5.22.2012

The Homekeeping Bibles

One of my top five books by Martha Stewart is the Homekeeping Handbook. I refer to it constantly in my own pursuit of domestic organization, and I recommend it to all new homeowners, including friends of mine who are moving into their first home or apartment. Put simply, the book has all the answers to all the questions any homeowner or renter might conceivably have about the maintenance, layout and function of a home's interior and exterior spaces. It contains specific, detailed instructions and how-tos, checklists and time-tested techniques that are beautifully presented in an organized, well-formated book - encyclopedic in scope and size.
It's been nearly six years since its release (hard to believe) but at more than 700 pages in length it is obvious that this is a subject Martha is extremely passionate about. Her passion is evident in her introduction:

"I started compiling my research and information for this book many years ago, when I first realized that homekeeping, homemaking, and housekeeping were my favorite subjects. Every day I was faced with the myriad challenges of running and maintaining my home on Turkey Hill Road, a complex old house set on four very lush and landscaped acres. There were always problems - puzzles to be solved and solutions to be discovered. ... I knew that I was like so many of you, wanting to do many of these small chores myself, not wanting to call in a handyman, knowing I could not rely 100 percent on my husband to do every little thing that popped up many times a day. I knew that if I needed a modern Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management, so did you."
This is Martha's mud room at Lily Pond Lane. A series of vintage ceramic basins make cleaning up a cinch.

The book Martha is referring to was one of the first and most celebrated volumes on domestic advice ever written. Martha received her edition of Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management in 1961, the year she was married, and has used it ever since. It was the primary inspiration for her own book on homekeeping. Published in England in 1861 and written by Isabella Beeton, the wife of a prominent publisher, the book was a compendium of useful recipes and household facts for the legions of upper- and middle-class housewives who were tasked with running the family household. The first edition was more than 1,600 pages long - nearly 1000 pages longer than Martha's tome, The Homekeeping Handbook. Every topic was covered: recipes for each meal of the day, laundry, general housework, chapters on medicine and common family illnesses, sections on cookery from other cultures (Jewish, Indian and French among them), how a children's nursery should be set up, how to garden, social etiquette, setting a table for various occasions, etc. It is a fascinating insight into the culture of the time with advice that is still relevant today.
First editions of the book, like the one shown above, are extremely difficult to come by but there is still an abridged edition available.

In the introduction to the Book of Household Management, the seriousness of the subject of homemaking is made very clear, a seriousness that Martha herself admired and replicated in the tone of her own domestic manuals and magazines. Mrs. Isabella Beeton writes:

"As with the commander of an army, or the leader of any enterprise, so is it with the mistress of the house. Her spirit will be seen through the whole establishment; and just in proportion as she performs her duties intelligently and thoroughly, so will her domestics follow in her path. Of all those acquirements, which more particularly belong to the feminine character, there are none which take a higher rank, in our estimation, than such as enter a knowledge of household duties; for on these are perpetually dependent the happiness, comfort and well-being of the family."

What I admire about the passage above is the level of empowerment that shines through the text. It is not didactic or dictatorial; it is encouraging and helpful while still imparting a sense of seriousness about the duties that must be carried out in a well-maintained, happily-functioning household. The language is scholastic and the sheer magnitude of information that is contained within the book must have imparted a sense of authority and dignity to the woman who was reading it, planning her days and weeks with duties and appointments just as her husband was.

Today, of course, men and women share the upkeep of a house or apartment. Housework is no longer strictly the domain of women.  I, for one, love homekeeping (a term Martha coined, by the way) and there are days when I relish the tranquility and almost meditative sense of 'Zen' a good house cleaning brings me. It is humbling work, but also rewarding work; work that instills pride in myself and in my surroundings. I mostly credit Martha with instilling those values in me and for making me see the benefits of a well-kept home. Below is a list of six tasks to complete each day, taken from the Homekeeping Handbook. I adhere to these guidelines, religiously. Each week I'll bring you more tips from this amazing book.  I hope you find them useful too! 
LINKS:
Martha's checklists and do-to lists. They are truly helpful!
Order the Homekeeping Handbook
Order the abridged edition of Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management

4 comments:

Christine Witt (Brush Dance) said...

Of these, clean as you cook is the most important to me. Clean kitchen = clean home.

Rowaida said...

Hi Andrew, this is an amazing book, and a wonderful gift for new homeowners. Very informative and very helpful, I keep it in my kitchen's library and share it with my housekeeper, she loves it.
I received Martha's American Food amazing recipes.
So excited for Martha Stewart Weddings now available on iPad! Subscribed to it now.

t. said...

Andrew, I totally relate to your statement that Martha instilled some of the homekeeping values that you now practice. I feel exactly the same way. Being taught to do something and do it right is are tools that enhance my daily life. I'm glad to know someone else feels the same.

Unknown said...

Love this article. I have been reading Martha Stewart magazines since I was a little girl and have been using her checklists on my apartments through college. After getting my degree in Home Economics I decided to start my own business and now am a 'Home Wellness Coach'. I love how Mrs. Beeton, Martha and now you all have the same sense of pride in homekeeping (didn't realize she was the one who coined this term!). Finding inspiration in repetition and maintaining attention to detail is what makes homekeeping so unique. Ps. I never knew about this book-swoon!