A new transcription at Project Gutenberg provides a look at household procedures in the 1850s—at least as far as one writer was concerned. Common Sense for Housemaids, a pamphlet-length work by Ann Fraser Tytler, is a strangely fascinating description of how to make a bed, how to polish just about anything, how to arrange the breakfast, lunch, or dinner table, how to light a fire, how to— Well, how to do just about anything that needed done. It’s the stuff that was considered too unimportant to record; and it’s absolutely the best reading ever if you’re interested in how housework could be done. While the book was written for a British audience, the procedures would be the same in the U.S.

Common Sense also makes one wince, in the description of what the typical day of a housemaid was supposed to be like. The woman never, ever seems to have a moment to herself: she’s setting up the breakfast table, she’s tidying the bedrooms, she’s laying and lighting the fires at the correct times, she’s tidying the parlor, she’s clearing the breakfast table and washing dishes, she’s mending, she’s washing lace, she’s ironing, she’s setting up the lunch table, she’s answering the front door, she’s serving the lunch, she’s clearing the lunch table and washing dishes, she’s sweeping the carpets, she’s cleaning windows, she’s setting up for supper and serving it and clearing up, she’s— Well, about the only thing she isn’t doing is cooking (and the poor cook has to run up to deliver the food at the proper time and then run down to fetch more) or taking care of the horses. And I’m betting she wasn’t paid very well for any of this.

Did any one person do all of this in a small household? Could any one person do all of this? Either way, it makes for a fascinating and exhausting read; I very much recommend this well-proofread little volume.

A little sample (and, brace yourself for some reeeeeally long paragraphs):

When candles are required in the sitting-rooms, in addition to the lamp, let the candlesticks be properly cleaned, and fresh candles set in them, and the shorter pieces made use of for the bed-rooms; where wax-candles are not used, see that the snuffers for the different candlesticks are completely emptied and carefully wiped, and that there is a pair of snuffers for each bed-room candlestick, as well as for each sitting-room. The lights being thus prepared for night, and the work in the different rooms finished, if it is not sweeping-day, the housemaid will still have some time for needlework before laying the cloth for dinner. Before sitting down to work, she will of course wash her face and hands, change her working-dress for a gown with long sleeves, a white apron instead of a coloured one, and a tidy modest-looking bobbin-net cap, coming close to the face, and tied with a ribbon of some quiet colour; nothing is more unbecoming in her station, than a flying out cap hanging on the back of the head, with gaudy soiled ribbons streaming down in all directions. The style of dress adopted by servants of late years is much to be regretted; it is a loss of their money, of their time, and above all, of their respectability; a maid-servant can never be too scrupulously clean and quiet in her dress.

A few more observations on this subject may be added in another place. In sitting down to work, she will take care to be within hearing of the drawing-room bell, and the knocker of the street door. By proper regulation there will always be some part of each day for needlework, and in the country, where less sweeping and dusting is required, a great deal may be done in this way. It is a pleasant sight to see a young girl neatly and quietly dressed, busily plying her needle, her tidy work-basket beside her well stocked with cotton-reels, rolls of worsted, tapes, needles, pins, scissors, and thimble. It will probably be her business to mend the bed and table-linen, to watch over the state of the carpets, table-covers, &c., and repair them when necessary; a slit or tear in the carpet, even of an attic, is sure to give a bad impression of the housemaid. The bed-linen should be carefully looked over each time before going to the wash, and the slightest fracture or slit repaired; and instead of allowing the middle of the sheet to wear into holes, while the sides are quite good, as soon as the sheet begins to wear, the breadths should be unripped, and the sides turned into the middle and joined again. Care should also be taken that the buttons or strings for each pillow-slip are complete; it is most desirable that the housemaid should be a good darner of table-cloths, and also of stockings, for where there is no ladies’-maid the darning of the ladies’ stockings will be part of her work; and even where there is, the charge of the gentleman’s stockings generally falls to her care; but anxiety to get on with her work must not lead her to forget when the time for laying the cloth for dinner shall have arrived. Having previously rung a bell precisely half-an-hour before dinner, as a signal for the family to dress, which bell should be punctual as the clock itself, and having at the same time added fresh coal to the fire, swept the hearth, and placed the plate-warmer before the fire, she should enter the dining-room to lay the cloth a quarter of an hour before the dinner-hour strikes. To enable her to be ready in this time, however, all must have been prepared before sitting down to work; the clean knives and forks put into the tray, the mustard and vinegar replenished, the tops of the cruets carefully wiped, and the salt-cellars filled. To avoid as much as possible having to open and shut the door often when laying the cloth, collect as many of the articles necessary as you can bring in at one time in a large tray, glasses, tumblers, spoons, knife-tray, bread-basket, and beer and water jugs. All being prepared, see that the stand for placing your tray in while you bring in the glasses, &c., is placed in a convenient corner of the room, and that the basket for carrying the plates and the trays for the knives and forks which have been used, are placed near the sideboard, but not in the way to prevent passing easily. Having brought everything into the room which is necessary, shut the door, and having laid the cloth perfectly straight on the table, place a plate for each person, with a napkin neatly folded upon it, and on the right side of the plate, place a knife and spoon, and on the left a silver fork. The soup-plates should be placed before the person who is to help the soup, and a carving-knife and fork, and a gravy-spoon, put at the top and bottom of the table. Place a salt-cellar at each corner of the table, lay a couple of spoons on each side of it, and a crystal caraffe filled with clear spring-water; see that those caraffes, and the tumblers and glasses (which should be placed all round the table for each person) are perfectly clear and bright: a clean glass-cloth should be brought into the room to wipe off any dimness which a finger may have caused. When the different articles on the table are perfectly bright-looking, and the dishes neatly sent up, the plainest dinner has a look of comfort, and even elegance about it. A knife, fork, or spoon, which has not been properly cleaned, cannot be taken into the hand without being discovered, and leaving a disagreeable impression; a visitor may not have the courage to send it away, but the comfort of his dinner is destroyed. Having cut some slices of bread rather thick, cut each slice into four, and with a fork, put a piece all round for each person, leaving the loaf in the room in case more may be required; when more is called for, hand some additional pieces in the bread-basket. Place a chair for each person.

