Advice To The Housemaid | Anyclean

updated: 20/11/2023

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 B’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” include:

* 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 longer.

* 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 one.

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 corridors.

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”.

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About the author 

Nick Vassilev

Nick blogs about cleaning. He is a cleaning expert with more than 25 years of experience. He is also an NCCA-certified carpet cleaner. Founder and CEO of Anyclean.