Housekeeping Advice for Virginia Housewives
Mary Randolph was born Aug. 9, 1762, into the influential Randolph family of Virginia and was kin to Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee, as well as a host of other famous people. She married a first cousin, David Meade Randolph, and was therefore a Randolph from birth until her death Jan. 23, 1828.
In 1824 Mary wrote one of the earliest regional cookbooks to be published in this country called The Virginia Housewife, which went through many printings prior to the War Between the States. I thought Mary’s introduction to the volume was interesting.
Mary begins by recounting the difficulties she had when first married as there were no books such as hers to provide guidance, and apparently her own mother had not trained her well. She points out that, “The government of a family, bears a Lilliputian resemblance to the government of a nation. The contents of the Treasury must be known, and great care taken to keep the expenditures from being more than the receipts. A regular system must be introduced into each department, which may be modified until matured, and should then pass into an inviolable law. The grand secret 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.’” She emphasizes that “if the mistress will every morning examine minutely the different departments of her household, she must detect errors in their infant state, when they can be corrected with ease.” Also, “a late breakfast deranges the whole business of the day, and throws a portion of it on the next, which opens the door for confusion to enter.”
Mary goes on, “Management is an art that may be acquired by every woman of good sense and tolerable memory. If, unfortunately, she has been bred in a family where domestic business is the work of chance, she will have many difficulties to encounter; but a determined resolution to obtain this valuable knowledge, will enable her to surmount all obstacles. She must begin the day with an early breakfast, requiring each person to be in readiness to take their seats when the muffins, buckwheat cakes, etc., are placed on the table. This looks social and comfortable. When the family breakfast by detachments, the table remains a tedious time; the servants are kept from their morning’s meal, and a complete derangement takes place in the whole business of the day. No work can be done till breakfast is finished. The Virginia ladies, who are proverbially good managers, employ themselves, while their servants are eating, in washing the cups, glasses, etc., arranging the cruets, the mustard, salt-sellers, pickle vases, and all the apparatus for the dinner table. This occupies but a short time, and the lady has the satisfaction of knowing that they are in much better order than they would be if left to the servants. It also relieves her from the trouble of seeing the dinner table prepared, which should be done every day with the same scrupulous regard to exact neatness and method, as if a grand company was expected. When the servant is required to do this daily, he soon gets into the habit of doing it well; and his mistress having made arrangements for him in the morning, there is no fear of bustle and confusion in running after things that may be called for during the hour of dinner. When the kitchen breakfast is over, and the cook has put all things in their proper places, the mistress should go in to give her orders. Let all the articles intended for the dinner, pass in review before her: have the butter, sugar, flour, meal, lard, given out in proper quantities; the catsup, spice, wine, whatever may be wanted for each dish, measured to the cook. The mistress must tax her own memory with all this: we have no right to expect slaves or hired servants to be more attentive to our interest than we ourselves are: they will never recollect these little articles until they are going to use them; the mistress must then be called out, and thus have the horrible drudgery of keeping house all day, when one hour devoted to it in the morning, would release her from trouble until the next day. There is economy as well as comfort in a regular mode of doing business. When the mistress gives out everything, there is no waste; but if temptation be thrown in the way of subordinates, not many will have power to resist it; besides, it is an immoral act to place them in a situation which we pray to be exempt from ourselves.”
Mary concludes her introduction with, “The prosperity and happiness of a family depend greatly on the order and regularity established in it. The husband, who can ask a friend to 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 render the haunts of dissipation hateful to him. The sons bred in such a family will be moral men, of steady habits; and the daughters, if the mother shall have performed the duties of a parent in the superintendence of their education, as faithfully as she has done those of a wife, will each be a treasure to her husband; and being formed on the model of an exemplary mother, will use the same means for securing the happiness of her own family, which she has seen successfully practiced under the paternal roof.”
So there it is, ladies, the best advice for the mistress of a Virginia plantation in those heady days prior to that terrible war – a war that wiped out much of the gracious living Mary Randolph wrote about.
– Sam Moore
A pre-Civil War kitchen in Virginia. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
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