See what I mean? Exhausting.


Transcribing The Fashionable Letter Writer, a collection of model business and personal letters printed in the U. S. in 1819, I was struck by the contrast between the “ideal” letter from a schoolboy to his father and a very real one in my own collection.

The letter in The Fashionable Letter Writer sounds like the father wrote it:

I am infinitely obliged to you, honoured Sir, for the many favours you have bestowed upon me; all I hope is, that the progress I make in my learning will be considered as some proof how sensible I am of your kindness. Gratitude, duty, and a view to my own future advantages, equally contribute to make me thoroughly sensible how, much I ought to labour for my own improvement, and your satisfaction. I have received the books you sent for my amusement. The Princes of Persia I have almost finished, after which I shall peruse Mrs. Chapone’s Letters on the Improvement of the Mind. They please me much. The liberal allowance of money you have been pleased to make me, shall be applied in the best manner I am able. I am sure my dear father will not censure me should I devote a part of it towards the relief of the wretched and unfortunate. Pray give my most dutiful respects to my mother, my kindest love to my brothers and sisters, and believe me, dear sir,

Your most dutiful and affectionate son.

Who ever wrote a letter like that without some ulterior motive?

The Fashionable Letter Writer has a complicated history. It’s a reorganization of Magee’s London Letter Writer (published in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), which is a reprint of The London Universal Letter Writer (1809), which contains letters from The New London Letter Writer (around 1800) (both the British titles are available at google books). And the New London Letter Writer is—probably from some earlier work.

Of fiction, perhaps. The letters in the Fashionable Letter Writer that I’ve found in the New London Letter Writer are … bizarrely specific and probably unusable as a model. (The letters on love and romance are microscopic melodramas of tremendous charm.) Still, publishers thought enough of them that the letters were reprinted and re-reprinted and re-re-reprinted well into the nineteenth century. The letters, though, have a vaguely British feel even before you find out that they probably come from a British source.

Fashionable Letter Writer, for example, was reprinted with a different introduction in 1862 as The American Fashionable Letter Writer. Same exact letters, with that British air.

Which brings us to the schoolboy letters of John H. Case, from Fulton, New York, written in 1862. A real person at a real school in Geneva, New York, which had two boarding schools for boys during the period John was in school. John was the new kid, and he was boarding with at least one wealthy boy: probably William George Fargo, jr (1845-1872), the son of William George Fargo, who founded the American Express Company (which apparently was used to transport some things to John) and Wells Fargo. William, jr, was 16 years old when these letters were written; John Case may have been about that age. I’ve been unable to find information on a John H. Case I feel certain is the correct one; research is ongoing. This student’s handwriting is fairly sophisticated—much more sophisticated than his spelling or punctuation, which are terrible and horrible and just amazingly bad.

Like the model schoolboy in the published letter, John mentions money. Unlike that ideal schoolboy, John doesn’t tongue-bathe his father or faux-plead permission to give money for good works. Instead, John mentions (and mentions and mentions) just how much money he’s had to spend getting his room in order, and how little money he has left:

Jan 19, 1862

Dear Father.

