Household Books Published in Britain: all volumes



The Household Technology History Project digitizes and makes available on-line leading bibliographies of household material 1475-1914: primarily the preservation, conservation, preparation, consumption and management of food and drink, as well as household technology, domestic medicine, care of the sick, elderly, and children, etiquette and behavior, and the treatment of servants.

It addresses sociocultural attitudes to household work, including class structure, technology, education of women, global colonialism, racialisation of service, and gendered responsibility. The database delivers access to multidisciplinary histories of the household, and in making the past 'real,' informs the present conditions of such labor.


The Household Technology History Project (Project) addresses the current lack of systematic information about primary sources relevant to the field of household work and culture, and begins to resolve the issue with an elegant resource that encourages researchers, teachers and students to learn a range of research skills.

One of the most impermeable barriers to using primary materials in the field of food, drink and household work, is that they are so varied and that they changed their status so many times in the modern period. Yet this material is fundamental to an understanding of the history of capitalism, of colonialism, of the family, of gendered division of labor. It informs our understanding of literature, the visual arts, drama and design, and is usually missing from academic accounts because of the difficulty of accessing such a complex and under-researched field of knowledge and information. It is also directly relevant to studies in the history of science and technology including chemistry (e.g. distillation, inks, cleaning agents, medicinal, and new foodstuffs such as sugar), equipment (e.g. stills, charcoal heaters, the shift from coal to gas to electric ranges), and training (e.g. in laundry work, heating methods).

The Project makes it possible to put flesh on the bones of history, the sociocultural contexts for literature, the arts, sciences and technology. It enables researchers to conduct simple searches for information within the field, more complex investigation into the content of the materials, and locations for and access to primary research sources for more detailed study and presentation.

Relevance to Social and Cultural Diversity, and Environmental Sustainability

Household technology from the beginning of the modern era to the start of World War I changed significantly. Its history is directly related to the privatization of middle class women within the home, to the creation of a domestic servant class made up primarily of women from lower classes and women of color. The growth of the British colonial enterprise was intimately tied to the construction of household management and the relationships that it secured with colonized peoples and the household organization in colonized countries. The diversity issues are incalculable: they help understand the role of the family in the early nation state and in support of capitalist economics, as a result they are related to the development of class structure in western liberal nations, to the patriarchal oppression of women, the disempowerment of the elderly and the sick, and the positioning of children as without human rights. The structure of the household, and the technological advances that underpinned it, was integral to the silencing of those not included in the special rights advanced to men of white color, largely Christian religion, and usually with property. The strategies used to gain these special rights (ironically, and bitterly, called 'human rights' to this day) were used to legitimate the deprivation of rights for people of color, people of different ability, in fact any person not fitting the 'special' category. At its most political this material in the hands of a good teacher can put flesh on the bones of the theory.

Some of that flesh includes: different ways of dealing with the sick – have you failed when someone becomes ill (i.e. failed to keep them healthy), or are you responsible simply for making them get better (and, was getting ill their own fault?). Until well into the twentieth century, women in the household were responsible for maintaining the health of the family.

Some of that flesh includes: different ways of eating, different foodstuffs, different concepts of cleanliness. Many of our contemporary issues with social and cultural diversity are based in simple daily activities such as 'shaking hands' - do you do it at all? if so, which hand do you use? and why? questions often related to food and the body. Understanding the historical background to actions and beliefs is a first step toward understanding practices different from one's own, and a first step toward addressing diversity.

Some of that flesh includes: offering role models from the past of people who faced up to and dealt with complex situations and sometimes appalling conditions. People such as 'Anonymous,' the author of a book of household medicine directed at the commonwealth of people who could not afford doctors (1536), or Hannah Wolley, one of the first women to openly trade in household goods (1660s onward), or Thomas Tryon, a doctor who treated the poor of London (1680-1700) and advocated Hindu vegetarianism, Elizabeth Raffald, a hugely successful inn owner (1730s-50s), Mary Seacole, a British African nurse who served in the Crimea (1840s), Catherine Parr Traill, an emigrant to the Canadian bush who defined a way of life for generations (1840s), Alexis Soyer a chef to Queen Victoria who wrote guides to food preparation for the Irish famine victims (1850s), Catherine Buxton, who ran a mobile teaching unit to train people in using gas ranges and lighting throughout the north of England (1870s), and so on. In pragmatic terms the material the Project makes available opens up specific areas of people's lives that can be linked both to original research and to course material in many areas, and that provide direct access to understanding underrepresented areas of sociocultural life.

The Project also foregrounds issues of ecology and environmental sustainability. As Gertrude Stein noted: 'history teaches that history teaches'. We learn from the past in interesting and challenging ways. The Project includes material from the early modern period in which an ecological interrelationship of geology, astronomy, food pathways, engineering and technology, defined the concept of 'economy'. Both the words 'ecology' and 'economy' are derived from the Greek 'oikos', or 'household'. The early modern house represented the center of an ecological equilibrium, in which men and women had detailed gender-specific responsibilities. This changes only slowly, and through the eighteenth century becomes caught up in concepts of 'frugality' – a responsibility largely of women. The Frugal Housewife (1823 UK, 1828 US) is a book that instructs the woman of the house in how to maintain an environmentally friendly household for the early 1800s. The material throughout the nineteenth century is a vibrant record of how this balance breaks down with the breakup of communities in the advancing industrial revolution, the growth of high street shops, the splitting of families into domestic service, and the exodus of marriageable men to the 'colonies' on behalf of the administration of the British empire.

The Project gives unique insight into how people dealt with new technologies, how they recognized over time the environmental impact of these machines and products, how they reacted often by displacing the 'problem' out of sight and out of mind to somewhere else on the globe, and how many started a long push into more enlightened management that all too frequently involved yet another ecological breakdown. The history the Project makes available is important because it teaches that there is no end-answer, no failsafe solution. Human beings change, and ongoing, constant attention to the ecological is vital because of that fact.

Relevance to Printing History

Many of the books, and periodicals that the Project describes are fragile, rare, and in special collections of far-flung libraries. The nineteenth century materials in particular were produced at a time when industrial paper-making added many chemicals to whiten paper not knowing that these chemicals would leave the paper disintegrating in the fingers of twenty-first century readers. Libraries increasingly refuse access to these books to all but research scholars. However, a unique element of the Project is that many of the entries offer content descriptions of the material, and many of the full-title descriptions outline the breadth of subject matter. The analytical information provides information about author, biography where available, publisher, printer, place of publication, illustration, advertisements, the construction of the book (often an indicator of status), binding (another indication of status), and price.

The Project describes in a searchable database the possibility of organizing material according to place, person, topic, status, mode of production, and library holdings in the UK, the USA, and several other countries. The researcher can make simple selections rapidly and effectively, probably gaining the insight they need for sociocultural context from well-thought out searching. For those who want to pursue the search into the full detail of the primary material, the library locations are helpful because several of these libraries have full-text databases or microfilm libraries on access to the public. For example, the British Library Nineteenth Century Project has several relevant computer-accessible full-text databases available through the Chadwyck-Healey LION server, including one on Domestic Household Books.

The Project, in combination with these library services, works for the long-term preservation of the cultural heritage of these materials. There is no doubt that students and scholars of the future will consult the primary texts and find completely different kinds of knowledge in them. In this sense it serves a primary and essential environmental purpose.