Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The American Frugal Housewife by Mrs. Child

by Anna Kathryn Lanier

During my trip to New Iberia, Louisiana in April, I picked up several books, two of them by Lydia Child and written in the early 1800’s. The American Frugal Housewife “was an extremely popular nineteenth-century manual for homemakers. Interesting recipes and remedies, advice on parenting and the myriad responsibilities of housekeeping are all put forth in straightforward, no-nonsense, Yankee prose.”

Here are a few of Mrs. Child’s tips for the Frugal Housewife (direct quotes):

When ivory-handled knives turn yellow, rub them with nice sand paper, or emery; it will take off the spots, and restore their whiteness.

Tortoise shell and horn combs last much longer for having oil rubbed into them once in a while.

Indian meal and rye meal are in danger of fermenting in summer; particularly Indian. They should be kept in a cool place, stirred open to the air, once in a while. A large stone, put in the middle of the barrel of meal, is a good thing to keep it cool.

Those who make candles will find it a great improvement to steep the wicks in lime-water and saltpeter, and dry them. The flame is clearer, and the tallow will not ‘run.’

Eggs will keep almost any length of time in lime-water properly prepared. One pint of coarse salt, and one pint of unslacked lime, to a pailful of water. If there be too much lime, it will eat the shells from the eggs; and if there be a single egg cracked, it will spoil the whole. They should be covered with lime-water, and kept in a cold place. The yolk becomes slightly red; but I have seen eggs, thus kept, perfectly sweet and fresh at the end of three years. (AKL note – I’m not sure I want to eat an egg thus kept after three years!)

A new iron should be very gradually heated at first. After it has become inured to the heat, it is not as likely to crack.

Clean a brass kettle, before using it for cooking, with salt and vinegar.

The oftener carpets are shaken, the longer they wear; the dirt that collects under them, grinds out the threads.

Do not wrap knives and forks in woollens. Wrap them in good, strong paper. Steel is injured by lying in woollens. (AKL note – I have no idea if this is true or not).

Suet and lard keep better in tin than in earthen.

It is poor economy to buy vinegar by the gallon. Buy a barrel, or half a barrel, of really strong vinegar, when you begin house-keeping. As you use it, fill the barrel with old cider, sour beer, or wine-settlings, etc., left in pitchers, decanters or tumblers; weak tea is likewise said to be good; nothing is hurtful, which has a tolerable portion of spirit, or acidity. Care must be taken not to add these things in too large quantities or too often; if the vinegar once gets weak, it is difficult to restore it. If possible, it is well to keep such slops as I have mentioned in a different keg, and draw them off once in three or four weeks, in such a quantity as you think the vinegar will bear. If by any carelessness you do weaken it, a few white beans dropped in, or white paper dipped in molasses, is said to be useful. If beer grows sour, it may be used to advantage for pancakes and fritters. If very sour indeed, put a pint of molasses and water to it, and, two or three days after, put a half pint of vinegar; and in ten days it will be first rate vinegar.

Never leave out your clothes-line over night; and see that your clothes-pins are all gathered into a basket.

Have plenty of crash towels in the kitchen; never let your white napkins be used there.

*****Have you come across any unusual housekeeping tip while doing research?

For anyone writing in the 1800’s I would recommend Mrs. Child’s books for your research shelf. They can be found at Barnes and Noble or Amazon.  Lydia Child, by the way, also penned the classic Thanksgiving poem, Over the River and Through the Wood. 

Click HERE to read a previous post I did on Mrs. Child's  - "Education of Daughters."

I will be teaching an online class at Heart Through History's  campus in August "Pioneering Women of the West."  Cost is $10 for HHRW members and $20 for non-members.

Anna Kathryn Lanier
Where Tumbleweeds Hand Their Hats.


  1. Sounds like a cool book. I'd like to add it to my research collection. Thanks for telling us where to get it.

  2. I always love these, Anna Kathyrn. Every time I read them, I learn something new...and usually get a good chuckle. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Hi Kathy and AJ. I love these type of books, too. They are so interesting to see what the thinking was back then. Yes, you have to laugh at some of the thoughts back then.

  4. Good advice for the time. Too bad she doesn't have anything for the busy writer who can't find time to cook and take care of laundry!I bet you had fun reading this book for research.

  5. Great information! I have a cookbook from the Oregon trail and I get a kick out of the recipe for noodles.

    They measured the liquid for the noodles with the eggshell they cracked. Let the dough rest as long as it takes to sweep, then hung the noodles over the broom handle to dry.

    All very time saving and inventive.

    I bet there's a run Lydia Child books today. ;)

  6. Very interesting post. My arteries clogged a bit each time the word lard appeared, but all the uses for sour beer and vinegar cleared them right up.
    I thoroughly enjoyed the tips and completely understand why I go to such lengths to save time and money now... it's been passed down from centuries of smart women who knew how to survive on very little!

  7. What a fun post! No wonder my mother used to keep her used bacon great in an old coffee tin.

    I loved all of your tips.

  8. Anna Kathryn--my niece's name is Kathryn, spelled your way. It's my favortie form of the name.
    Now about Mrs. Childs. She was just a fountain of information, wasn't she? Wonderful suggestions...I'm sure...for that day and time. Now, the paragraph about vinegar, beer, and slop confused me, and even though I don't quite understand, I can assure you I'll never mix slop with beer. Ewww! What was that all about?
    Very entertaining stuff here, and since you have those wonderful books, you'll have a lot to share.
    Like Caroline--she has an old Sears and Roebuck catalog that I'm so envious of. Thanks...

  9. What a fun book! No disrespect to Mrs. Child, but I think I'll keep buying my vinegar by the pint!

  10. Forgive me, that was supposed to be "bacon grease" not bacon great. Fingers got away from me.

    Oh, and I agree with Jannine - a pint of vinegar goes a loooong way.

  11. Hello everyone! I'm back from my other job and reading these great comments. Lynn, I didn't even notice the typo. I read it as 'grease' cause I knew what you meant.

    Celia, she's not talking about slop, like you'd feed the pigs. I took her term of 'slop' here to mean the mixture of the beer, wine settlings, weak tea, etc. And to put that 'slop' in a small barrel to be added to the big barrel of vinegar as needed.

    Oh, come on, Jannine...don't you want to make your own vinegar?

  12. She suggests soaking candle wicks in lime water and salt petre. Salt petre is nitre which is used in gun powder. No wonder it made the candles burn brighter.

  13. What I've always wondered is how do these things start? Whoever decided this way or that way is the best way? Some things I guess are common sense, but there are so many that must have been realized when done by chance and error.

    Loved the post, Anna Kathryn.

  14. Paisley, I wonder that about a lot of things. Like, who decided, let's eat this stuff. BTW, the prehistoric man (well, maybe not prehistoric) they found in the Alps 10-15 years ago, he had herbs on him for stomach problems, and when they did the autopsy, they discoved he had stomach problems. Man, they knew 10,000 years ago what herbs worked for that. I believe he also had tatoos that lined up with acupunture for stomach problems.

  15. Anna Kathryn, I loved your other post on Mrs. Child's advice, and loved this one too. I'm so glad I wasn't a homemaker back then! I can barely manage to keep up now. Thanks for sharing. I'll be sure to sign up for your class.


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