Good Housekeeping: The Georgian Edition

A Woman Doing Laundry - Henry Robert Morland
A Woman Doing Laundry - Henry Robert Morland
A Woman Doing Laundry – Henry Robert Morland

Good Housekeeping – The Georgian Edition

“Life is too short to stuff a mushroom” ~ Shirley Conran, “Superwoman”

Apparently, it wasn’t too short for the Georgian woman…I was out with a friend walking along Southbank not too long ago when I came across the book seller’s tables. I grabbed a few cheap books, one of them being a short, but intriguing look at Georgian housekeeping by Susanna Whatman. It detailed the chores, cleaning methods, obligations and expectations of the staff she employed at her estate inn 1776. Hate housekeeping now? Imagine housekeeping 300 years ago without modern day conveniences. It wasn’t all fun and games. Well-to-do Georgian women didn’t just sit around fanning themselves gossiping, they were expected to keep their homes running smoothly.

So What Did It Take to Run a House in the 1700s?

Susanna was born in 1752 and married wealthy papermaker, James Whatman, when she was 24 years old. After their move to Kent, Susanna was expected to oversee to the management of his estates. This wasnt an easy task, and Susanna diligently set to making life easier for herself by creating this carefully documented instruction manual on how to run a Georgian home.

There were other manuals floating around at the time, but many were vague and didn’t take into account the changing circumstances of the period with regards to labour woes, like shortages of skilled staff. They also focused more on the role of the English Housewife rather than the detailed ins and outs of day to day household work.

Henry Robert Morland - Laundry Maid Ironing, 1785
Henry Robert Morland – Laundry Maid Ironing, 1785

It’s Hard to Get Good Help These Days

Good help was hard to get in eighteenth century England. Wealthy Georgian families like Susanna Whatman’s ran into problems with high turnover, incompetent staff and extortionate taxes levied for employing servants. One such unpopular tax, instituted by Lord North (April 13, 1732 – August 5, 1792), known as, “the man who lost America”, in 1776 was the Male Servant Tax. Britain needed to replenish its coffers with its wars in America and France so a tax was devised to assist with the collection of funds. The tax originally focused on male staff; i.e., butlers, groomsmen, coachmen and the like but eventually expanded to all servants. Employers, like the Whatmans, were expected to pay one guinea for every male servant in their employ (that roughly converts to £1.05 per head in today’s money). It doesn’t sound like much now, but it was a lot then, especially if you had a large estate and required many servants to run it. In the Georgian period, servants were scarce as major estates competed with the rising middle class to have bigger and better household service. This put servants in the position to pick and choose where they worked and often left wealthy property owners scrambling to replace fickle staff.

In addition to the issue of finding good staff, there was the problem of keeping them. Servants wouldn’t stay in one place very long. Whatman experienced this firsthand when she hired six maids in 1778 and only had two of the original six remain by 1779. Servants would leave a position as soon as they perceived a better opportunity elsewhere. Scarcity didn’t mean the employer was guaranteed the best of the best either, there were many not-so-great-servants making the rounds at well to do homes in the eighteenth century. There were frequent instances of drunkenness, pregnancy, and theft to contend with for an estate holder.
Susanna laments in her manual:

“If the servants could be depended on for doing all their business according to the instructions that could be given them, the eye of a Housekeeper would not be necessary to keep everything going on in its proper way. But this is never to be expected, and as the mistress of a large family can neither afford the time, nor even have it in her power t see what her servants are about, she must depend upon the Housekeeper to see all her orders are enforced and every rule kept up.”

Given that many servants couldn’t read, there was usually a head housekeeper who was able to oversee the management of the home according to the mistress’s instructions. She would ensure the directions were carried out correctly and at the proper times. With the high turnover, less than adequate staff and the high costs associated with running a household, Susanna Whatman was forced to put together something more precise than the average manual. Here are a few interesting tidbits and dilemmas from Susanna’s manual on running Georgian home.

