November 19, 2012

Mid-1800s Servitude and Cooking This Week

This etching was taken from a story that illustrated the difficulty of keeping a good cook. It also inadvertently illustrated the Irish stereotypes of the time.

The first cook, Margaret, was perfect, except that she drank in excess and stumbled back to the house on her days off. The second cook, Biddy, had a violent temper. The third, I feel would probably be me.

She put the puddings in and prepared a turkey for 2PM supper at 11 o'clock and sat down and read a few pages of a book. When the mistress came in, the cat was eating the turkey and the puddings were charred. She thought she had only sat down for a minute but it ended up being 2 hours that passed by.

An interesting thing to note is that all food prepared by the cook was still considered the mistress' food. It was her pudding that was burning and her turkey on the floor, which is technically true: she paid for it. When a new cook was hired at a house, her mistress would teach her how to cook things her way and everything cooked at the house would be expected to cooked in the new way. Over time, a cook may add a little bit of her own flair, but she wouldn't want to outdo her employer.

Regardless, women were judged on how good of a housekeeper they were. Back then that meant, how well they kept their own house or how well they oversaw their servants. Most women of any means could typically afford at least one servant if not a few for housework and one for cooking. The constant supply of new immigrants, guaranteed that servants could be employed cheaply.

For a young immigrant girl, a job as a servant was a good prospect. She would have a place to stay and food and would not add cost to the living expenses of her family. Most servants got one or two days off a month when they could visit their families and friends. They also got certain hours off when they weren't needed. A girl would only work in this fashion until she got married. 

This week we will all be preparing that huge Thanksgiving meal, sans servants. I'm actually very excited. Thanksgiving is a pretty boring holiday for vegetarians. (I don't do the tofurkey thing.) But, I am really excited to get to cook. I haven't cooked in ages and the perfect Thanksgiving weekend would be a day of cooking and reading. I have a long list of books I want to read and haven't had a second to read anything not related to school. And while I don't plan on letting the turkey burn while I cozy up with Clarissa Dillon's Ph.D thesis on Colonial Era gardens of Chester County, I'm not making any promises.     


  1. Interesting, I never thought like this or it;s been awhile. Happy birthday!

  2. I wasn't sure what was going on. :) Happy Thanksgiving!

  3. I was in my Native American lit class and I think we were talking anti-Thanksgiving and then talking about birthdays, so it might have been that.


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