Victorian London - Publications - Etiquette and Household Advice Manuals - Cassells Household Guide, New and Revised Edition (4 Vol.) c.1880s [no date] - The Mistress of the House

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Volume 3



DISTINCT from the duties which devolve naturally on a wife and mother, are those of a mistress, or female head of a household. Not that the exercise of any, or all, of these functions is incompatible one with the other. On the contrary, the union of the qualities which constitute a good wife and mother is never so complete as when combined with knowledge of housekeeping. No one is so well suited to the latter charge. as the sharer of a husband's earnings; no one has, so direct an interest as herself in effecting pecuniary economies, and preserving her household in health and happiness. It is much to be deplored  that many excellent wives fall short of the full measuse of their value, simply from deficiency of practical knowledge.
    As it is not possible, in this place, to enumerate all the manifold duties of the mistress of a household, we will content ourselves with commenting on the principal.
    Firstly, with regard to the spending of money. In most middle-class families the wife is the medium through whose hands daily wants are directly supplied. The English wife generally spends all the money required for domestic purposes. Having deducted the sums necessary for rent, taxes, insurance, and professional or trade expenses, the husband usually places in the wife's hands either the remainder of the income, or as much of it as he thinks necessary for providing such articles as food, fuel, clothing, wages, replacements, and other necessaries contingent upon wear and tear of furniture, linen, &c., together with the education of children, should any belong to them. The perfection of management consists in  maintaining a fair proportion in all the above items of expenditure; not suffering the demand for clothing, for instance, to trench on the sum allotted to food, or vice versa. If the sum of money at disposal be but small, the mistress [-51-] should curtail all superfluities in every department over which her rule extends; excessive dress and pleasure-seeking being, perhaps, those which are most liable to fritter away an income, as a moth does a garment.
    In all housekeeping arrangements some margin should be left, by the mistress, to meet unexpected misfortunes caused by illness, &c.
    Sometimes it happens that, with the most careful check upon unnecessary expenditure, sums of money are laid out unwittingly, leaving nothing to show for the disbursement. The only plan to prevent this unsatisfactory result is to keep close accounts of all money received and spent. These entries should be made daily. At the end of the week the sum-total on either side should be added up and balanced. At the end of the month, again, each item of expenditure should be taken out, and the sums paid for meat, beer, bread, &c., should be entered separately under their respective heads. In order to make any variation in the average consumption clear at a glance, the number of persons provided for should be marked down in a footnote. Memoranda should likewise be made of any extra demands which may have arisen from sickness, party-giving, or other unusual occurrences.
    Having ascertained the extent of the income at her disposal, a mistress should endeavour to make the most of it by paying ready money for all purchases - ready-money payment being the basis of all true economy.
    Taking the money from one's purse at the time of buying anything, and "setting it down to account" are by no means the same thing in the end. Independent1y of interest for money which in some form or another has to be paid when credit is given, the buyer, when she pays for an article at the time, very seldom purchases either what she does not want or in excess of the required quantity. Inexperienced housekeepers especially are liable to fall into the latter errors; the temptation to give a larger order than needful being almost irresistible, when prompted to do so by the persuasive suggestions of a good salesman.
    The limit to which the term "ready money" extends is very elastic, and may mean one week, a month, or a quarter of a year or twelve months, according to the credit attached to the purchaser's position in life. As a general rule, however, the longer a bill remains unpaid the greater is the amount of interest charged; although not ostensibly as interest, but in increased charges. In the strict and profitable sense of the word, ready money means payment on or before the delivery of goods. At such times only can any abatement or discount be asked for. 
    Weekly books are in almost all cases against the interest of the buyer.. What with the errors of entry consequent upon the number of persons through whose hands the order -passes, and the delay in returning the books when made up, mistakes are inevitable and, of course, wherever any doubt exists, the loss falls on the customer.
    As far as it is possible, a mistress should give her own orders, choose her own provisions, pay her own bills, and file the receipts with scrupulous exactness. The above method is, in reality, marketing  - that old-fashioned, term which represents the most healthful and profitable occupation for a woman in the morning of the day. Not only is the practice conducive to the direct saving of money, but the choice of provisions is greater than at other times. The chances for change of food also resulting from the practice is by no means the least boon. Nothing is so likely to undermine the health as sameness of diet, and if the mistress of a house stays at home from one week's end to another, she is liable to fall into a stereotyped set of orders, and to lose all knowledge of the varied produce each season affords. Under the impression that certain provisions are equally dear all the year round, she refrains from ordering what, in her opinion, are luxuries, not reflecting that a glut in the market of choice and seasonable provisions is constantly occurring at unexpected times. It is on these occasions that what might otherwise be prohibited luxuries may be enjoyed by all who have money to spend on ordinary food. The only thing necessary to prevent making bad bargains is to possess a knowledge of every article offered for sale. This can only be acquired by experience, aided by the hints and suggestions which the HOUSEHOLD GUIDE is designed to furnish in every branch of domestic economy.
    Marketing need not of necessity be the onerous duty which many suppose. To prevent its being so, the mistress should learn by observation what the average consumption of her household is. Having done this, she may easily provide for two or three days in advance. In many suburban neighbourhoods it is now customary for even the best tradesmen to send round certain provisions by their own carts. The prices charged for the goods thus supplied are the same as if ordered from the shop. With many goods, such as greengrocery, butter, and eggs, the plan is convenient, provided the snare of a "booking account" be avoided. .With meat, however, the rule does not bold good. A housekeeper who desires to be well and profitably served should select her own it weighed and trimmed, and take home with her a bill, in which the weight of the meat an well as the price is written. With regard to grocery, if no store be kept in the  house, the weekly consumption should be strictly regulated.
    People who cannot dispense with booking accounts should be particular not to send verbal orders. neither ought they to pay  at one time and book at another. They should either pay at one place always, or "book" always. Our reason for making these remarks is, that mistakes and confusion  invariably follow on any irregularity of system.
    Another duty on the part of a mistress is the receiving of company, a matter of inclination as well as of duty on the part of many mistresses, provided the husband's income is adequate. In such cases a mistress is bound to regulate her house hold in conformity with this claim upon her time. If, for instance, she is obliged to be much out of the nursery, she should secure the services of a good nurse to tend the little ones in her absence. If dinner company be kept to any extent, a competent, cook is  required in the kitchen, and well-trained servants indispensable, to wait at table. In case the income is insufficient for these requirements, it is a great question whether any attempt to appear better off than one really is, is not more injurious to a man's social position than if he renounced all pretensions to imitate the easy circumstances of his wealthier associates. Most husbands are guided by their wives' judgments in these matters; and it is well that it should be so, because no-one else is equally conversant with the expenses and general sacrifices of personal comfort which much company entails.
    The engaging  of  servants is also an extremely important part of a mistress's duties. All indoor domestics are supposed to be subject to her rules and to take notice to leave from her. 
    A mistress should be impartial in all disputes which may arise amongst her household, and she should not suffer one servant to take any advantage of another. In order to keep every servant in his or her place, a written plan of work should be given to each domestic on entering-service. If any alterations in the rules observed should be necessary, it is better to make the change before a new comer takes the situation than afterwards. It is often found so difficult to alter the order of household proceedings, that there is no help for it but to change every servant to get one's views carried out. This plan is bad, because new servants are naturally suspicious when no one acquainted with the family is left behind.

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source: Cassells Household Guide, c.1880s