Tagged: Harriet Beecher Stowe

Mar 20

Would the real Mrs Beeton please stand up?

 

 

I’ve been reading a biography of Mrs Beeton, arguably the nation’s first domestic goddess. The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton by Kathryn Hughes was published by Harper Perennial in 2006.

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Hughes’ biography of Mrs Beeton

 

As recent events have served to illustrate, the life lived behind the edifice of a lifestyle brand is rarely as it appears, and this book has been an eye-opener. Some interesting things I’ve discovered about Mrs B:

1. Isabella Beeton’s image was the first ever photographic portrait accepted by the National Portrait Gallery. Maull & Pollyblank’s 1857 plate, which the NPG accepted from her son Mayson in 1932, reveals a slim, striking 19-year-old Bella, not the stout, flour-dusted matriarch with a rolling pin that you might have imagined. Mrs Bridges from Upstairs, Downstairs she definitely was not.

2. Her first baby died a few months after birth, very likely of syphilis: a disease which she appears to have contracted from her husband in the early days of their marriage.

3. Bella’s husband, Sam, originally a printer by trade, made a killing publishing an unauthorised British edition of Harriet Beecher-Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, exploiting a time when there was no copyright agreement between America and Britain. He and Bella together proved cunning publishing entrepreneurs, successfully exploring the new markets, trends and opportunities created by an expanding middle-class in Victorian England.

4. Bella Beeton was far from an experienced cook when she took on writing the Book of Household Management.

5. Which is why she plagiarised widely yet skilfully for the book; all this is documented in fascinating detail by Hughes.

6. Elizabeth David was particularly galled by Bella’s light-fingered borrowings from Eliza Acton.

7. Bella liked her red wine.

8. She had a great eye for fashion and pioneered the popularising of dress patterns  in the ‘Practical Dress Instructor’, a regular feature in the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, capitalising on the boost to sewing created by the recent invention of the sewing machine.

9. She died very early, age 28. But that didn’t stop the ‘Mrs Beeton’ brand marching on. And on. And on.

10. Without her able management, and with the encroaching symptoms of tertiary syphilis, Sam went to rack and ruin after Bella’s untimely death.

She certainly packed a lot into her short life. I’d recommend this biography: snappy, witty, sensitively written, and especially riveting if you’re interested in publishing and journalism (particularly the history of lifestyle publishing, cookery writing and fashion journalism), and if you want an insight into the burgeoning Victorian middle classes and what made them tick.

 

 

 

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Sep 07

Waxing lyrical

Welcome back to the new autumn term here at Scrapiana Towers! My pencils are freshly sharpened, my needles have become almost dangerously pointy (OK, I won’t mention strawberry needle emeries again for at least 24 hours, promise), and I’m wearing big pockets, eagerly anticipating a crop of shiny new conkers.

Having apparently spent so much time since my last post in the company of bees (I haven’t actually been sitting on that bench quite all this time), it seemed right to return with one of my favourite topics: beeswax.

The application of beeswax is a time-honoured thread-improving technique. I often wax lyrical about it (most recently when asked to list my sewing essentials for Cross Stitcher magazine – out soon, I think) because it’s such a beautifully simple and thrifty idea. Drawing cotton or linen thread along the edge of a block of beeswax before hand-sewing renders it stronger and more resilient, less inclined to twist, knot or fray, and more likely to run smoothly through the fabric. Sewing guru Ruth Singer recommends it in her excellent manual Sew It Up, mentioning its history as a traditional tailor’s aid, and that it’s particularly helpful with long hand-sewn seams; she suggests running over the thread with a warm iron to melt the wax into the fibres slightly before use, though I must admit I haven’t tried that. Dollmaker extraordinaire Mimi Kirchner says that beeswax turns an ordinary thread into super-thread, and is fantastic for the sturdy attachment of coat buttons. And so it is.

Cobblers and sail-makers of old would have routinely coated their thread with beeswax, its waterproof qualities an added advantage. Up the social scale among the leisured classes, Georgian ladies could obtain cakes of wax decorated with gold-paper stars and other motifs. A Georgian lady’s sewing box might also contain a natty little device aptlycalled a thread waxer, designed to hold a small cake of wax on a pin between two protective ends of ivory or mother-of-pearl: think of wafers round an ice-cream sandwich and you get the idea. These were sometimes incorporated into another device, such as a tape-measure. The Victorians favoured a wooden wax box, sometimes carved in the form of fruit. And presumably these were perfectly suited to house the balls of white and yellow beeswax mentioned in an 1869 domestic guide by American author Harriet Beecher Stowe and her less famous sister Catherine. The extra refinement of white (‘bleached’) beeswax was often preferred as it was less likely to stain the palest of fabrics.

But beeswax isn’t the only product that has been used for thread-conditioning. Once upon a time, especially if you didn’t happen to have access to a hive, it was de rigeur to use your own earwax for the job, harvested with the aid of a device called an ear-spoon. I’m guessing I just exceeded your “Eeuww!” threshold, and if you now have beverage-splatter all over your screen, I apologise. Our stitching forebears may have been resourceful, but I confidently predict no comeback any time soon for earwax-based sewing aids. Double-dip or no, the trusty Q-tip is here to stay. Though, on behalf of ENT specialists everywhere, I feel beholden to add that you really shouldn’t put anything in your ear that’s smaller than your elbow.

If you can overcome your squeamishness, the notion of the pre-cotton-bud era is intriguing. Ear-spoons – or ear-scoops as they were also known – were essentially just a tiny bowl on a disproportionately long handle. They were made from a variety of materials: silver or gold, ivory or bone. They cropped up in ancient Roman beauty-sets (presumably just for personal grooming, but who knows?) as well as Georgian sewing etuis. In the seventeenth century, they were often incorporated into the end of a silver bodkin, that indispensable status symbol required to lace a lady into her wardrobe; if there had been such a thing as a Stuart Swiss army knife, I like to think that it would have featured a flip-out ear-spoon among its crop of bespoke blades.

A silver bodkin-cum-ear-spoon makes a surprisingly attractive item, but happily you don’t have to acquaint yourself with one intimately (at least, not for sewing purposes) because beeswax isn’t hard to come by. It’s best to use 100% beeswax as paraffin wax can misbehave. I happen to offer prettily shaped and packaged morceaux of stitcher’s beeswax over here on Etsy. And, for the rest of September, I’m offering them on a BOGOF basis – buy one, get one free! They make great stocking fillers for keen needle-persons, I’m told. Here’s what someone said about them a little while back.

How do you feel about beeswax? I confess to being heavily biased. That honeyed tang just can’t be beaten, and I love it in almost any product, from lip-balm to soap to furniture polish. Do you use beeswax for sewing, or for other purposes? Perhaps you can’t abide the stuff. Whatever the case, do tell!

Scrapiana beeswax

Stitcher's beeswax

 

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