Peeking Into The Past – December 1892

By Laura Simandl April 25, 2012 08:16 AM
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Peeking Into The Past – December 1892

It’s the end of 1892.  Benjamin Harrison is President, General Electric and Abercrombie and Fitch have just been established.  The big story of the year was about a woman named Lizzie Borden who took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks (actually it was her stepmother but truth throws off the rhythm).  Somewhere in America a woman sits down to relax (or tries to anyway as breathing while wearing a tight corset is not the most relaxing thing) and reads her latest copy of the magazine The Housewife.  What will she discover as she opens to the first page?

“The housewife makes the home and the home makes the nation” is the subtitle to the magazine.  I wonder if our 1892 housewife found that title as condescending as I do.  She was not allowed to vote, but somehow spending two days doing laundry was nation building.

You don’t find too much fiction in women’s magazines anymore but it used to be hugely popular. There are four stories in the December issue.  I decided to read Miss Larion’s Tea-Party by Rose B. Kane.  Miss Larion is “our little old maid” who works as a seamstress (I’m guessing this as the author never clearly defines the occupation) with three young women.

One of the women, Annie Deering is engaged and we are told that it is the fashion of the day to give cups and saucers as an engagement gift.  Miss Larion who “was as much of a girl at heart, as any of them, despite her forty-seven years” invites the women over to her house on Christmas to see her collection of pretty china.  The girls arrive and are astonished to see that Miss Larion has exquisite pieces of china displayed in a beautiful glass dresser.

“The pieces were gift to me, when I was a girl, and when” – and there was a queer little sob in Miss Larion’s voice from the kitchen, “when I had plans like Annie’s.” The girls exchanged significant glances which meant, “Miss Larion had a romance after all.” Miss Larion gives each girl a gift of the tea cup and saucer they drank their tea from and we learn that Miss Larion fiancée, Chester, had gone off to fight in the war (I’m assuming the Civil War) and he never returned and now she’s an old maid of forty-seven, working as a seamstress and living on the top floor of a tenement building.  Well, that was a happy story!

There are little nuggets of interest sprinkled throughout the magazine.  “It is becoming quite the fashion for women to have a cup of tea, coffee or chocolate served in their rooms.  As this is a feast partaken of solus, the equipments are aptly called “sulky sets,” when a woman has one of her proverbial headaches they will be found very convenient.” Such an interesting choice to put proverbial in front of headaches.  What exactly are they saying?

Losing weight was important back then as well, but perhaps a bit harsher with an ad that reads: Fat Folks You can reduce your weight from 10 to 15lbs a month without injury, without starving, without anyone being the wiser…

Holiday Decorations gives some ideas on how to make your house festive for Christmas. “Of course the decoration of all decorations is a Christmas tree.  But do get out of the old ruts in selecting materials for its ornamentation.”  The author, Katherine A. Johnson, suggests getting a large, symmetrical shaped tree and if possible to get one with the cones still on it.  She then suggests leaving some cones natural while painting other cones gold, silver or bronze.  I actually think that sounds lovely!

We have an artificial Christmas tree (I know lame but trees in New York City cost a fortune) so I’m curious if you can even find a tree that still has cones on it.  Miss Johnson’s next suggestion would not pass modern day fire safety standards – “have colored tapers in profusion.”  I wonder how many tree fires there were back then.  Miss Johnson also offers her opinion on ornaments – “but do not, I beg of you, make it bend its graceful branches for very shame at the confused jumble of miscalled ornaments such as gaudy glass balls, Kriss Kringles and festoons of tinsel beads, cranberries and pop corn.”  It is nice of her to beg but I’ll keep my gaudy glass balls, thank you very much!

Little nugget – “Fatigue is as dangerous to good looks as a scorching wind.  Rest when you can.”

In the Practical Dress column an article by Dinah Sturgis probably had our 1892 housewife up in arms: “That Bugaboo – Home Made Millinery”.  Miss Sturgis informs her reader that some women can make beautiful hats and bonnets while some women can’t!  “The woman who can make a bow is usually a clever milliner or can become one.  The woman who can’t and never could tie a bow – we all know her – will never make a milliner.”  Indeed, we all know one of those women that cannot tie a bow!  Further reading reveals that American attitudes towards the French haven’t changed much in 120 years.

