Housekeeping in 19th Century America

Recipe and household instruction manuals from the Burns Library's General Collection, from top to bottom: <a href=";vid=bclib&amp;onCampus=true&amp;group=GUEST&amp;loc=local,scope:(BCL)&amp;query=any,contains,ALMA-BC21361188130001021"><i>The House Book</i></a> , <a href=";vid=bclib&amp;onCampus=true&amp;group=GUEST&amp;loc=local,scope:(BCL)&amp;query=any,contains,ALMA-BC21361367800001021">The Young House-keeper</a> , <a href=";vid=bclib&amp;onCampus=true&amp;group=GUEST&amp;loc=local,scope:(BCL)&amp;query=any,contains,ALMA-BC21366983680001021"><i>Mrs. Putnam's Receipt Book</i></a> and <a href=";vid=bclib&amp;onCampus=true&amp;group=GUEST&amp;loc=local,scope:(BCL)&amp;query=any,contains,ALMA-BC21363905970001021"><i>The American Woman's Home</i></a>.

Recipe and household instruction manuals from the Burns Library’s General Collection, from top to bottom: The House Book , The Young House-keeper , Mrs. Putnam’s Receipt Book and The American Woman’s Home.

As the season changes from Thanksgiving to preparations for holiday festivities, cooking, cleaning and all things of the home are brought to mind.  Four 19th century books in the Burns Library’s General Collection offer fascinating glimpses of middle and upper-class  American home life.  These recipe or “receipt” books and household manuals sought to instruct young house-keepers and newly married women in the art and science of cultivating a thriving home and family.

Title page from Mrs. Putnam's Receipt Book, TX 715 .P962 1858, General Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Title page from Mrs. Putnam’s Receipt Book, TX 715 .P962 1858, General Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Mrs. Putnam’s Receipt Book is a cookbook, provider of menus, and dispenser of advice. The first part of the book is dedicated to recipes, followed by menu options for small or large families made specific to the season. The last section offers advice on how to run a household and manage servants.  The recipes in Mrs. Putnam do not follow contemporary cookbook format with ingredients listed first, followed by instructions. Instead, each recipe provides ingredients and directions together.  While more complicated recipes are fairly detailed, simpler recipes seem to presuppose some familiarity in the kitchen on the part of the cook. The recipes are followed by a collection of menus offering different meal options for small or large families, in summer or winter, or at the children’s table.  The focus is on combinations and seasonal appropriateness: there are several lists which provide a guide to what foods are best in what month. The final section offers advice specifically to young or new housekeepers, mainly on the management of servants and how to establish order and economy within the household. The tone of this book is practical and accessible though it seems to favor a middle-class audience.

"Recipes for Plain Cooking" from <a href=";vid=bclib&amp;onCampus=true&amp;group=GUEST&amp;loc=local,scope:(BCL)&amp;query=any,contains,ALMA-BC21361367800001021">The Young House-keeper</a> by William A. Alcott, TX 145.A355 Y73 1838, General Collection, John J. Burns Library.

“Recipes for Plain Cooking” from The Young House-keeper by William A. Alcott, TX 145.A355 Y73 1838, General Collection, John J. Burns Library.

William Alcott’s book, The Young House-Keeper, advocates for a mainly vegetarian diet, the importance of chewing food well and thoroughly, the dangers of serving food that is too hot, and the importance of the housekeeper as a moral educator within the house. His main argument is that housekeepers are mothers and how they fulfill their role in the home has the ability to shape society as a whole. Chapter by chapter, Alcott lists the benefits and ills of various types of foods. Alcott warns against using meat as anything except a condiment and proposes a diet of plain food. This section is followed by several chapters on how to implement these changes in diet and household economy. The book ends with a recipe section entitled “Recipes for Plain Cooking.” Alcott suggests that housekeepers should invent their own recipes following his guidelines. He also admits that his recipes take varying skill levels and he counsels women using his book to choose recipes that suit their abilities in the kitchen. The recipes that follow are remarkable for their absence of spices or flavorings; the recipes are also all vegetarian.

Preface and table of contents from <a href=",scope:(BCL)&query=any,contains,ALMA-BC21361188130001021"><i>The House Book</i></a> by Miss Leslie, TX 167 .L47 1845, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Preface and table of contents from The House Book by Miss Leslie, TX 167 .L47 1845, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

The House Book by Miss Leslie explains the proper care of a house from the furniture to the laundry. The author explains that the book is written for families of comfortable means and is intended to help a woman train her domestic help. The instructions that follow explain all aspects of caring for and entertaining in an American home in 1845.  Sections on how to serve various meals also occasionally include recipes though this book, unlike the others, is not primarily concerned with food preparation. The House Book ends with “Hints on Dressmaking”, a chapter that outlines the making of various garments and their proper care. This book emphasizes the wide range of duties and responsibilities housekeepers and their staff had in the nineteenth century.

Title page from <a href=",scope:(BCL)&query=any,contains,ALMA-BC21363905970001021"><i>The American Woman's Home</i></a> by Harriet Beecher Stowe and Catherine Esther Beecher, TX 145 .B415 1869, General Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Title page from The American Woman’s Home by Harriet Beecher Stowe and Catherine Esther Beecher, TX 145 .B415 1869, General Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

As the title states, The American Woman’s Home explores domestic science, using scientific information to focus on the health of the individual and the home. Scientific illustrations of the lungs, stomach, skin, brain, and nervous system illustrate chapters devoted to health, exercise, and proper ventilation in the home. A wide variety of topics are covered in the book including cooking, clothing, the care of children, servants, and the ill, as well as domestic systems and healthy house construction. Written by Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and her sister, The American Woman’s Home is less of an instruction book and more of a treatise on the physical and moral responsibilities of a housekeeper. The authors intended the text as a training manual as they write in the introduction:

Women’s profession embraces the care and nursing of the body in the critical periods of infancy and sickness, the training of the human mind in…childhood, the instruction…of servants, and most of the government and economies of the family state. These duties of women are as sacred and important as any ordained to man; and yet no such advantages for preparation have been accorded to her, nor is there any qualified body to certify the public that a woman is duly prepared to give proper instruction in her profession.

If you would like to take a look at these books, then they are available for your perusal in the Burns Library Reading Room.  To learn more about recipe and housekeeping related materials at the Burns Library, read these past blog posts or view this Flickr album, featuring materials from the Spring 2014 Burns Library exhibit, Are You Being Served?  Historical Menus from the Archives.  If you have any questions, contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or

  • Rachel Ernst, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & Ph.D. student in the Department of English

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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