Before The Joy of Cooking—even before Fannie Farmer—there was Mrs. Beeton and the Book of Household Management. Much more than just a cookbook, these thousand-plus pages told you everything you needed to know about running a household.
Mrs. Beeton’s book has been around, by various names, for more than a century and a half. So it would be reasonable to assume that “Mrs. Beeton” had no more real-life existence than Betty Crocker or Aunt Jemima. But take a closer look at that title page, and you’ll see that the original publisher was himself named Beeton. Can we deduce that, after decades of domestic comfort, he persuaded his wife or mother to put her lifetime’s accumulated wisdom into book form?
Well, not quite.
For the long version, see the 2005 biography The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton by Kathryn Hughes.
Short version: Isabella Mary Mayson (born 1836) and Samuel Orchart Beeton (born 1830) both came from families that had climbed from rural working class to urban middle class. The families even knew each other slightly; in her teens, Isabella went to school in Germany with Samuel’s sisters. Before that, she had grown up as the oldest girl in an enormous blended family: four of his, four of hers (including Isabella)—and thirteen of theirs. Much of her childhood was spent in and around her stepfather Henry Dorling’s prize property, the Grandstand at Epsom, which included a commercial kitchen that could feed thousands. In Germany, Isabella developed an interest in pastry cooking, and went on to take private lessons in England. We have to stress: pastry cooking. The specialty was just barely genteel enough that a woman could study it without losing caste, so long as she didn’t do it for money.
Samuel, meanwhile, had started the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine a few years before his 1856 marriage. Isabella knew nothing about his work beforehand, and doesn’t even seem to have been interested. Nothing wrong with that: after all, an absolute separation of Home from Work was central to the very definition of middle class.
Within the first year of her marriage, all this changed. Isabella Beeton, barely 21 years old, began writing for the EDM. Within a few more years, her writing grew into . . . drumroll . . . the Book of Household Management. Initially the entire text was chopped into 48-page segments—even if it meant breaking off in mid-sentence—issued monthly from mid-1859 to mid-1861 at 3d. each. When it was all done, the 24 segments were republished as a single 7s. 6d. book.
Once that was out of the way, Isabella changed hats—literally—to become the EDM’s fashion editor. This must have been much more fun, since it included yearly trips to Paris.
And then, not yet 29 years old, she died. This is her legacy.
If you take the number of recipes in the Book of Household Management and set them against Isabella Beeton’s known age, you will see at once that she cannot possibly have tested them all herself. In fact the recipes are almost never her own. Even the ones submitted by readers of the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, as promised in the Introduction, can just about be counted on your fingers.
But they had definitely been tested by someone, somewhere. Recipes in the BOHM are culled from a long list of books about cooking and housekeeping published in the century leading up to Mrs. Beeton. The chapter “Dine We Must” in the Hughes biography spends some time on the book’s culinary sources, complete with examples of parallel wording.
There are the Englishwomen: Hannah Glasse, Elizabeth Raffald, Maria Rundell, and above all Eliza Acton. There are the Frenchmen and other “man cooks”: Carême, Ude, Francatelli, Simpson, Soyer. Some writers don’t fall neatly into either group: Kitchiner, Brillat-Savarin. The duo of Thomas Webster “and the late Mrs. Parkes” gave us the Encyclopædia of Domestic Economy, which Isabella Beeton shamelessly plundered. Many of these earlier books have made their way into the Cookery Collection at Leeds University Library. You don’t have to go to Leeds in person, though; most titles are available at the Internet Archive.
Finally, there are the non-culinary sources. If I could identify the original of this passage (sec. 944) about keeping poultry:
The perches must be level, and not one above the other, or unpleasant consequences may ensue to the undermost row
—where “unpleasant consequences” may be filed under Best Euphemism Ever—or this (sec. 947)
If the cock should, by any accident, get killed, considerable delicacy is required in introducing a new one. The hens may mope, and refuse to associate with their new husband, clustering in corners, and making odious comparisons between him and the departed
or this (sec. 771), about pigs:
But however few, or however many, young pigs there may be to the farrow, there is always one who is the dwarf of the family circle, a poor, little, shrivelled, half-starved anatomy, with a small melancholy voice, a staggering gait, a woe-begone countenance, and a thread of a tail, whose existence the complacent mother ignores, his plethoric brothers and sisters repudiate, and for whose emaciated jaws there is never a spare or supplemental teat, till one of the favoured gormandizers, overtaken by momentary oblivion, drops the lacteal fountain, and gives the little squeaking straggler the chance of a momentary mouthful.
