Sunday, September 25, 2011

"Queen of the Household"

Minnie as an infant circa 1891
As described in an earlier post, Grandma Minnie spent her earliest childhood living along the Erie Canal in the Mohawk Valley, where her father Fred Fineour ran a grocery and feed store that supplied the canal boats that came through the lock at Fort Plain. What was it like for Great-Grandma Nan (Kittie Van Slyke Fineour) to keep house in the apartment over the store?

We can glean some hints of what housekeeping entailed in the last decade of the 19th century by peeking into Kittie’s book of household hints, which has been handed down to me along with Grandma Minnie’s cookbook.

The title page announces: “Queen of the Household: A Carefully Classified and Alphabetically Arranged Repository of Useful Information on Subjects that Constantly Arise in the Daily Life of Every Housekeeper.”  Indeed, the heavy volume, all 737 pages of it, is chock full of recipes for all occasions, laundry tips, hints on cleaning furniture and woodwork, child care, home remedies for common ailments, “many uses of common things”  -- and a whole chapter on fancy ways to fold napkins.

Title Page: "Queen of the Household"

The book was written by Mrs. M.W. Ellsworth, also known as the Queen of the Household, published by her husband, and sold all through the United States by traveling salesmen. The edition I have was published in Detroit in 1891, and must have been purchased by my great-grandparents the year after Minnie was born. Now it is tattered, torn and stained in spots, which bears witness not only to its advanced age, but also to the fact that it must have been used a lot. I picture Mrs. Ellsworth, nee Mary ("Tinnie") Wolcott Janvrin as the Martha Stewart of her day, but her advice and instructions seem much more down-to-earth than those of today’s domestic diva. In fact, as her husband’s preface states, the book is “rigidly economical, thoroughly practical, with short but plain directions, and nothing put into it simply to fill [it] up.”

Here, for example, are recipes for making your own bleach, soap and furniture polish, dissolving and reconstituting scraps of soap (economical, for sure!), removing ink stains from cloth or marble, cleaning hardwood floors or furniture, and dealing with rats, mice and insects. Before beginning my own spring cleaning chores earlier this year, I decided to skim through Mrs. Ellsworth’s hefty tome and see how many of her tips had survived the test of time.

I quickly gave up on the idea of making my own bleach, or javelle water, as it was called in Tinnie’s time. The recipe called for four pounds of sal soda (sodium carbonate), 1 pound of chloride of lime, and 1 gallon of boiling water. “Put the sal soda in the water and let boil 10 or 15 minutes, and add the chloride of lime; when cool put into jugs and keep corked tightly. Nothing like it for soiled linen.” I wasn’t sure where to find the ingredients, or just how toxic they might be, so I found it easier of course to buy my own bleach at my local supermarket.

Illustration from Queen of the Household
As for the soap, well, I asked myself, do I want to try hard soap, soft soap, or ox-gall soap? For this last, Tinnie suggests getting a pint bottle filled with fresh beef’s gall at the butcher’s. I tried to imagine the look I might get upon requesting this item at the meat counter of my local supermarket, and decided against it.

But as Mrs. Ellsworth writes, “It is a simple matter to make hard soap: To 7 pounds tallow use 3 pounds rosin, 2 pounds potash, and 6 gallons water; boil for 3 hours, or, better still, for 5.” None of these essential ingredients are to be found in the average 21st century household. I was beginning to think I would never make it to be Princess of my household, let alone Queen!

The soft soap recipe also called for items I didn’t have: 6 gallons of rain water and 4 tablespoons hartshorn, along with hard soap and sal soda. I had to resort to my unabridged dictionary to figure out what some of these ingredients were. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edition, hartshorn is just that: the antler of a hart, i.e., a male deer, formerly used as a source of ammonia and in smelling salts (ammonium carbonate). Sal soda is a hydrated sodium carbonate used as a general cleanser. Again, not commonly available in today’s supermarket, unless under a more recognizable brand name.

I did try Mrs. Ellsworth’s instructions for reconstituting scraps of soap by cutting them up and dissolving them in boiling water, stirring in oatmeal and letting the mixture harden in a greased cup. This is definitely “reduce, reuse, recycle,” in modern 21st century fashion, and not as onerous a task as making my own soap from scratch. The Queen claims that this will be an ideal soap for the nursery, meaning great for scrubbing children’s dirty hands. I had mixed results with this experiment. The oatmeal sank to the bottom of the cup as the mixture solidified, and it only hardened to a consistency a little firmer than margarine. Small chunks of undissolved soap rose to the top as the mixture hardened, giving the soap a mottled appearance and releasing unexpected bursts of perfume now and then when I tried it out in the shower.