A Woman Cleaning Fish - Pehr Hilleström, 1775
A Woman Cleaning Fish – Pehr Hilleström, 1775

Save me a Beer!

A pint of ale with every meal?! Sign me up! If you missed dinner – no ale for you, unless you were out doing things for your master. In that case, the butler kept your ale for you. Notice how ale is “food” here. Hmmmm, maybe college kids are onto something…historical speaking, that is.

“Food: Allowance to the Servants
Ale. 1 pint to the men, and 1/2 a pint to the maids per day. Small beer. As much as they chuse. N.B. Any servant who absents himself from dinner must of course lose his ale, but if absent about his Master’s business, the butler must keep it for him.
No cheese allowed after a meal. When cheese is given it should be for a meal and in lieu of meat…”

Georgian Vampires?: The Battle Against Sunlight

You’d think these people were vampires the way they painstakingly (pun intended) detailed how to avoid letting sunlight into the house. Sunlight was considered a menace to the elite Georgian home; it faded furniture and pictures and created dust. Susanna made sure her staff remained vigilant in avoiding the sun; she knew at what exact time sunlight crept into each and every room of the house. Her servants must’ve spent quite a bit of time running around putting up blinds and throwing covers over furniture!

“The sun comes into the library very early. The window on that side of the bow must have the blind let down…
Drawingroom. The blinds always closed in the morning and window up…
Eating Parlor. The sun never comes in.
Mrs. Whatman’s Dressingroom. The sun must always be kept out, or it will spoil the carpet, chairs and mahogany cabinet.
The Bedchamber. The sun must be kept out of this room, as it shines full on the bed early and on the mahogany press at one o’clock.
White Bedchamber. Painted dressing table, and handsome mahogany press, and new carpets. Sun must be kept out for these and the pictures…”

As you also may have noticed, mahogany was thee go-to for fine furniture in this era. it was prized by the Georgian elite because it was highly resistant to dampness, so it comes as no surprise that Susanna was adamant that sunlight be kept away from her fine mahogany pieces.

A maid taking soup from a pot - Pehr Hilleström
A maid taking soup from a pot – Pehr Hilleström

In the Georgian Kitchen: Stop Thief!

The Cook had many responsibilities in the Georgian home and many rules and regulations to follow:

“The Cook should see that heavy things are not set in the scullery upon the plates and dishes.
The Cook shall have all proper kitchin linen and keep it good and mended.
Butter, raddishes, or anything that spoils in a hot kitchen should be placed near the parlour door, as should the cheeze, to be ready to come in.
The meat is weighed every week when it comes in all together…As it is very wrong to lay temptation unnecessarily in the way of anyone, the large joints should not be left open to the inferior servants. There are two keys to the little wire safe, one for the Cook and one for the Housekeeper, that there may be no excuse for the leaving of roast or boiled beef, legs of pork, etc. in the open safe. This duty of keeping away temptation is very necessary, as it would be difficult to detect depredations on a large joint, and a dishonest servant might contract a habit of doing injustice…”

The Cook was expected to assist in keeping theft at a minimum by locking up the choicer pieces of meat in a “meat safe”. It was all too easy to slice off a bit of meat without notice so this measure was in place to prevent unscrupulous servants from stealing from the larder. This practice was in place until the late nineteenth century.

The book covers all aspects and duties within the home for each servant’s position. Susanna’s guide provides a fascinating look into the ins and outs, and potential pitfalls of running a Georgian home. It also challenges the notion that wealthy Georgian women did little to contribute to the household. As we can see from the meticulous care taken in writing this text, Susanna hardly sat about twirling her thumbs, she was a busy lady who had many people to manage and an estate to run. Susanna was incredibly detailed in her notes and while her book isn’t large, it’s certainly worth a read for anyone interested in Georgian daily life.

~Sandra Alvarez


The Housekeeping Book of Susanna Whatman 1776-1800
Christina Hardyment
The National Trust
First Published in 1776
Reissued, 2000.

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