Vision: A Resource f

 Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor
zette@cableone.net

 

Website Review: 

The Household Cyclopedia and
Catherine Parr Traill's Female Emigrant's Guide

By Ariella Elema
2005, Ariella Elma

 

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 http://www.canadiana.org/ECO/ItemRecord/41417?id=4799beab6d137c43  was a 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 nineteenth-century housewife.

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." [1]  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. [2]

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." [3]  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. [4]

 

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.

 

1.    Catherine Parr Traill, The Backwoods of Canada, 18--, p. 182,

http://www.canadiana.org/ECO/PageView/41930/0190?id=f2c96463348b13fa .

2. ------. The Female Emigrant's Guide, and Notes on Canadian Housekeeping, 1854, p. 149, http://www.canadiana.org/ECO/PageView/41417/0161?id=f2c96463348b13fa

3. B. Howard Rand et al., The Household Cyclopedia, 1881, http://www.mspong.org/cyclopedia/preface.html.

4. Ibid.,  http://www.mspong.org/cyclopedia/farriery.html