may change, we're still not good enough. At least not without the help of a guide to living. There is a positive side to this. Flicking through the guides, there is that same delightful sense of recognition which comes from spotting a toy from our childhood in an antique shop window.

Our childhoods may have passed, but an advertisement for an Ascot wall heater, a recipe for junket, and patterns for traycloths embroidered with hollyhocks, dissolve the borders of memory and the past lives again. Not the past of today's instant DIY-store nostalgia but, Jackie points out, an age in which the original owners of her books worked a 16-hour day - even if they had servants, for then they had to learn how to manage people.

"In one book I counted that you needed something like 21 different types of brush to keep your house clean. The guides assume you will do everything for yourself (one particularly hefty volume takes the reader step by step through everything from making a loom to dismantling a car axle) and there are vast amounts of craft stuff, including a disgusting section on how to make an ornament from fish bones," Jackie observes.

It's just possible that the collection paints a picture of ideal homes and housekeeping as idealised as today's magazines. The next stage in her research is to explore how seriously these household guides were taken by the women who owned them.

"I have written to a couple of magazines to try and find out from their older readers how well used the guides were. My own have got cookery splashes on them so they must at least have used those pages, but it's possible that they may have been given as wedding presents to successive generations and were never looked at.

"When you read the books you ask yourself how they would ever have found the time to do all the things the authors expected of them. The books would certainly have made the readers feel inadequate, but then women have always been good at that."

Meanwhile, she may be starting her own trend, for it's become noticeably harder to add to the collection in recent years. The most likely explanation is not that Jackie's appearance in print has sparked a rush on a new collectible - but that editors and publishers are now snapping up their own original source material so that they can run authentic features on how to stencil our homes to death.