Posts Tagged ‘servant’s guide’

The Rope-Skipping Governess

Tuesday, September 8th, 2015

Teachers are often put in a difficult position in today’s society, but I think the situation faced by their historical counterparts was often much worse. A governess brought into a home to teach girls and younger boys was expected to be everything but was treated as nothing.

To begin with, according to a servants’ guide published in 1826, any candidate for a governess position had to be “respectable and well-educated.”  That education was supposed to include the ability to  write a “graceful” letter, speak fluent French and have some familiarity with Italian. (The language, not the food.) She should play piano well enough to give lessons, and preferably play harp and guitar as well. She should be able to teach the elements of fashionable dance and “not be ignorant of” arithmetic. (It seems clear that dance was considered more important to the female education than math, however.)  “Of course” the governess was expected to be an expert in all types of needlework, and she should also know geography, popular sciences and literature. And she should be an expert in drawing, as well, because it was “so essential” for the young ladies to achieve proficiency in this skill in order to be considered “accomplished.”

The governess probably would not be attired quite as fashionably as this, but she would be training young ladies who would need to be prepared physically and mentally, to wear this sort of monstrosity

The governess probably would not be attired quite as fashionably as this, but she would be training young ladies who would need to be prepared, both physically and mentally, to wear this sort of monstrosity. Perhaps the recommendation for weight training is not so surprisingly after all…

Nevertheless, the expertise of the governess should be doled out in limited increments so as not to weary their pupils too much. (more…)

Job description: make weird wine

Friday, June 21st, 2013

England actually had a warm enough climate to grow wine grapes during the middle ages. Whether the wine would have been drinkable by today’s standards is unknown, but as the climate cooled during the “Little Ice Age” (from about 1350 to 1850), the British could not feasibly produce good wine from grapes. But that did not stop them from making wine.gooseberry

There are scores of recipes for wine made from just about anything other than wine grapes. In the extensive Complete Servant guide that I’ve been examining (first published in 1825), among the housekeeper’s duties are not only “improving” wine (see Wine Repair) but also making it. (more…)

Wine Repair

Tuesday, June 18th, 2013

In the last post, we saw that the duties of a Regency era butler tended to revolve around the proper serving of wine. But that assumes that the wine is good enough to be served in the first place. If it was foul, or musty, or “flat” “lowering” or even “decaying,” the housekeeper might be expected to “improve” it. Or if the cellar was low on good claret, she might be called upon to make some. Just how could these miracles be accomplished? The Complete Servant guidebook gives numerous recipes.

The old methods for "improving" wine seem like old medical practices - more likely to kill than cure

The old methods for “improving” wine seem like old medical practices – more likely to kill than cure


Wine cellars of the 18th and early 19th centuries were not filled with cases of wine in bottles like we see today. Wine was stored in casks and generally not drawn out into a bottle or decanter until shortly before it was to be consumed. (There are stories of butlers requiring the footmen to whistle while they were drawing wine so that even if he wasn’t watching, the butler could be sure that the footman wasn’t sneaking a drink.)

If you had a cask of “poor” wine, the guide advises adding a quart of brandy and either a pound of raisins or two pounds of honey. If the wine was “decaying,” you were advised to remove about four gallons from the cask, add an ounce of powdered roche-alum (some kind of rock) and beat it for about half an hour, put it back and the cask and let it sit for a week. For wine that is “musty or disagreeable,” you were told to add two sticks of charcoal to the cask. If that didn’t work, you could try mustard seed in brandy, camphor (really? that stuff is used in moth balls and embalming fluid?) or two ripe “medlars” (a fruit that Shakespeare compared to “an open-arse” and which doesn’t become edible until it’s rotten)

And there’s more. To clear “foul or ropy” wine, you mixed in chalk dust, burnt alum and egg white. Finally if wine was “green or harsh,” you could add salt, gypsum powder and skim milk. (Or you could just drink water.)

So what if guests arrive and you’re out of good claret? The servant guide says to mix an equal quantity of apple cider and port (a heavy wine fortified with extra alcohol), put the two in a bottle, shake them up, and in a month “The best judge will not be able to distinguish them from good Bordeaux.” The book also instructs housekeepers how to “pass White Wine off for champagne.”

Many of the improvements and the recipes make a wine that sounds like it would be extremely sweet. But the guide offers help to those who prefer a dry wine. “At the commencement of the vineous fermentation,” it advises adding an ounce or two of calcined gypsum. Isn’t that what’s in drywall? So maybe if I’m ever stuck at a party with only white zinfandel, I should punch a hole in the wall, scrape out a couple spoonfuls, and “improve” my wine. Yum!

Next time… turnip wine – so good you don’t even need the gypsum…




Information in this article came from The Complete Servant: Being a Practical Guide to the Peculiar Duties and Business of All Descriptions of Servants by Samuel Adams and Sarah Adams (London: Knight and Lacey 1825).

The photo is Twisted Oak Winery, 2008 River of Skulls (