By Antonia Feitz
web posted December 20, 1999

Negus. Hands up anybody who knows what negus is?

It's a drink. According to the famous Mrs Beeton, negus "is more usually drunk at children's parties than at any other ..." And what does it consist of? The recipe says that for every pint of port wine allow one quart of boiling water, a quarter pound of sugar, one lemon, and grated nutmeg to taste. Mrs B adds that negus "may also be made of sherry, or any other sweet white wine, but is more usually made of port than of any other beverage."

Wow. Children's parties in 19th century London - and consequently the rest of the Empire - were obviously very different to now. You must admit Coca Cola looks pretty insipid next to negus. The adults knew how to have a good time too. Under "Picnic, Things not to be forgotten at", Mrs B lists the beverages required for a party of 40 people:

  • 3 dozen quart bottles of ale
  • 2 dozen bottles each of giner beer, soda water and lemonade
  • 6 bottles of sherry
  • 6 bottles of claret
  • champagne à discrétion
  • any other light wine
  • 2 bottles of brandy

Even if it was a very light ale: thirty six quart bottles for forty people! Plus all the wines and spirits. Now that would go down very well with the suggested menu of roast beef, roast lamb, four roast fowls and two ducks, plus hams, pigeon pies, six lobsters and six baskets of salad. Followed by the stewed fruits, four dozen cheesecakes, two dozen fruit turnovers, biscuits, puddings, blancemanges, assorted cakes, fresh fruit and cheese. Yum.

Mrs Beeton's famous "Every Day Cookery and Housekeeping Book", first published in1865 gives us these fascinating glimpses into our ancestors' daily lives. The book was written in response to public demand for a cheaper guide for new wives than her earlier "Book of Household Management". If young wives in London - and thus the Empire - needed such a book, it would seem that the the extended family was not as common as feminists have led us to believe.

For Mrs B spared no pains to make the little things understood. There are detailed instructions on how the washing up is most efficiently done, and on the routines necessary to get through the huge volume of housework - daily, weekly and over the year. To get the flavour, consider the opening sentence: "If the mistress of a household considers that she is the steward of her husband's property, and that upon her dilligence, knowledge, and capability depends the entire happiness of the household, she will understand how important is her post, and how any negligence on her part must necessarily repeat itself in the conduct of her domestics."

"Her domestics". Are we dealing with rich people here? No, far from it. Until the advent of labour-saving machines, all but the poorest people employed some household help. My own grandmother, a dairy farmer's wife, employed a girl to help with the Monday washing for her large family of 12 children. And I've been told by an elderly German lady that it was customary in parts of pre-WW2 Germany for middle class girls to be sent to live with another family, to both help the mother of the house, and to learn the housewifely arts in doing so.

The book is far more than a collection of recipes, as interesting as they are. Mrs B advises young wives on everything from establishing and maintaining a linen press, to keeping the housekeeping accounts. This latter duty was "a perfect bugbear to some young ladies" who until they married, had only ever had to manage their quarterly allowance. So, in meticulous detail and with plenty of examples, Mrs B explained how to keep a neat debtor and creditor account book. The wife was expected to further collate the weekly household accounts into quarterly accounts. In short, she was the accountant, and paid the rates and taxes.

From the examples given, it's easy to see the relative costs of household expenditure at the time (prices are in pounds, shillings and pence). While the weekly milk cost 0.7.6, and the greengrocer 0.9.2, the butcher cost 1.10.2, and the ale 0.17.0. Then again, the ale was also consumed by the servants, as it was customary to allow menservants a quart per day, and women servants a pint per day. A civilised society, indeed.

A useful feature of the book is Mrs B's suggestions for menus for each month of the year, planned around a list of things in season. Along with a two-week menu for "plain family dinners", there are menus for dinner parties of eighteen, twelve, ten, eight and six persons. Here's the menu for a dinner for six persons in December. It's one of four choices given: First course: Vermicelli soup; soles a la maitre d'hotel; fried eels. Entrees: Pork cutlets and tomato sauce; ragout of mutton a la Jardiniere. Second course: Roast goose; boiled leg of mutton and vegetables. Third course: Pheasants; whipped cream; meringues; compote of Normandy pippins; mince pies; plum pudding. Dessert.

But the most interesting thing about the book is its inadvertent rebuttal of our prejudices about the time. For example, take the slander that 19th century people didn't bathe. Mrs Beeton specifically says, "The morning bath for healthy children of four or five years of age should be of cold water in summer and tepid in winter." The child should be "rapidly sluiced all over" and then dried quickly till the little limbs glow. She insists that "no one but Mamma should dry them." Still good advice.

There is not the slightest hint that women regarded themselves as inferior to men. On the contrary, Mrs B was adamant that the health of the entire household was the responsibility of the mistress. Before labour-saving devices, managing a household was a full-time job. Getting the husband out of the house by nine o'clock was regarded as a Good Thing, because "household matters go on charmingly". Accordingly, Mrs B advised a wife to get her husband to enjoy an eight o'clock breakfast, and wait on him herself, even buttering his toast if he was pressed for time, "as business men usually are".

Then she helped on his coat, handed him his hat, and glanced at the umbrella. Oh, the power of a woman's glance in the 19th century. With him gone, her day's work began.

Antonia Feitz is a frequent contributor to Enter Stage Right.

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