Thursday, November 30, 2006

Victorian Domestic Arts

Something which never fails to interest me is what everyday life, especially in the home, was like for people at different times in history.

The cooking stove to the left comes from the Victorian period. In my kitchen library I happen to have a reprint of a book originally published in 1879 titled Housekeeping in Old Virginia. Most of what the book contains is recipes. But in this book the author explains what is needed in a well equipped kitchen of the times. Funny thing is the author didn't mention a microwave. (wink).

Taken from this book:

"The furnishing of a kitchen is so important that I must here say a few words on the subject. First, the housekeeper must have a good stove or range, and it is well for her to have the dealer at hand when it is put up, to see that it draws well."

"Besides the utensils furnished with the range or stove, she must provide every kitchen utensil needed in cooking. She must have a kitchen safe, -- a bread block in the corner, furnished with a heavy iron beater; trays, sifters (with iron rims) steamers, colanders, porcelain preserving kettle, perforated skimmers and spoons, ladles, long-handled iron forks and spoons, sharp knives and skewers, graters, egg beaters (the Dover is the best), plenty of extra bread pans, dippers and tins of every kind, iron moulds for egg bread and muffins, wash pans, tea towels, bread towels, and hand towels, plates, knives, forks and spoons for use of the servants, a pepper box, salt box, and dredge box (filled), a match safe, and last, but not least, a clock."

"In cases where you cannot have cold and hot water conveyed into the kitchen, always keep on the stove a kettle of hot water, with a clean rag in it, in which all greasy dishes and kitchen utensils may be washed before being rinsed in the kitchen wash pan."

"Always keep your cook well supplied with soap, washing mops and coarse linen dish rags. I have noticed that if you hem the latter, servants are not so apt to throw them away. Insist on having each utensil cleaned immediately after being used. Have shelves and proper places to put each article, hooks to hang the spoons on, etc."

"If you cannot have an oil cloth on your kitchen floor, have it oiled and then it may be easily and quickly wiped over every morning. Once a week, have the kitchen and every article in it thoroughly cleaned. First clean the pipe of the stove, as the dust, soot and ashes fly over the kitchen and soil everything. Then take the stove to pieces, as far as practicable, cleaning each part, especially the bottom, as neglect of this will prevent the bread from baking well at the bottom. After the stove is thoroughly swept out, oven and all, apply stove polish. I consider "Crumbs of Comfort" the best preparation for this purpose. It comes in small pieces, each one of which is sufficient to clean the stove once, and is thus less apt to b wasted or thrown away by servants than stove polish that comes in a mass."

"Next remove everything from the kitchen safe and shelves, which must be scoured before replacing the utensils belonging to them, and these too must first be scoured, scalded, and wiped dry. Then wash the windows, and lastly the floor, scouring the latter unless it is oiled, in which case, have it merely wiped over."

"Never let a servant take up ashes in a wooden vessel. Keep a sheet-iron pan or scuttle for that purpose. At night, always have the water buckets filled with water and also the kettles, setting the latter on the stove or range, in case of sickness or any emergency during the night. Have kindling wood at hand also, so that a fire may be quickly made, if needed."

So there you have it ladies. If ever you should acquire a Victorian kitchen in the future, you will know how to equip it and keep it clean. If ever you should acquire a Victorian kitchen, I hope and pray you have servants to go along with it. Looked like a lot of work to me.


  1. Wow that stove is beautiful. The lady sounds like a "Martha Stewart" for her day. I'm glad I have my modern day kitchen to work in. I can imagine that the Victorian kitchen took a lot of work.

  2. A friend I went to High school with moved to North Carolina and he built reproduction stoves similar to what you have pictured here Susie. The biggest problem with a stove like this is finding a place in the kitchen that has a sturdy enough floor base for it and moving it there. Once there that is where it will stay. These stoves a very heavy and cutting the wood for them is a lot of work. I suppose not too many women of my "Me" generation would be willing to spend so much time preparing meals and keeping the kitchen in order as it is described.

    I still refuse to use a microwave in my kitchen even though the rest of my life is very high technology oriented. I think keeping my cooking to basics (a Gas stove with Revereware pots and pans)and no heat and eat meals keeps things in perspective for me.

    Both of my Grandmothers learned how to cook on these kind of wood fired stoves because they told me about them. I don't think either one of them had very many servants though:-)

  3. Lucy, thanks for stopping by. I am working on another blog which will feature similar posts perhaps exclusively. It will be sort of a living history type blog with my great-grandmother as the historical figure. I will be the interpreter for the blog. I will let you know when I have it up and running with a few posts.

    JG, thanks for dropping in. Here is something interesting about servants during the Victorian era; they were a dime a dozen and so, the middle class and even the lower class in England and the Eastern part of the U.S. back then had at least one servant in the household.

    The abundance of servants made it possible for the near well-to-do to enjoy opulence at the dinner table far beyond anything we are used to today. During those times, the dinner table was set with such an array of tableware that a person needed to take a course in which piece was to be used for what kind of food. Today we think we might be overdoing it if we include a salad fork and a salad plate in the place setting.

    I do not know what was ultimately responsible for the eventual disappearance of servants in households. No doubt it was an economic factor though involving better jobs at better wages.

  4. I do not know what was ultimately responsible for the eventual disappearance of servants in households. No doubt it was an economic factor though involving better jobs at better wages.

    The Industrial Revolution and factory jobs were most likely the cause Susie. Women could go and and make more money and feel some freedom for the first time earning a paycheck of their own. I still see some of those real "sweatshops" of the late 19th and early 20th centuries when traveling through Philadelphia. There is a old textile mill and sewing factory not far from where I live near Lancaster, PA that has been converted into a mini mall with shops and a resturant in it.

  5. JG, the following description of the scullery maid's duties gives you a good idea of the degree of opulence wealthy Victorians enjoyed at the dinner table.

    "Below the housemaids were the kitchen maids followed by the scullery maids. The kitchen maids assisted the cook to prepare meals. The scullery maid, the lowest of all, spent all her time washing dishes, pots and pans. And there were a lot to clean. A ten course meal for a dinner party of a modest group of eighteen might generate as much as five hundred individual items to be washed by hand. A ten course meal didn't mean ten different foods, it meant meat, vegetables, and dessert ten different times with a complete place setting at each course."

    Imagine all those dishes....and no handy automatic dishwasher.

  6. The Victorian stove reminded me of a
    conversation I had recently with my
    Grandmother's sister. I asked her how they cooked cakes and biscuits in a oven that had no thermostat. How would they know how hot the oven was? How would they keep from burning some foods to a crisp? She didn't know.
    She just knew they did it when she
    was a child growing up in a house of
    ten children, and they always had
    plenty to eat. They also had no
    maids and raised most all of their
    When I think of cooking on a stove
    heated with wood, I try to remember
    to give thanks that I have never had
    Thanks for the look into the past. You have given me some ideas for that book that keeps patiently
    waiting on me.

  7. Thanks for stopping by, Sharon. My great-grandmother would have cooked on a wood burning stove too when she was first married in 1897. She had ten children.

    Well, I am looking forward to the first installment of your book. I hope you decide to start a blog and do some of your book writing there.

  8. The stove is a work of art in and of itself.

    Wishing you a happy holiday, Susie.

  9. I have friends that still use a wood stove - good in winter, not much fun in the Australian summer.
    Have you ever come across Mrs Beetons' excellent book?

    Sadly no women seem to refer to it now.