Recipe Books

Recipe books became part of the popular press thanks to Isabella Mary Beeton’s “Book of Household Management” which was first published in 1861. For many years it was the best selling book on the topic and became a “must” for the well-appointed Victorian kitchen. There are chapters on preparing all kinds of food and drinks; food for invalids; domestic servants; the rearing and management of children; diseases of infancy and childhood; and the doctor. The book is over 1,000 pages long and offers advice on such diverse subjects as etiquette, animal husbandry, poisons and fashion. It is well illustrated with coloured engravings on nearly every page and was the first book to lay recipes out in the form that we still use today.

Isabella Beeton was born in Cheapside, London in 1836 to Benjamin and Elizabeth Mayson and educated at Heidelberg. She became an accomplished pianist and married Samuel Orchard Beeton in 1856.

Her famous book was written when she was only 22 years old, but her life was filled with tragedy. Their first child Samuel died in September 1859 and soon afterwards the couple had a second child also called Samuel. The winter of 1858 was very severe and Isabella opened a soup kitchen at her home for the poor children of Hatch End and Pinner. She had a very short life, dying from puerperal fever at the age of 28.

Although there were other Victorian recipe books, Mrs. Beeton’s is the one we all remember, giving the middle-class housewife and her staff much of the information required to run the “perfect home”. Cooks could experiment like never before using many of the new ingredients that appeared in the shops from all over the Empire. The newly built railways enabled fresh food to be quickly and cheaply transported over long distances and new techniques such as canning and bottling were developed for preserving food. In the 1860s cheap ice was available and refrigerated transport appeared in the 1880s.

Illustrations from Mrs. Beeton's book.
The following is a brief description of a typical Victorian middle-class household where the early recipe books would be found. It is worth noting that many working-class families and poorer families would not even have been able to afford to buy a recipe book let alone some many the ingredients mentioned within.

Victorian and Edwardian Kitchens


What were kitchens like when Mrs. Beeton’s book first appeared? They were certainly very different from what we know today. Victorian families were often large with maybe 10 children and several servants to feed and look after. The kitchen was a hive of activity with a lot of work to be done.

Cooking was often done by the cook rather than the lady of the house on a cast iron kitchen range, which had a raised open fire in the centre with an oven on either side. A cooking pot could be hung over the fire on a hook and items could be roasted in front of the fire on a spit, which was turned by hand or even operated by a clockwork motor. A large tin would be placed underneath to catch the fat. The range was also used for heating water. A boiler at the back provided all of the hot water for cooking, washing and household needs. Gas ovens slowly replaced the kitchen range. Early versions were exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851 but they were slow to catch-on. People were afraid of gas explosions and eating food that had been exposed to harmful gas fumes. Gas cookers didn’t sell in large numbers until the 1890s when they gradually replaced most of the old solid fuel ranges in middle-class homes. In many working-class homes it was a different story, ranges continued in use until well into the twentieth century.

A large wooden table would be used as the work surface and would be carefully scrubbed-down between each use. There would be a large wooden dresser with open shelves for crockery and drawers for table linen and cutlery, and possibly a square or rectangular “Belfast” sink.

Gas lighting would be installed in the more affluent homes, others would have used oil lamps. Walls were often finished with white or distempered plaster, or even varnished paper for ease of cleaning. Glazed wall tiles became more affordable in the 1890s and they became very popular being so easy to clean. Windows were very high to provide efficient ventilation and floors were made of stone slabs or unglazed tiles.

Food was stored in the pantry or larder, a room off the kitchen that was sometimes fitted with slate or marble shelves to help keep the food cool. Such things as washing-up, vegetable preparation and laundry work were done in the scullery. Even smaller houses had a scullery and often it would contain the only sink in the house. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that kitchen sinks became popular.

The kitchen was a busy place with so many mouths to feed thanks to the large families that were commonplace at the time. Labour saving devices were a necessity and all kinds of aids were developed. There were knife sharpeners; lemon graters; lemon squeezers; parsley choppers; sugar snippers to cut pieces of sugar from a slab; potato peelers; mincers; and even hand-operated food processors. The electric kettle was invented by Crompton and Company in 1891 and temperature controlled ovens were developed that used a complicated system of flues and metal plates. The cook could now prepare the more complex meals that had previously only been enjoyed by the wealthy.

Cleaning the kitchen

In Victorian times few proprietary cleaning agents were available. Recipe books sometimes contained formulas for making your own. Knives and utensils could be cleaned with abrasives such as emery powder, and rust was removed with a mixture of turpentine, camphor and emery powder. Glass could be cleaned with methylated spirit on a cloth and then polished with a leather, and brass and tin could be cleaned using a mixture of rape oil and rottenstone. Silver could be polished using a mixture of chalk, ammonia, alcohol and water. Drains were disinfected with chloride of lime and all animal and food refuse was burned.

Washing powders are a modern invention, in those days a blue bag was used instead. We all take furniture polish for granted today whereas in Victorian times this was often made from a mixture of beeswax, white wax, turpentine and white soap.

Another illustration from Mrs.
Beeton's book.

Domestic Servants

Domestic servants were commonplace in middle-class homes, working-class families relied upon their children to do much of the work.

Smaller houses had only one servant, a maid of all work. She did all of the household work including cooking, cleaning, washing, shopping, and lighting and tending to the coal fires. She lived in the house and possibly only had one week’s holiday a year.

A larger house would have had several servants. There would have been a cook who prepared the meals for both the family and servants, a scullery maid who did all of the dirty jobs such as washing up, doing the laundry, scrubbing floors and preparing coal fires. There would also be one or more housemaids who looked after the family and did all of the general housework.

Mrs. Beeton was by no means the first lady to produce a recipe book but she did inspire many others to do the same, aided by the Victorian’s emphasis on self-improvement and the growth of education.

Old recipes are evocative of the past and are fun to follow and try out, giving us an opportunity to sample some of our ancestor's favourite food.

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