. . . I would unhesitatingly add the full text to my ebook collection. Meanwhile, I’ve collected some of the more interesting ones on the Sources page. Others are noted at the end of each file.
The Hughes biography helpfully identifies the BOHM’s artists:
Foster and Weir both worked regularly with Samuel Beeton’s publishing house. Weir’s contribution is especially visible; he not only used a clear monogram, but is named in the text as “Mr. Harrison Weir, our artist”. (He has since acquired an even better sobriquet, as “Father of the Cat Fancy”. But there are no cats in the BOHM.)
Chapters I-V: The Mistress, The Housekeeper, The Kitchen and Cookery
Chapters V-X: Soups, Fish, Sauces
Chapters XI-XVII: Beef, Mutton, Pork
Chapters XVIII-XXIII: Veal, Poultry, Game
Chapters XXIV-XXIV: Vegetables, Puddings, Pastries and Sweets
Chapters XXX-XL: Preserves, Dairy, Bread, Beverages, Invalids and Dinners
Chapters XLI-XLIV: Servants, Children, Doctors and Lawyers
Scattered throughout the Book of Household Management are clues about society that go far beyond the obvious descriptions of the Mistress’s day or a servant’s duties and wages. Take the tripartite classification into “meat”, “poultry” and “game”. The book’s target audience is the urban middle class, whose meat comes exclusively from the butcher. But the vocabulary harks back to a three-way rural split: large animals tended by men (cattle, sheep, pigs), small animals tended by women (domestic fowl, rabbits), and wild animals (venison, hare, most birds) brought home by poa— whoops! I mean, by hunters.
After telling us how to broil a beefsteak, it’s on to service:
Allow ½ lb. to each person; if the party consist entirely of gentlemen, ¾ lb. will not be too much.
To make up for their reduced appetite for beef, ladies get the best parts of a boiled fowl:
The wings, breast, and merrythought . . . are usually served to the ladies of the company, to whom legs, except as a matter of paramount necessity, should not be given.
The would-be carver has already been cautioned:
A tough fowl and an old goose are sad triers of a carver’s powers and temper, and, indeed, sometimes of the good humour of those in the neighbourhood of the carver; for a sudden tilt of the dish may eventuate in the placing a quantity of the gravy in the lap of the right or left-hand supporter of the host.
Finally, in the list of things not to be forgotten at a picnic, we are advised to “Take 3 corkscrews”. This sounds very much like the Voice of Experience.
None of the BOHM’s sources were much older than 100 years (mid-18th century). This is not because old texts were hard to find; anything that remained in demand would have been reprinted over and over, yielding pure profit for the publisher. When it came to cookery, there was something else at play. Look at early English works and you’ll find an entirely different culinary language, with techniques and ingredients that Isabella Beeton and her contemporaries would scarcely have recognized.
By the end of the 18th century, all of this earlier tradition had been lost—
For starters, almost all spices disappeared—at the very time that travel and colonialism had made imported spices cheaper and more readily available than in centuries past. (Note that the now-widespread myth about medieval cooks using heavy seasoning to camouflage the taste of spoiled meat had not yet come into circulation. The change was purely a matter of taste.)
Vegetables are typically boiled for half an hour. One modern writer observes that, while 19th-century ovens may have run cooler than today’s—explaining the long roasting times for meat—the laws of physics have not changed. Water boiled at the same temperature then as now. And vegetables can’t have been bigger; most were probably smaller. A further oddity is this, from the German traveler Gebhard Wendeborn, who wrote about England in 1791:
The English like also their vegetables on the table as green as when gathered, and therefore seldom boil them sufficiently . . . . though they would be more palatable, and more wholesome, if they dressed them as we do.
Does this mean that Germans in 1791 cooked their vegetables even longer than half an hour—or does it mean that the English taste for prolonged boiling was a very late development?
And then there was the matter of Hanging.
In Section 74, discussing the foods that are in season each month, the May entry includes “green geese”. The good news is that this does not mean geese that have been left to hang until they develop a greenish sheen. The bad news is that this description does not need to be stated, as it applies universally to Meat, Game and Poultry—although not, mercifully, to Fish. The following section (75) explains:
As soon . . . as the slightest trace of putrescence is detected, [meat] has reached its highest degree of tenderness, and should be dressed immediately.
