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18 September 2014
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Victorian Britain

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Ideals of Womanhood in Victorian Britain

By Lynn Abrams
Household management

Image of Victorian woman darning
Victorian woman darning in her home 
Domesticity also entailed pressures to conform to other new standards. Numerous publications told women how to be good wives and household managers.

Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management was first published in 1861, and remained a bestseller for over 50 years. It contained advice on how to become the perfect housewife, and how to create a domestic interior that provided a welcoming haven for the man of the house. In 1890 The Christian Miscellany and Family Visitor (a religious magazine) wrote in its 'Hints for Home Life' column:

'She [the housewife] is the architect of home, and it depends on her skill, her foresight, her soft arranging touches whether it shall be the "lodestar to all hearts", or whether it shall be a house from which husband and children are glad to escape either to the street, the theatre, or the tavern.'

'Most middle-class households had just one servant... '

But of course maintaining a middle-class household in the 19th century involved hard physical labour, most of it carried out by women. All the major tasks involved fetching and boiling water. Washing and ironing clothes was strenuous work. Floors were washed and scrubbed with sand. Food was prepared at home.

In addition, few families had flushing toilets before the end of the century and, although ready-made clothing became available in the middle of the century, underclothes were still made by hand and bed-linen was hemmed and repaired at home. So, if it could be afforded, servants were hired to carry out these domestic tasks.

It is a fallacy that most middle-class women were able to afford sufficient servants to allow them to spend their lives in idle leisure. Most middle-class households had just one servant - sufficient to give the woman of the house a certain status, but insufficient to allow her to spend days doing embroidery and playing the piano.

Published: 2001-08-09

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