Reviewing the Classics: John Seymour's Forgotten Household Crafts

To me, Frewyn belongs to that simpler time, one that hearkens back to days where water came from either a well or a pump, fences and hedges were made from withies and wattle, and where the notion of being the woman of the household meant that she was the captain of a most honourable ship. John Seymour, ever disappointed with modern contrivances making many things harder and more wasteful, wrote many books glorifying his young days, recanting the time that he spent as a young boy on farms and in cottages in Wales and the west of Ireland. Everything was a joy to him: slipping into the kitchen to beg for cake batter, carding freshly sheared wool, but his greatest joy when he was young was remarking and observing all the many chores and skills performed and held by the woman of the house. In his book on Forgotten Household Crafts, a veritable trove of anecdotes and information of how every duty of the house used to be carried out, he details every moment of  a housewife's day and extols her powers of management, of cookery, of baking, of mending, of cleaning, and of being the queen of her hive. He revels in the memories of a time where everything was handmade and homemade, from soaps and dyes to clothing and suet pies. A shame it is, as he says, that once a position of such esteem is now an art lost in the flurry of modern ideas. Of course he decries any rights that women were excluded from in those days, but he pines for the loss of all the crafts and skills that were lost, skills that belonged principally to women and that are now nearly extinct.

A housewife and homemaker, when families were still dependent upon sunlight for their chores, was a noble profession. A woman rose an hour before everyone else to fire the range, to clean the floor from the muck and soot, to bake the bread, to do last minute mending, to begin the laundry-- and all of this before breakfast was to be considered. The range was a thing to be mastered rather than turned on, water was to be fetched from outside, laundry was to be done with dollies, meat was to be salted and smoked, fruits were to by dried and chutneyed, the garden was to be tended, the butter was to be made, but though everything required much more work, Seymour professes that because everything required attention and ability, there was a pride taken in turning dwelling into a home. The kitchen, as Seymour reminds us, was the center of the house, and everything that was to be done was often done around the great table. Tatting, embroidery, weaving, trawl-making, linen-pressing, home-doctoring, papering-- everything was done around the hearth or the range, which was often the only heat source in the house. Since many of these skills belonged to women, many women formed communities and began doing the daily work together: sewing circles, communal baking ovens, market gardening parties-- everything was shared and enjoyed by those who participated. The most interesting thing that Seymour catalogues is the recollection that there was almost no waste during that time: meals were served in bread trenches, items were made from iron or stone or wood, fat was saved to make tallow, ashes were used to make soap, charcoal ash was kept as a fertilizer for gardens, the rag-and-bone man took away anything that was no longer wanted and sold it to merchants. In the days before plastic, or even before tins, larders and pantries were the great caves of the house, where everything from cured and brined meats to fresh jams were stored away. Though not everything was better- laundry used to take upwards of a few days- there are many skills once under woman's providence that many women and men today have little idea how to do. Knitting and crochet are still popular, but spinning wool or even how to use bobbins and spangles is not. It is true that modern convinces have given us more leisure hours, but there was an art to managing and keeping a home that Seymour and others greatly miss. Seymour blames the Victorian Era for making many things that were once so simple unbelievably complicated (in the 1600s, laundry was done in a stream with ash lye and paddles, and somehow by the 1890s it became a many-days ritual of washing, drying, pressing, and ironing. Dishes and utensils as well became a hideous task when before the Victorian Era, many families had one pot and a few spoons to wash.) and the Industrial Revolution had a part to play, but it's the little things that Seymour recalls that really give us an excellent view of the bygone days.

This book is a plethora of information, a grand history of every duty and talent that a woman had been used to triumph at. The days of wood-burning stoves and coal ranges made have made woman's sufferance a labour intensive one, but all a housewife's reward was in having accomplished fifty things by the time the sun set on the day.

Highly recommended.


  1. I love that part about the kitchen being the center of the home. That was true in my Sicilian family.


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