From The Virginia House-Wife Cookbook, circa 1825


I came across this antiquated volume tucked back in among my collection of cookbooks.  I vaguely recall someone, maybe my husband, thinking I would appreciate its quaint take on cookery and the role of women in that far-flown age.  I did, but then The Virginia House-wife got lost behind the other larger books and forgotten.  Yes, it’s definitely from another age.

To quote from the author, Mrs. Mary Randolph, also known as The Methodical Cook, as she calls herself, “The grand areanum of management lies in three simple rules: “Let everything be done at a proper time, keep everything in its proper place, and put everything to its proper use.”

“If the mistress of the family will every morning examine minutely the different departments of her household, she must detect errors in their infant state…early rising is essential to the good government of a family.  A late breakfast deranges the whole business of the day…when the family breakfasts by detachments, the table remains a tedious time;  the servants are kept from their morning’s meal…No work can be done until the breakfast is finished. The Virginia ladies who are proverbially good managers employ themselves while the servants are eating…arranging the cruets, the mustard, salt-sellers, pickle vases,  and all that apparatus for the dinner table. ”

“The husband who can ask a friend to partake of his dinner in full  confidence of finding his wife unruffled by the petty vexations attendant on the neglect of household duties, who can usher his guest into the dining room assured of seeing that methodical nicety which is the essence of true elegance,  will feel pride and exultation in the possession of a companion who gives to his home charms that gratify every wish of his soul…”

And so on regarding the attainment of perfection for married women. And you thought this was just a cookbook.  No, it’s also a moral treatise on the expectations heaped on new housewives.  But I detected one vital element that helps make this ideal state attainable, SERVANTS!

Amazon, that has everything, also has The Virginia House-wife and says it was originally published in 1825, so we have a later reprint from 1897. Of the book, it states, “The Virginia House-Wife was the most influential cookbook in nineteenth-century America. Considered the ultimate how-to cookbook, it rivals some of the currently popular cookbooks with its commonsense knowledge and advice which remains practical to this day.”

Well, maybe not ALL of its advice remains practical, but it’s chocked full of recipes and quite interesting to read over.

2 responses to “From The Virginia House-Wife Cookbook, circa 1825

  1. Wonderful! I ordered it so as to have it on my shelf as well. I also have another wonderful text from the same period: A woman’s book of household management: everything a woman ought to know by Florence Jack. This one was originally written in 1911 for an English household, but it nonetheless, contains fascinating ‘advice’ on how a woman should conduct her life and all the moral lessons to be learned from doing housework. LOL. These are fascinating glimpses, to me, of how far we’ve come. I recall my own mother’s discussion of my grandmother’s life from the 1930s – in which every day of the week was devoted to some aspect or other of house work. Tuesday every one did their laundry. Wednesday everyone did their ironing, etc. And last year I was in the elevator and an elderly African-American man was lamenting that the ‘community’ has gone straight to hell now that women have gone to work. (I am an African-American female scientist, so I found that comment particularly interesting). My grandmother never, ever, left her house, and spent most of her leisure time on the front porch critising other people from that vantage point. Her life/values were so different from mine. I have a robot to do my floor cleaning, for example. I’ve spend a lot of time doing research on literature from the time about women’s sense of being ‘confined,’ or limited, and the social issues that led to. Anyway, I still think we haven’t arrived at a nice balance between the demands of work and home, and still don’t know what ‘perfect domestic bliss’ in Jane Austen terms really means.

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    • Thanks so much, Claudia, for your wonderful insights. Yes, I’m not sure what the ideal balance is either, but life certainly has changed, even for me and I live on a farm in the rural Shenandoah Valley. I need a robot houseworker for sure.

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