"Golden Sands" from Queen of the Household

One cleaning tip I found in the pages of Tinnie’s book that has definitely stood the test of time is the idea of using weak tea, at room temperature, to clean hardwood floors. In fact, shortly before I found this idea in the book, I received a promotional postcard from the real estate agent who had helped me buy my house; his postcards always include decorating or cleaning tips, and the latest one was just this: clean hardwood floors with black tea. This is simple, practical and effective. I used a soft cloth dipped in the warm tea to gently rub away dirt and dust, and it made my wood floors shine without too much effort. After cleaning the floor with tea, Mrs. Ellsworth suggests using a furniture polish made of 1/3 linseed oil, 1/3 turpentine and 1/3 vinegar. “Shake it well together in a bottle, and pour it into a saucer and rub hard.”

This seems a simple enough recipe, but linseed oil and turpentine are both highly inflammable, so if you try this, you should use much caution. In fact, the floor polish I have in my cupboard contains petroleum distillates, which are also highly combustible. The label warns you not to use it near an open flame, and to use only in a well-ventilated area. Good advice for any household product, whether formulated by the Queen or not.

Would you like some ideas for brightening your carpets? Mrs. Ellsworth suggests beating your carpet to remove the dust, then scrubbing it with soap dissolved in soft water mixed with bullock’s gall. She claims, “This will restore the carpet to its original colors and make it look almost like new.” Again, the problem of where to find bullock’s gall presents itself! Not only that, but this sounds like an awful lot of work; however, I remind myself that it was written in the days before most people had vacuum cleaners. In fact, by 1891, a number of inventors had tinkered with various types of suction devices for cleaning carpets, but it was not until after World War II that vacuum cleaners became standard equipment in most middle class households.

The last thing I thought of trying out was Tinnie’s instructions for cleaning silver. She suggests that “Nothing is better to clean silver with than alcohol and ammonia.” As soon as I can find these ingredients in my local hardware store or drugstore, I’ll try it on my Moroccan silver coffee service. I just hope it doesn’t harm the finish.

"Flowers" by Longfellow, from Queen of Household

According to information on , a popular genealogy Web site, Mrs. Ellsworth and her husband were both teachers; perhaps that is where their desire to instruct housewives in domestic science came from. At that time, many of the products that we now purchase at the corner store had to be made from scratch. This was probably especially true for households out on the frontier. Remember, this was still the era of westward expansion across the Great Plains.

This was also an era of expanding industry --  and federal budgets. Benjamin Harrison was in the White House, and during his administration, the federal budget reached a billion dollars for the first time in American history. In Great Britain, the British Empire prospered and grew, and Queen Victoria would rule for another ten years.

Perhaps Great-Grandpa Fred Fineour purchased the volume from a traveling salesman who may have shopped at the store while the canal boat he was traveling on went through the canal lock. I wonder if the store sold some of the ingredients needed for Tinnie’s concoctions: potash, lye and sal soda.

Many of the household hints in “Queen of the Household” seem quaint and outdated to us now. But we are living in an era of shrinking resources and global warming. It therefore behooves us to reexamine our own habits and see where we can use fewer toxic chemicals and stretch our available resources by re-using or recycling them. Tea, anyone?

Oh, and one last tip from the Queen – “Always govern your household with the triple-jeweled crown: Love, Patience, Prudence.” That’s good advice in any era.

An earlier version of this article was published in The Altamont Enterprise on April 26, 2007. Reprinted with permission. 

Stay tuned  --  Next week we return to the Netherlands to learn more about Grandma VandenBergh's forebears in Loosdrecht. 


  1. The Library of Congress Name Authority File doesn't mention "Olmsted" as her maiden name. It gives the following information:

    Personal name heading: Janvrin, Mary W. (Mary Wolcott), 1830-1870
    Variant(s): Ellsworth, M. W. (Mary Wolcott), 1830-1870
    Worth, L. L., Mrs., 1830-1870
    Ellsworth, Mary Wolcott Janvrin, 1830-1870
    Ellsworth, Tinnie "Mrs. M.W. Ellsworth"
    Ellsworth, Tinnie, 1830-1870
    Found in: Her Peace, 1857: t.p. (Mary W. Janvrin)
    Her Queen of the household, 1891: t.p. (Mrs. M. W. Ellsworth)
    Her Smith’s saloon, 1871: t.p. (Mrs. L.L. Worth)
    Wallace, W.S. A dict. of N. Amer. authors, 1968 (Ellsworth, Mrs. Mary Wolcott, née Janvrin; novelist; b. 1830; d. 8/16/1870)
    NUC pre-1956 (Ellsworth, Mary Wolcott (Janvrin), 1830-1870)
    LC manual cat. (hdg.: Ellsworth, Tinnie "Mrs. M.W. Ellsworth")

  2. That's interesting, thank you for this comment. I'll double-check my sources!