Catherine Parr Traill's Female Emigrant's Guide
By Ariella Elema
If you think Victorian
housekeeping sounds rather gracious and Martha Stewart-ish, just wait until
you hear the parts those home decorating magazines never told you. Thanks
to the Internet, two nineteenth-century home economics manuals that have
long been out of print are now available to everyone. Dating from the
second half of the century, when men were men and women slaughtered their
own poultry, these sites are guaranteed to be unlike any home economics
class you've ever taken. If you're writing a tale about some clever
Victorians or self-sufficient colonial frontiers-folk, both The Female
Emigrant's Guide and The Household Cyclopedia are rich sources
for research and story ideas. Because they were written by contemporary
authors, they not only offer you straightforward information, but also let
you glimpse the worldview of some North Americans of the later 1800s.
The Female Emigrant's
Guide, and Hints on Canadian Housekeeping at
favourite guidebook of Canadian settlers in the 1850s and 60s. Its
author, Catherine Parr Traill, was the domestic goddess of her day. It text
now available from Canadiana.org as a series of scanned images with slightly
unfriendly navigation. Directed at women newly-landed in the colony of
Upper Canada (now Ontario), the book was meant to help its readers survive
their first years in a land that lacked such conveniences of modern living
as grocers, tailors, and sometimes even roads.
Traill herself had been born
into the English gentry, but poverty and a drunken husband forced her family
to start afresh in the New World. Raised with domestic servants, she had to
learn many of her housekeeping skills later in life. Perhaps this is why
her instructions are remarkably clear. If you need to know how to manage a
little house in the big woods, this site is perfect. The text focuses
mainly on food preparation and preservation, with special emphasis on the
foods that would be new and novel to British immigrants, like wild rice,
maple sugar and venison. However, chapters on dying wool, caring for
poultry, and making candles and soap round out the other duties of a
Throughout the text, Traill
maintains a determinedly positive tone. As she wrote in another of her
books, "Nothing argues a greater degree of good sense and good feeling than
a cheerful conformity to circumstances, adverse though they be compared with
a former lot." 
At times, this attitude makes The Female Emigrant's Guide bizarrely
funny. Consider, for instance, Traill's advice on preserving hams:
There is a small dusky
beetle, with two dull red or orange bars across its body, which injures meat
more than the flies: it deposits its eggs in the skin and joints. These
eggs turn to a hairy worm, which destroy the meat; and unless some
precautions are taken, will render it unfit for use. If you find by
examining the hams that the enemy has been at work, I would recommend a
large boiler or kettle of water, and when it boils, immerse each ham in it
for five or even ten minutes. Take them out, and when dry, rub them over
with bran or saw dust, and pack them in a box of wood ashes, or of oats, as
the Yorkshire farmers do: you will have no trouble with the weevil again.
Beat that, Martha Stewart!
If Catherine Parr Traill was
writing for women, the Household Cyclopedia, reproduced at
http://www.mspong.org/cyclopedia/, is likely to have appealed to
their husbands. In an age before power tools, a gentleman had to be skilled
at a wide variety of tasks to prove his domestic prowess. The Household
Cyclopedia would certainly have helped him with the learning process.
Its modest intention, as stated by its authors, was that "if all other books
of Science in the world were destroyed, this single volume would be found to
embody the results of the useful experience, observations, and discoveries
of mankind during the past ages of the world."
 Published in 1881, it was the work of
a committee that included two doctors, a chemist, a handful of bankers and a
fly-fishing journalist. Thanks to the efforts of web designer Matthew Spong,
its entire text is now online.
The fascination of this site
lies in the incredible diversity of subjects it crowds between its virtual
covers. In a fashion typical of the Victorian period, the topics are
presented in a merry jumble, often having very little to do with the
material that precedes and follows them. The chapter headings range from
agriculture and medicine through brewing, metallurgy, pottery and 'pyrotechny'
to weather prognostics. One imagines the book occupying a prominent place
in the personal library of the kind of characters who can display a command
of arts as diverse as making explosives and keeping canaries.
As a writer's resource, this
site also excels at providing ways for your characters to get into trouble.
If you're stuck for a plot twist, you can almost pick a section at random
and be sure to come up with a don't-try-this-at-home scenario. Think, for
instance, of all the potential mayhem you could unleash with this recipe for
equine cough medicine:
[Take h]alf an ounce of Venice soap, half an ounce of nitre, ten grains
of tartar emetic, and ten grains of opium. Make these into a ball with
honey, and give one every other night. Keep the horse warm and remedy
costiveness by castor oil. 
If ever a book begged to be
the centrepiece of a sorcerer's apprentice plot, this is the one.
Whether you're working on a
story set in the latter half of the nineteenth century, or you're just
fishing for unusual ideas, both The Female Emigrant's Guide and the
Household Cyclopedia are worth a visit. If nothing else, you'll
never view women's magazines quite the same way again.
Traill, The Backwoods of Canada, 18--, p. 182,
The Female Emigrant's Guide, and Notes on Canadian Housekeeping, 1854,
Howard Rand et al., The Household Cyclopedia, 1881,