“The French women who are gay, vivacious, piquant, airy, fairy sort of beings by nature are the milliners of creation, because their fingers have the knack of putting the idea that animate them into try-on-a-ble forms.  French hats and bonnets are like the French people, not especially stable but very effective.” Oh, snap!

Little nugget – “Do not load your rooms with a quantity of cheap trifles that are only an annoyance, under the impression that they add to its elegance.  Two or three articles, tastefully disposed, will do more to render your room truly artistic than all the wealth of Aladdin’s Cave used in lavish profusion that maybe distinctly termed vulgar.”  You know, I agree.

Frances (no mention of a last name) informs our 1892 housewife in her column Two Fine Baths that taking an “unction bath” will help her weather the winter.  “Either coconut oil or good cotton-seed oil is to be used, and well rubbed in by smooth, strong strokes of the hand … the oil not only softens the skin and nourishes the system, but is a great preventive of colds and their disagreeable consequences.”   Frances goes on to say “Last winter I took an unction bath each morning and drove or rode horseback every afternoon, the thermometer often down to six degrees above zero.   Not only I never once felt any inconvenience from the severity of the weather, but I did not have a single cold during those four months.”  Thanks for the tip, Frances.

Little nugget – “Another special reason for using lamps and candles instead of gas or electric lights is the fact that they can be placed anywhere and everywhere.  As some clever woman discovered long ago that light which struck from a level decreased wrinkles and blemishes, thus making the guests in her parlor look younger and better than elsewhere.”

In the Mother’s column, Dr. Frank has an article guaranteed to terrify any mother concerning the eating habits of her child.  “And really the custom of allowing children to leave home in the morning with a mere snack is one of the worst that parents can indulge in, for it is sure to, sooner or later, undermine the constitution.”  Dr. Frank then writes about a problem that still exists today “Instead of being in bed “Until the last moment,” then bolt their breakfast at the table or perhaps take it with them to eat it as they are rushing away to escape being tardy, they should be up in time to eat heartily and leisurely, and as leisurely make their way to school.”

Other eating advice from Dr. Frank is “They must be given enough to keep them well supplied with structure –building and force-producing materials, and they must not eat too heartily, for were they to do so more or less brain torpor must result and linger for several hours at least; moreover, the system might be seriously deranged in consequence.”  There is nothing worse than a deranged system!  “And it is a fixed fact that, take two children alike physically and mentally, feed one judiciously and allow the other “anything and everything,” and the first may be a brilliant scholar, while the other must be a dullard compared to him.”  I can just picture our housewife having just read that line and worrying and feeling guilty about having her child turn out a dullard.

The Housewife is no different from any December publication you may purchase today – it provides a Christmas menu including a few recipes to pull it off.  Here is Eunice Carew’s 1892 Christmas Dinner Menu, the layout of the menu below matches the magazines layout.  I can’t for the life of me figure out why it is laid out like it is but it is:

Roasted Kid                             Bread Stuffing

Cranberry Sauce        Boiled Chestnuts

Roasted Goose             Potato Stuffing

Apple Sauce                 Celery

Mashed Potatoes                      Creamed Onions

Red Cabbage Stewed

Venison Pastry             Currant Jelly

Stewed Pumpkin

Guinea Pot-Pie Grape Jelly

Browned Turnips

English Plum Pudding    Brandy Sauce


Florendines                               Plum Tarts

Charlotte Russe

Fruits    Nuts     Raisins


There is a recipe for the roasted kid.  The first line reads “A kid should be cooked the day it is killed, and should be three or four months old and still sucking.”  Poor little kid!   I wish they had provided the Creamed Onion recipe but alas they did not  include it.

There is a recipe for a dish called Welch Cheese Cakes – check back tomorrow for the recipe and the review!  And while you’re at it – try an unction bath, don’t allow your children to be dullards and rest while you can!