I received mothers letter yesterday. Dr gave it to another boy thinking it was his the boy seeing it was a mistake handed it to me arftere dinner for it was at dinner that he distributed them. the bell Just rang for us to assemble is the chape. My chum is reading thare are to other boys in here one is grinding a hand organ it plays four tunes. I should like your music box here a while. my chums Father is Mayor of buffalo and also President of the American Express company. It is a rainy day we have not been to church to day. the docter talked to us in the chaple. We have plain liveing here for brefast we have coffee bread and butter and boild potatoes. for dinner we have bread mashed potatoes and meat hard as a brick bat and gravey. for supper we have bred and butter & tea. the boys have secret soitys [societies] and Eating soity I belong to one they have great times at these meetings. All sorts of tricks are played on boys that have Just entered school. thay have not played any on me yet. there was a Freshman that come into our hall to room and the boyes put in his bed an Oil can sone nut shells and fixed his bed so that he could not get into it only so fare when his feet would hit these aticals that thay put in it he roled out of bed too or three times but did not say a word for he knew a nough to keep still. I bought some calico to put over my clothes to keep the dirt of them and some to put under for the walls are white washed and thay get all white it cost .72 cents. And I bought a lamp and some oil the lamp cost 6 shillin the oill cost 42 cents. And I being a new boy had to treat some of the boys to something to eat. I had to pay to get my choth sowed. I had to Join a soity and pay some thig to Join it. I have got to get some hooks to hang my clothes on. My money is all gone but three shilling. I recieved Rolands letter I have written to Nellie and have not recieved an answer has she recieved my letter. My wrapper comes handy. I need a stand in my room. I should like to meet you and mother and Tota in Syracuse next saturday write and let me know what you think about it. I am not home sick yet but I should like to see some of you. I like my Teachers very much my room is over one of the Teachers rooms and he has got a little Squaker that sings pretty loud some times. how is my Pony. is Peater [?] with you yet. I recieve my Paper every Weak. Give my love to all a kiss to Flutter buget.

Your Affectionate Son
J. H. Case

N. B. beshure and scend the carpet as quick as posible

Now, that’s a letter I can believe came from a schoolboy! (And John did get the carpet, and the bureau, before the end of January. Along with a dollar. Seventy-five cents of which he spent having his watch fixed.)

Forty-hour trousers

March 1, 2015

A link to an interesting post on how much work went into making a linen shirt before the Industrial Revolution reminded me of a similar piece in Robert Merry’s Museum in 1844.  “A Story of the Revolution” was intended to honor the strength and determination of the generation that fought the American Revolution; what’s interesting is that the individuals being so honored are the young people, not their parents, who presumably would be leading them.  It’s a fourteen-year-old who overcomes her mother’s despondency and accomplishes a feat impressive to several generations.  In this excerpt, the “good old lady” tells her story to her children:

“Late in the afternoon of one of the last days in May, ’76, when I was a few months short of fifteen years old, notice came to Townsend, Massachusetts, where my father used to live, that fifteen soldiers were wanted.

“The training band was instantly called out, and my brother, next older than I, was one that was selected. He did not return till late at night, when all were in bed. When I rose in the morning I found my mother in tears, who informed me that my brother John was to march the day after to-morrow morning at sunrise. My father was at Boston, in the Massachusetts Assembly. Mother said that though John was supplied with summer clothes, he must be away seven or eight months, and would suffer for want of winter garments. There were at this time no stores and no articles to be had except such as each family would make itself. The sight of mother’s tears always brought all the hidden strength of the body and mind to action. I immediately asked what garment was needful. She replied, ‘pantaloons.’

“ ‘O! if that is all,’ said I, ‘we will spin and weave him a pair before he goes.’

“ ‘Tut,’ said my mother, ‘the wool is on the sheep’s back, and the sheep are in the pasture.’

“I immediately turned to a younger brother, and bade him take a salt dish and call them to the yard.

“Mother replied, ‘Poor child, there are no sheep shears within three miles and a half.’

“ ‘I have some small shears at the loom,’ said I.

“ ‘But we can’t spin and weave it in so short a time.’

“ ‘I am certain we can, mother.’

“ ‘How can you weave it?—there is a long web of linen in the loom.’

“ ‘No matter; I can find an empty loom.’ By this time the sound of the sheep made me quicken my steps towards the yard. I requested my sister to bring me the wheel and cards, while I went for the wool. I went into the yard with my brother, and secured a white sheep, from which I sheared, with my loom shears, half enough for a web; we then let her go with the rest of the fleece. I sent the wool in with my sister. Luther ran for a black sheep, and held her while I cut off wool for my filling and half the warp, and then we allowed her to go with the remaining part of her fleece.

“The wool thus obtained was duly carded and spun, washed, sized, and dried; a loom was found a few doors off, the web got in, woven, and prepared, cut and made two or three hours before my brother’s departure—that is to say, in forty hours from the commencement, without help from any modern improvement.”

The good old lady closed by saying, “I felt no weariness, I wept not, I was serving my country. I was assisting poor mother, I was preparing a garment for my darling brother.

“The garment being finished, I retired and wept, till my overcharged and bursting heart was relieved.”

 There’s a lot of interest here:  the process, the specialized equipment (sheep shears and loom shears), the amount of wool necessary (two sheep have only part of their fleece sheared), the fact that the brother would need to be sent off with appropriate clothing for a season several months away.

The anecdote also seems to reinforce what spinners on ravelry.com have pointed out:  that practiced spinners are faster than those cited in the original blog post.  It was, however, an incredible amount of work to clothe a family; and it’s easy to see why the development of the sewing machine in 1857 was celebrated as a literal life-saver for American women.