Thursday, March 11, 2010

Keeping an 18th c. House with Susanna Whatman: The Cook

Thursday, March 11, 2010
Susan reports:

Like most women of the past, Susanna Bosanquet Whatman (1753-1814) led a life that history would regard as unremarkable: she married well and happily, bore several children, and died after a long, industrious life. (She also had her portrait painted by George Romney, left.) She would be completely forgotten today except for a small volume she wrote for her own use that has miraculously survived.

The Housekeeping Book of Susanna Whatman was written in 1776, soon after her marriage to James Whatman, the prosperous owner of several paper-making mills. At twenty-four, she was now the mistress of Turkey Hill, her husband's substantial estate in Kent. Despite her youth, Susanna had been well-trained by her mother, and knew how to run a large household and manage a staff of servants, and like a modern-day CEO, she kept a manual of job descriptions, responsibilities, and how exactly she liked things done.

It's a happy myth that the grand households of the past were maintained by an unchanging staff of loyal servants. In reality, servants frequently came and went for many reasons, and most ladies kept books like Susanna's to make such transitions as seamless as possible. Few other such housekeeping books have been preserved, however, which makes Susanna's so important, and also so informative. As a sample, this is only the beginning of the Cook's responsibilities:

When a new Cook comes, much attention is necessary til she is got into all the common rules and observances such as the care above mentioned: filling the hog pails: washing up butter dish, sallad bowl, etc.: giving an eye to the scowering of saucepans by the Dairymaid: preserving the water in which the meat is boiled for broth: keeping all her places clean: managing her fire and her kitchen linen: making good bread, etc. Such things are material points, and of more consequence to be first attended to than any part of the cookery, except the quite common attentions of cleaning the fish properly, roasting and boiling in a proper manner, and warming up the servants' breakfasts.

The Cook should see that heavy things are not set in the Scullery upon the plates and dishes. She may always call back a servant whom she sees do it, or if they leave bones or hard things such as spoons etc. in a dish, and then put other dishes on it.

The Cook should have all proper kitchin linen and keep it good and mended....

A certain order or method is necessary at dishing up, and there is no excuse for waiting for a second course, the Kitchin being so near, as the Housekeeper may always have any of the maids to assist the Cook at the going in of the dinner. This teaches the Cook to contrive, and be quicker....

There should be a place in the Kitchin for everything kept there, otherwise it will be lost or mislaid without being missed, and [this] holds good for every other department and saves many things and much trouble.

And all this is only from the first page regarding the Cook! More to come about Susanna's other servants in future posts....

9 comments:

Lady Burgley said...

I've heard of Mrs. Whatman's book before, but never read it in its entirety. She seems both efficient and sensible as a mistress. A Cook would be one of the most important servants in a house, especially if the family often entertained, and you'd want someone who was responsible and dependable. I really must find a copy of this book!

LorettaChase said...

Anyone who's had any kind of supervisory job must feel a sharp sense of recognition. Procedures that seem obvious to one person (don't put heavy stuff on the good china!) are completely out of the realm of another. How, I used to wonder, could someone get to college without knowing how to file in alphabetical order? But people open restaurants, not having a clue how to operate a kitchen, and completely ignorant of basic sanitary practices. Can you tell I've written handbooks, too?

ConnieG said...

You are so right about all those novels with the faithful family retainers, with every servant from the butler to the scullery maid so in love with the rich family that they'd be willing to work for free. Hardly! Servants were not family. They worked for their masters and mistresses and were paid for it, and there is plenty of documentation of bad behavior on both sides. Servants stole from their masters, and masters took advantage of their servants. As many servants vanished in the night as were turned out without references. As you note, a good mistress or master was like a good boss, one who set rules and boundries so servants knew what was expected of them. This excerpt is a useful reminder of that.

gentlewomanthief said...

How fascinating! Thank you for sharing this - it's always really interesting to find out about the every day life parts of history, which sometimes seem to be neglected by history books or prgrammes. I'm sure I'm not the only writer who often reads children's history books for the details of how a castle could be breached or, indeed, how an 18th century house was run?!

Susan Holloway Scott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mari said...

The part I especially found interesting was if they left bones and hard things such as spoons in a dish and then put other dishes on it!
"Bones!" Did She mean food bones? I can see the spoons more commonly if they were ladle type spoons...very interesting I love anything in its original context!

Emmeline Cartwright said...

this was such an amazing post. i adore your blog. and i instantanously ordered the book in a 2000-edition for 1,99pounds...

greetings from germany!

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Mari, I think she does indeed mean food bones. Having the big bones left from a chop or even the smaller ones from fowl would not only make stacked plates unbalanced and easier to break, but could also scratch the surface glaze of the china, particularly if there is gold applied to the pattern.

One of our favorite history sites, Georgian London, recently featured an elegant 18th c. bucket specially designed for carrying cleared plates from the dining room back to the kitchen:

http://www.georgianlondon.com/mystery-object-2

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Emmeline, thank you for the kind words -- we're glad you're enjoying the blog!

And greetings to you, too, in Germany. We're constantly amazed at how many readers we've acquired from so many other countries. There are many things we love about the past, but the joys of the modern day internet for making the world smaller can't be beat. *g*

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