A COUPLE of years ago I returned from one of the popular bric-a-brac fairs held at Kinver with an old book called The Modern Housewife's Book.
In this case, the word "modern" referred to the 1930s, the book being published in 1935 by John Leng & Co of Dundee and London.
What struck me was the amazing amount and range of information between the battered covers – all offering advice to help housewives run the "modern" home efficiently.
From mid Victorian times onwards, publishers had realised that there was a relatively untapped market in all matters domestic. In 1859, Isabella Beeton's Book of Household Management' appeared and since then has never been out of print. From then on, women's magazines and books began offering handy hints on virtually everything under the sun.
My Modern Housewife's Book was just one of a very long line of these "how to ..." books aimed at women.
Initial research into my purchase revealed that my book was indeed one of a long line of instructional books going back to 1895. But, delving further, I found that it actually evolved from an extremely popular publication that's still thriving, today – namely The People's Friend.
This magazine was founded in 1869 as a "monthly miscellany in connection with the People's Journal published by John Leng & Co. The paper was designed to instruct and entertain and to be "especially a friend of the mothers, wives, daughters and bairns of Scotland."
The magazine long since found its way across the border, and is now published by D.C. Thomson – of Dandy and Beano fame. It still features stories and articles on crafts and domestic advice.
By the 1890s, the magazine had an advice page called Gossip with Good Wives, overseen by an Aunt Kate. As her column grew more popular, Aunt Kate began producing "one penny" books on a wealth of household related topics. And, in 1935, her byline appeared on my Modern Housewife's Book.
By then, Kate's expertise embraced such topics as employment for women, budgeting, courting and marriage, etiquette, presents, signs and omens and even how to cure consumption! In common with most household writers of the day, she devoted a large section of copy to Invalid Cookery. There were few topics she felt unqualified to write about, including DIY, gardening, parlour games, dance music, conjuring tricks, cookery, needlework – and even emigration.
It was a topic of concern to many single women in those days as females outnumbered males considerably in the UK. Consequently, many travelled the Empire in search of work or a mate. No doubt Aunt Kate had suitable advice for these "surplus women" as they set off into the unknown.
So who was the redoubtable lady behind the pseudonym? The answer to that is she was journalist and editor at The People's Friend, Helen Greig Souter. Her first household bible, Aunt Kate's Handy Book of Personal and Household Information appeared in 1895, followed by a book on knitting and crochet, some penny novellas and an Almanac in 1899. From then on, under Aunt Kate's editorship, no domestic stone was left unturned. The book I have includes a fair amount of DIY, with instructions on perfect paper hanging , changing fuses and how to re-charge an electric bell. Quite pioneering and empowering for its time, when women were still considered to be "the weaker sex".
Of course, with everything the "modern housewife was now expected to turn her hands to, she still had all the responsibility for feeding and clothing the family. Just like today, household management gurus like Aunt Kate offered "Quickly made dishes for busy days" – including dishes like Liver Savoury, Cheese Scramble, Fish Patties, and Egg Omelette. Slightly odder, quick fixes include a dessert called Pineapple Candlesticks and a main course of Bacon and Bananas – although I gather this is quite popular today.
In those days, depending on your social class, setting up home could be daunting. Up to the First World War even fairly modest households might afford a servant or some daily help. After the war, women's magazines published countless articles on how to manage the "servantless household". Not that most working class women in the Black Country would have had much sympathy. Many Black Country housewives worked in metal trades like nailing and chain making, and had to rely on older children to help with child minding and domestic chores, while they worked, inside or outside the home. The idea of not knowing how to cope with the "servantless household" would have been laughable to them!
In the industrial heartland of the Midlands, most workers lived in older, run-down housing. Even if they didn't work, most women had a full time job just trying to keep the place clean, laundering and mending clothes - and filling hungry bellies on meagre budgets. Still, if they could afford to buy them, women's magazines and books like Aunt Kate's, were welcome additions to many homes.
From the start, in 1869, the mission statement of Leng's Peoples' Friend was very clear. To put things in context, Queen Victoria was a recent widow, Gladstone was Prime Minister, and people were still reeling from Darwin's theories of evolution. Mid Victorian society was increasingly concerned with notions of self help, self improvement and morality – especially among the working classes. So, while Leng's magazine was "devoted to fiction ... the Friend being intended for fireside reading, nothing was admitted into its columns having the slightest tendency to corrupt the morals either of old or young ..."
By the time Aunt Kate put her stamp on my copy of The Modern Housewife's Book we were in the Great Depression. Yet, leafing through its pages, you'd hardly know it. But as we know such magazines and books are also meant to divert and entertain. Their cosy orderliness offering a respite from troubles, especially in times of war or collapsing economies.
There are modern Aunt Kates dishing out similar advice to busy women today. We may have far more labour-saving household gadgets, but have they really freed us from bearing the brunt of domestic chores?
We all know the answer to that!
In the meantime, I leave you with some more pearls of wisdom from Aunt Kate, under the wonderful heading – and I kid you not - Tarts are always popular.
Short crust pastry
2 tablespoonfuls sugar
A pinch of salt
2 egg whites
Essence of almonds
Roll out the pastry thinly and line a greased sandwich tin with it. Decorate the edge with an extra strip of pastry, fluting it neatly. Prick the bottom and bake in a hot oven for 12 minutes. Rub the bananas through a sieve and add to them the sugar, salt and unbeaten egg whites. Beat all together till stiff and frothy, then flavour with almond essence and a squeeze of lemon juice. Fill the pastry case with the mixture and bake in a moderate oven for 20 minutes. When cool, decorate the top with the stiffly whipped cream." (The Modern Housewife's Book, 1935)