Or, in plain English: cook it as soon as it starts to rot.
The recipe for Roast Saddle of Mutton is more specific about the time involved:
To insure this joint being tender, let it hang for ten days or a fortnight . . . . and trim away every part that has not indisputable pretensions to be eaten.
Moving on to Game, we are told:
Things edible have their degrees of excellence under various circumstances: thus, asparagus, capers, peas, and partridges are best when young. Perfection in others is only reached when they attain maturity. . . . But others, again, are not good until decomposition is about to set in.
You don’t have to take Mrs. Beeton’s unsupported word for it, either. For pheasant, she cites Ude:
They are only fit to be eaten when the blood begins to run from the bill, which is commonly six days or a week after they have been killed.
For partridge, we are allowed a little more leeway:
The time they should be kept, entirely depends on the taste of those for whom they are intended, as what some persons would consider delicious, would be to others disgusting and offensive.
This is one of the few times the Editress, or her source, concedes that not everyone cares for decomposing meat.
If you’re planning to cook from this book, rather than just read it like a novel, here are a few things to be alert for.
Extras for Americans:
Conversely, for Brits:
There is no section of the book set aside for descriptions of herbs and spices. For this you must rely on the Index. Many other recurring terms are hidden in the Sauces section, or in the Culinary Vocabulary list near the beginning.
There are some predictable omissions: the Editress doesn’t seem to have heard of paprika; cardamom is vanishingly rare; and no recipe—not even the one for homemade curry powder—uses cumin. (What was it with cumin, anyway? One mid-century encyclopedia that may have been on the Beetons’ shelf asserts that the taste and odour of cumin are so disagreeable, it can only be used in veterinary medicines. Maybe it didn’t travel well.)
Some recipes refer to “the size of a shilling”. Shilling coins in Mrs. Beeton’s time were 23.6mm, or pretty exactly the size of a North American quarter. Unless your coin drawer dates to before 1990, do not use a modern 5p coin as a guide; the best match is currently the £1 coin.
“The size of a walnut” is self-explanatory. “The size of a nut” (variety unspecified) means a hazelnut or filbert.
Liquid measures, from smallest to largest (most from Section 77, pg. 40):
On the other hand:
Most recipes end with four short items: “Time”, “Average Cost”, “Seasonable” and “Sufficient”. In the printed book, “Time” and “Average Cost” were usually, and “Seasonable” and “Sufficient” sometimes, combined on a single line. I’ve put each on its own line.
The line drawings and color plates are shown in their original places, give or take a paragraph. I sized them to fit most screens while giving as much detail as possible, so the drawings will appear a little larger, the full-page plates somewhat smaller than their original size. Each plate consists of three to five separately labeled pictures. The count goes from A to Z and then starts over again with A1. As an old-fashioned touch, there is no plate J—though U, V and W are all used. I’ve shown these individual illustrations, slightly enlarged, near the text that references them (“see Colour Plate B”). When a particular subplate is never named in the text, I’ve put it where it seems most appropriate.
Typographical errors are marked with and are listed again at the end of each chapter. All corrections listed in the author’s Errata have been made in the text. (Some of them are quite funny. “Oh, oops, I guess that would work better with two pounds instead of half a pound.”) The word “invisible” means that the letter or punctuation mark is missing, but there is an appropriately sized blank space. Invisible punctuation at line-end (not common) has been silently supplied. A few invisible numbers in recipes were supplied from the 1863 edition, which appears to be a page-for-page reprint of the 1861 original.
Inconsistent italicization, such as “bain marie” on one page and “bain marie” on another, is in the original. The same applies to variable spelling of French words in the body text: here an “entree”, there an “entrée”.
Finally, I’ve included the signature marks (“Aa”, “Bb” and so on at every 16th page) so you can see where the issue breaks fell. As originally published in 1859–61, every three signatures made one threepenny pamphlet; the all-in-one volume came afterward.
If you are searching for exact text, note that headers do not have diacritics (“accents”). So à la génévese or maître d’hôtel or Française in the body text will be a la Genevese or Maitre d’Hotel or Francaise in recipe titles. This may or may not matter, depending on your device. It would have been trivial for me to add the missing diacritics, but it seemed better to leave everything as printed.
Unless otherwise noted, all spellings are as in the original. Variable spelling and hyphenization may reflect different sources from different dates. Some words are spelled one way at the beginning of the book, another way at the end.