Cleaning Advice to the Kitchen Staff

Who Is Who In The Kitchen

The kitchen staff in the type of household Mrs Beeton wrote for in her classic Book of Household Management comprised the cook, the kitchen maids and the scullery maids. And yes, there is a difference between these.

The cook, of course, was in charge of cooking everything, and when you see the menus suggested by Mrs Beeton, this was a full-time job. For example, a “little dinner” that was “very economical” comprised of, to take one of several suggestions, boiled mackerel, cold beef, salad and mashed potatoes followed by cheesecake. The meals for the day involved the servants’ breakfast, the family’s breakfast (and we’re talking the full English here), luncheon, afternoon tea, the servants’ tea, dinner, then the servants’ supper – and maybe “the family’s” supper, too.

The kitchen maid had to keep the kitchen clean and act as the cook’s second-in-command for chopping vegetables, etc. The scullery maid did the dirty work and she was pretty much the bottom of the hierarchy in the household. However, girls could start at the bottom and work their way up from scullery maid to cook.

Keeping It Clean

The importance of keeping the kitchen and food preparation areas was stressed by Mrs Beeton, who unashamedly supported “the germ theory of disease” which was in its infancy when she was writing (her chapters entitled “The Sick Nurse” and “The Doctor” make gruesome reading that make you very, very grateful for modern immunisation, antibiotics and disinfectant). One thing seems certain – no germ would have survived for long in a kitchen kept according to her suggestions. Everything had to be scrubbed (presumably by the maid) rigorously nearly every day.

Mrs B also knew about recycling, which she called “economy”. Her advice to reduce waste was “never waste or throw away anything that can be turned to account”. She was talking about keeping leftovers to make soup (and boiled like anything before eating – refrigerators were only used for ice and frozen foods, and yes, they did have “ice boxes” in Victorian times with no electricity or ozone-depleting CFCs).

So how does Mrs Beeton tell the kitchen staff (probably the scullery maid) to wash the dishes, pots and pans?

Amazingly Natural Cleaning Materials Are Being Used

Surprisingly enough, while we would expect lots of soap to be involved, she recommends only using hot water with a bit of washing soda in the water. Soap did put in an appearance – for washing out the tubs used for washing the dishes. No soap for getting the grease off all the dishes (and many of the recipes expounded in the book have an awful lot of lard involved)? Why not? This is probably because soap leaves a white scum behind, especially in hard water. Modern detergents don’t leave this residue and can clean effectively without dulling glassware or china.

Soda was also used to unblock the sink – a bucket of boiling soda three times a week to prevent vile smells and blocked drains. And this was even if you followed the instructions to never put anything down the drain except water – and certainly never to pour fat down the drain. What Mrs B. would make of today’s under-sink garbage disposals, I can’t say!

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