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Household Goddess Mrs. Beeton: A 19th-Century Martha Stewart

Linda enjoys searching for fascinating travel destinations, seeking relaxation and fun, and (of course) eating great food.

Isabella Beeton

Isabella Beeton

As with the commander of an army, or the leader of any enterprise, so it is with the mistress of a house.

— Isabella Beeton

In the Beginning

Long before Martha Stewart became a household word, before Betty Furness promised that we could “be sure if it’s Westinghouse,” and even before Heloise gave us her hints, there was Mrs. Beeton.

I first learned of Isabella Beeton several years ago when going through a box of old textbooks and notes that had belonged to my mother-in-law, Eleanore, who was born 100 years ago and entered college in 1933. Her declared major was Domestic Sciences (also known as Home Economics), and in one of her notebooks were clippings from Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management.

Today, 155 years after its first printing, this masterpiece is still significant, and this is why:

  • It set the standard for all future cookbooks. No longer would we rely on a spoon of this or a pinch of that. Mrs. Beeton introduced each recipe with a list of ingredients, presented specific measurements, and provided clear and concise directions. She also provided the estimated time of preparation, the average cost per serving, the number of servings, and (when applicable) the season in which the dish could be prepared. (Keep in mind that 150 years ago, the fresh produce that we take for granted was not available on a year-round basis.)
  • It launched a new genre. Mrs. Beeton not only compiled hundreds of how-to recipes—but she also presented advice for household management, elevating housework to the respect this critical function is due.
  • It was the first published family health guide.

Who Was Mrs. Beeton?

Isabella Mayson was born in 1836, the first of four children. After the death of her father, her mother married a widower who was a wealthy racetrack superintendent who also had four children. They went on to have 13 more children of their own—an astonishing total of 21 children in one household. As the family expanded, so did Isabella’s role in helping to look after what she called “a living cargo of children.” At one point, some of the children were sent to live in the racetrack grandstand with Isabella and her maternal grandmother. There is no doubt that this experience helped her form the “hows” of household management.

On a trip to London in 1854, Isabella met the successful and well-known publisher Samuel Beeton (it was he who published Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin). They were wed in July 1856.

The English Woman’s Domestic Magazine was published by Samuel Beeton.

The English Woman’s Domestic Magazine was published by Samuel Beeton.

How Samuel Beeton Shaped Her Career

In 1852 Samuel Beeton began the publication of a new periodical, the English Woman’s Domestic Magazine. Of course, Isabella was interested in her husband’s business, but she also recognized that “domesticity” was a topic worthy of exploration. Before long, she was penning articles for Sam’s magazine. Her monthly supplements eventually became a single illustrated volume of 1,112 pages.

The size of the book was dwarfed only by its popularity. In its first year, 60,000 copies were sold; by 1868, sales were almost two million.

In the preface, Isabella Beeton discussed her motivation for writing the book:

What moved me, in the first instance, to attempt a work like this, was the discomfort and suffering which I had seen brought upon men and women by household mismanagement. I have always thought that there is no more fruitful source of family discontent than a housewife's badly cooked dinners and untidy ways.

— Mrs. Beeton

But there is more. She recognized the discordant juxtaposition of "properly prepared meals" versus the reality of what can be created in the simple and humble kitchen of the typical home.

Men are now so well served out of doors—at their clubs, well-ordered taverns, and dining-houses—that, in order to compete with the attraction of these places, a mistress must be thoroughly acquainted with the theory and practice of cookery, as well as be perfectly conversant with all the other arts of making and keeping a comfortable home.

— Mrs. Beeton

Obviously, Mrs. Beeton was not a feminist—she clearly believed in the traditional roles assigned to husband and wife. But she also recognized that there was a growing middle class without servants or staff who were desperately in need of advice on how to cook a meal, maintain a budget, care for children, and manage all aspects of the home.

A Bit of Criticism

There are hundreds of recipes in Mrs. Beeton's book. However, few of her own inventions.

