At the age of thirty and well into my second year of farm living, I learned how to butcher and clean a chicken from a book. One eye on the open page, one on the slithering carcass, I crunched my poultry shears through skin and bone and grabbed the two halves, sending pin feathers flying. “Now,” said the author, “open the chicken like a book, and remove the giblets.”
Women back in the 1860s didn’t need books to learn the basics, right? They lived close to the land. Chickens pecked in the backyard or the neighbor’s. They had their mothers to pass down the requisite knowledge of a chicken’s innards.
Or maybe not. During the period of the early eighteen hundreds, some of the most popular books for the growing urbanized middle class were ones that detailed how to do everything from butchering a chicken to doing the laundry.
In 1845 Catherine Beecher wrote A Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School with the purpose of relieving housewives of what she felt were “the deplorable sufferings of multitudes of young wives and mothers, from the combined influences of poor health, poor domestics, and a defective domestic education.”
In the same year Ester Allen Howland published The New England Economical Housewife. These books differed from earlier receipt books such as The Virginia Housewife (1836) by Mary Randall in that they went beyond food recipes in providing detailed facts on domestic life in general. Beside entries for baking bread were those for making bootblack, mosquito repellents, bait for rats, and ways to deal with the servants.
One of the most popular of these was Isabella Beeton‘s 1861 Book of Household Management which sold sixty-thousand copies in the first year. In between recipes Beeton provided innumerable facts about the origins of the various food stuffs and wise advice on treating various illness. Nicola Humble in her introduction to the abridged Oxford Classics 2000 edition of the book posits that these pages of minutia reflected the belief that the female mind was better suited to memorization than to deep thinking.
All these books are treasures for anyone writing about the domestic side of the Civil War period. However, my favorite is The American Family Encyclopedia of Useful Knowledge or the Book of 7223 Receipts and Facts Useful to Every Individual published in 1856 by Thomas Webster and Mrs. Parks. Addressing the interests of both women and men, this book covers everything from what direction to situate your house to types of lighting systems to how to sweep a room. And of course on page 864, how to clean a chicken: