Reading through the advice that Mrs Beeton gives in her classic Book
of Household Management to the housemaid makes you very, very grateful for
modern conveniences such as vacuum cleaners and electricity. Thank goodness
we no longer have to do carpet cleaning by strewing them with dry
tea-leaves then sweeping with a soft broom, or have to go through the
process of lugging carpets outside and shaking them.
However, Mrs Beeton’s method of washing carpets would
come in handy. The carpet will have to be taken up and got somewhere it can
drip-dry, but a mixture of washing soda, yellow soap and boiling water can
should be sponged over the carpet, then rinsed with hot water. Treat the
carpet bit by bit rather than all at once, then leave to dry. But most
people nowadays will want to skip the last step suggested by Mrs B to
“improve” the colours of the carpet afterwards by rubbing it
with a mixture of ox-gall and water (didn’t this smell ghastly?).
Ox-gall was also used to clean carpet that were nailed down, at a
concentration of one pint of gall to three gallons of warm water –
but we can skip this one!
The recipe for
furniture polish, however, looks promising. This is made up of equal
amounts of linseed oil, turpentine (presumably the natural type), vinegary
and “spirits of wine” (ethanol – but you could probably
substitute vodka). Or else you could just use a mixture of vinegar and oil
– how easy and eco-friendly is that?
Other useful tips for “housemaids”
* To get marks out of mahogany
(and, presumably, other fine woods) that have been made by putting
something hot on the polish “may be removed by rubbing in oils and
afterwards pouring a little spirits of wine on the spot and rubbing it dry
with a soft cloth.”
* To clean very dirty
wallpaper, wipe it lightly with very stale bread. This assumes that you
have very stale bread handy – which might not be the case with modern
bread with all the this-and-that added to make it keep fresher
* To clean marble, “take two parts
of [washing] soda, one of pumice stone and one of finely-powdered
chalk”. This should be mixed into a paste using water then rubbed
over the dirty marble. If you dreamed you dwelt in marble halls,
you’d better dream of a housemaid who knows how to do this
The list of a housemaid’s duties is
an exhausting one. In winter, the first thing the poor girl had to do was
to open the shutters downstairs, pick up the hearthrugs, sweep “the
breakfast room”, remove the ashes from the fire, blacken and polish
the grate, light the fires downstairs, dust and polish everything in that
“breakfast room” then go upstairs with hot water for My Lady
and light the fire in her bedroom. Then she had to lay the table for
breakfast – the master and mistress’s breakfast, of course. Mrs
Beeton does not specify when the maid gets to eat*. In summer, the
housemaid merely had to open the windows, sweep and dust everything in that
“breakfast room” (including the picture frames), rearrange all
the knick-knacks. While My Lady is getting ready, the maid had to then
sweep and dust the drawing room and even the hall, doorstep and
And that was just before breakfast.
Three more pages of instructions regarding daily and weekly duties follow
that lot. No wonder they all left to be Rosy the Riveters or land girls
when they had the chance!
*At least not in this
section. In the introduction, we find out that the maid and other servants
get to eat an hour before “the family”.