In a clever and, at that time, novel bid to attract interest in her husband's magazine, Isabella invited readers to submit their own recipes. Four years (and much exhaustive testing and editing) later, she published those recipes in her book.

A few detractors point to the fact that these recipes were not properly credited, but she did not simply "cut and paste." She researched each recipe—tested, ascertained exact measurements, and re-wrote each to fit the style and presentation she had prescribed for publication.

And Praise

On the 150th anniversary of her birth, Graham Nown published Mrs. Beeton: 150 Years of Cooking and Household Management. He praised her contribution to household management by calling her:

... a singular and remarkable woman, praised in her lifetime and later forgotten and ignored when a pride in light pastry ... were no longer considered prerequisites for womanhood. Yet in her lively, progressive way, she helped many women to overcome the loneliness of marriage and gave the family the importance it deserved. In the climate of her time she was brave, strong-minded and a tireless champion of her sisters everywhere.

Her works speak for themselves; and, although taken from this world in the very height and strength, and in the early days of womanhood, she felt satisfaction—so great to all who strive with good intent and warm will—of knowing herself regarded with respect and gratitude.

— Samuel Beeton, The Dictionary of Every-Day Cookery

Boiled Broccoli: A Typical Mrs. Beeton Recipe

Ingredients

  • To each 1/2 gallon of water, allow 1 heaped tablespoonful of salt; broccoli.

Instructions

  1. Strip off the dead outside leaves, and the inside ones cut off level with the flower; cut off the stalk close at the bottom, and put the broccoli into cold salt and water, with the heads downwards. When they have remained in this for about 3/4 hour, and they are perfectly free from insects, put them into a saucepan of boiling water, salted in the above proportion, and keep them boiling quickly over a brisk fire, with the saucepan uncovered.
  2. Take them up with a slice the moment they are done; drain them well, and serve with a tureen of melted butter, a little of which should be poured over the broccoli. If left in the water after it is done, it will break, its color will be spoiled, and its crispness will be gone.

Notes

  • Time: Small broccoli, 10 to 15 minutes; a large one, 20 to 25 minutes.
  • Sufficient: 2 for 4 or 5 persons.
  • Seasonable from October to March; plentiful in February and March.

Why Did She Die So Young?

Nine months after the July 1956 wedding, Isabella gave birth to a son, Samuel Orchart. He died at 3 months. There were several miscarriages, and then the birth of another son (also named Samuel Orchart) in June 1859. Sadly, this child also died on New Year’s Eve. Another son, named Orchart, was born exactly one year later. On January 29, 1865, the couple’s fourth child was born—Mayson Moss. A post-partum infection took the life of Isabella just one week later, on February 6, 1865.

A Brief Timeline

  • March 14, 1836 – Isabella Mary Mayson is born to Benjamin and Elizabeth Mayson (nee Jerrom) in London
  • 1840 – Isabella’s father dies
  • 1843 – Isabella’s mother marries Henry Dorling
  • 1850 – Isabella attends boarding school in Islington, England
  • 1851 – Isabella attends school in Heidelberg, Germany and becomes proficient in piano, French, German, and pastry making.
  • 1854 – Isabella begins a relationship with Samuel Orchart Beeton; they are engaged to marry in June 1855.
  • 1856 – Isabella and Samuel are wed
  • May 1857 – Isabella and Samuel’s first son is born
  • August 1857 – The couple’s first son dies
  • June 1859 – A second son is born
  • October 1, 1861 – 1st edition of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management is published; by year’s end, 60,000 copies sold
  • December 31, 1862 – The second son also dies
  • December 31, 1863 – A third son is born
  • 1863 – A revised edition of Isabella’s book is published in installments
  • January 29, 1865 – Isabella and Samuel’s 4th child, a son, is born
  • February 6, 1865 – Isabella Beeton dies of puerperal fever
  • 1866 – Samuel Beeton sells the copyright on Isabella’s book for £19,000

Fast forward to today: Mrs. Beeton’s book is still in print. Millions of copies have been sold; there are more than 10 revised editions and dozens of abridged versions.

© 2016 Linda Lum