Thursday, 17 July 2008

The Woman's Book

Picture taken from Cornell University's Home Economics Archive.

Well, it's times like this I wish I had a scanner. The Woman's Book, which does indeed "Contain Everything a Woman Ought to Know", has some wonderful illustrations of Edwardian women, resplendent in bluestockings and bloomers, exercising to improve both their health and vitality, just like their American counterparts in the picture I nabbed from Cornell University! There are also detailed pictures on home milinary, canary breeding cages, linen cupboards, French hairstyles, plain sewing, carving instructions, carpet sweepers and those new-fangled gas stoves. Indeed, The Woman's Book is such a comprehensive guide to middle-class, female, Edwardian existence that I could only do it justice, examining it in detail and placing it within a proper social and historical framework, by writing a thesis on it! This would I feel make for very boring blog fare, so I'm going to do my best to precis its importance and its interesting bits, for your delectation, gentle reader.

First, the book is the product of a remarkable and little know home economist, Florence B Jack. Jack was the principal of the School of Domestic Arts in Edinburgh and later went on to be director (I think, I shall find her exact title out asap) of the British Good Housekeeping Institute. She published many articles in Good Housekeeping magazine between the wars and a wide range of practical cook books including The Good Housekeeping Cook Book, which you can still find for pennies. The Woman's Book, first published in 1911, is however her magnum opus, consisting of chapters on cooking, household management, household finance, health and fitness, child rearing, dressmaking, nursing, gardening, travel, pets, poultry and beekeeping. This list is in no way representative of the book's contents. Think of your own lives, and all of the knowledge you have and the things you have achieved, then imagine cramming this information into a single book, this is what Jack has attempted, and it is no mean feet.

However, it is not simply the comprehensive nature of this book which makes it highly desirable to collectors. Like Beeton it is an effective window into the hopes and aspirations of middle class women at a rather interesting period of time. Just as Beeton charted the rise of the class conscious suburbanites of industrialised, Victorian, Britain, Jack has shown us the cusp of a new moral age. An age in which women will experience an unprecedented amount of freedom, an age where empire and class divisions begin to crumble. So whereas Beaton accepts that a servant workforce will be cheap and plentiful for those householders lucky enough to afford it, Jack talks about the servant problem, young girls preferring factory work to the work of parlour or kitchen maid. She advises women to treat their servants fairly, giving them warm rooms and days off, not just in the spirit of generosity, but in the spirit of pragmatism. We see new kitchen and household appliances appear in order to save the mistress, who has fewer servants and a large home, time and energy. We also see her encourage women to do hands on work for themselves, to acquire the necessary knowledge on household matters, to encourage her servants but also in preparation for those times when she may have few or no servants to help in the home.

However, it is in the very final chapter of the book where we see the book's true collectibility. My own interest is in home economics and homemaking, as many of you know, but other women collect the book because it is the very first housekeeping manual to include chapter on girls' education, careers for women and more importantly women's suffrage. And on these points Jack does not pull her punches. She goes into great detail on how women should train their daughters not just for a life in the home, but for a life in the workforce. For her it is a matter of expediency; not every women will marry, not every woman will bear children, therefore single and widowed women have the right to lead full and useful lives without the taint of dependent Victorian spinsterhood/widowhood. She also details ways in which a married woman can earn extra income whilst still managing a home; a typing service, making sweets and bon-bons (giving good recipes too!), journalism, writing and beekeeping. Moreover, she lists the universities that will offer full degrees to women (all of the red bricks, but none of the Oxbridge colleges as yet) and the universities which will offer medical training for women. She goes into great detail on the training of nurses and teachers and says the creative women may enjoy work in the new hair dressing salons which are popping up all over the country! And finally, she says this:

The question of women's rights is one of the most passionate questions of social reform of our day. The character of the women who are leading the movement. the determined way in which the arguments are being fought out, the great impression produced in Parliament, and the deep and almost unexpected response which the cry of revolt has produced throughout the masses of women of the country, all go to prove that this is a question that must be seriously faced and dealt with.

Women, like men, have a desire to expand their realm of intelligence, to take part in the affairs of the world, which bear upon their lives, and the restraint and force of mere tradition, prejudice, or caste, have become intolerable to them. Women want freer lives because they want freer development; they want more capable minds and increased capacities for grappling with the increased difficulties of modern civilisation...

She then goes on to list the names and addresses of the influential women's suffrage movements of the day, including the Pankhurst women, Mrs Henry Fawcett and Lady Frances Balfour. And, as a modern reader, I can't help but think of the no-nonsense and radical nature of these additions to the book. That is to say, "Everything a Woman Ought to Know" now included how to become educated and how to take a full and complete part in the politics of your nation, as citizens, rather than as dependents.

However, Jack's call for women to "take part in the affairs of the world" is balanced with her obvious fascination and joy she felt for the domestic sphere. For her, domesticity was a paid occupation, for the majority of women she trained and wrote for, domesticity was an unpaid vocation and she wanted them to do it well and enjoy it. The immense detail within the book is perhaps testimony to her love of women's achievements, both within the home and out of it. She writes eloquently about motherhood and good nutrition, in detail on how a woman can save money by running up her own frocks, how sound financial management can make or break a happy home, how a housewife's first duty is to be cheerful and loving and how you can successfully dye a straw boater. For her a woman's sphere was large and ever expanding, women were the receptacles of a practical and spiritual knowledge vital to the proper function of society, but she could also see a time when women's knowledge could be expanded further to matters of politics, academia and the running of an effective beauty salon! I shall leave you now with a few inspirational quotations to help you on your merry way. Enjoy!

We as a nation are very much behindhand with our cooking arrangements, and it is only now that we are beginning to realise that training in the subject should form an important branch of every girl's education.

It is Hammerton who says that "Intellectual labour is in its origin as dependent upon the art of cookery as the dissemination of its results is dependent upon paper-making and printing. Cookery in its perfection - the great science of preparing food in the best way suited to our use - is really the most important of all sciences and the mother of the arts."

A woman should cherish her health as her most valued possession, for good health is assuredly as potent a factor in promoting her happiness as ill-health is in destroying it...The healthy woman, by very reason of her vitality, permeates cheerfulness and happiness around her.


~~Louise~~ said...

What an extraordinary post! Well done! I love the fact that she seems to encourage life as a single woman. So many domestic books of the era touched on the subject ever so gently but shied away from true encouragement.

If you could find out a specific date for anything to do with her such as her birthday or anything, I would love to include her on my calendar and link to your wonderful post.

LBP said...

Great post! I have several old home economics books. My favorite in The Complete Home by Julia McNair Wright. It is very old, and my copy is falling apart, but if you ever by chance see one, get it. It's great!


p.s. Followed you here from Patty's blog.

Dulce Domum said...

Hi Louise
Yes, I think her encouragement to single women was quite prescient, as there were more single women after WWI than in any other time in British history. There is a whole literature out there which somehow reflects this. I'll try to find a birth date and I'll get back to you.

Hi lpb
Thanks for visiting. I've heard of Julia McNair Knight, but don't have any of her books. I'll look out for that one. Thank you for the recommendation. Oh, if you enjoy old cook books, homemaking books etc, pop over to Louise's site, she's got a treasure trove of stuff over there.