Cookbooks

The Compleat Housewife a popular cookbook by Eliza Smith

The Compleat Housewife – Introduction

The Compleat Housewife by Eliza Smith was first published in England in 1727 and went on to become one of the most enduring cookbooks on both sides of the Atlantic.

Because this is the first review we have posted on an 18th Century cookbook (the 18th Century covers the years 1700 to 1799) and also one of the most popular cookbooks of that century, we thought it would be a good idea to explain some of the features to look for in such an old book.

We also need to add that despite the fact that The Compleat Housewife went through eighteen editions in England starting in 1727 and was published in the English Colonies of America in 1742, Eliza died in 1732, five years after her first edition was published.

Frontispiece

There was no Frontispiece for this edition of The Compleat Housewife, but many of the 18th Century cookbooks did include one before the Title Page. And later editions of the book (we checked the fourteenth edition published in London in 1750 which had a kitchen scene as the Frontispiece) did include one.

Title Page

The Title Page of The Compleat Housewife certainly used to be the “busiest” of all the pages. A habit that emerged in the 17th Century before detailed indexes and Tables of Contents because the norm was to cram as much as possible about what to find in the book onto the Title Page.

The Title Page would almost always include a Title and a Long or Alternate Title and often a note about the Audience and then the topics that audience might be interested in reading. It almost always contained the name of the author (or a pseudonym), sometimes some information about extra items in the new edition and then, at the bottom of the page, details about the printer and the year of publication.

For the 1727, first edition of The Compleat Housewife, the following text appears as the Title, Alternate Tile and Topics in the book.

The Compleat HOUSEWIFE;

or, Accomplished Gentlewoman’s COMPANION:

Being a collection of upwards of Five Hundred of the most approved Receipts in Cookery, Pastry, Confectionary, Preserving, Pickles, Cakes, Creams, Jellies, Made Wines, Cordials.

By the time you have read the above you are half way down the Title page, but just in case you are still wavering there is more:

With Copper Plates curiously engraven for the regular Disposition or Placing of the various Dishes and Courses:

AND ALSO

With Copper Plates curiously engraven for the regular Disposition or Placing of the various Dishes and Courses:

BILLS of Fare for every Month in the Year:

To which is added,

A Collection of near Two Hundred Family Receipts of Medicines; viz Drinks, Syrups, Salves, Ointments, and various other Things of soveraign and approved Efficacy in most Distempers, Pains, Aches, Wounds, Sores, &c never before made publick, fit either private Families, or such publick-spirited Gentlewomen as would be beneficent to their poor Neighbours.

Next comes the name of the author, but as you can see from the image below, for whatever reason, Eliza didn’t get full credit.

Her name is obscured with just the first letter of each part of her name displayed. You can also see that the book was printed for J. Pemberton in London and you could find him at the Golden Buck near St Dunstan’s Church in Fleet Street. Later editions did include her full name.

The Title Page ends with the year of publication of this edition. The year is given in Roman Numerals which were still quite common in the eighteenth century.

You can see from the image above that the year was M.DCC.XXVII.

In order to read Roman Numerals you need to understand a couple of simple rules.

To count in Roman Numerals is very simple.

  • I = one
  • II = two
  • III = three
  • IV = four (here is the first rule, because the I is on the left side of the V (five) then the value on the left is subtracted, 5 – 1 = 4)
  • V = five
  • VI = six (and the second rule, because the I is on the right side of the V then that value is added, 5 + 1 = 6)
  • VII = seven (5 + 1 + 1 = 7)
  • VIII = eight
  • IX = nine (X=10, 10 – 1 = 9)
  • X = ten

You also need to know that M=1000, D=500 and C=100. In addition, the full stops show you “groups of letters” that you can calculate. The Romans didn’t use this device, it was added later.

So, when we consider the three groups for M.DCC.XXVII:

M=1000

DCC=500 + 100 + 100 = 700 (because the two “C” letters are on the right, therefore we add).

XXVII = 10 + 10 + 5 + 1 + 1 = 27

Therefore the year of publication = 1000 + 700 + 27 = 1727

The Preface

It is important in trying to learn more about early authors of cookbooks to carefully read the Preface to the book. In fact with Eliza’s Preface in The Compleat Housewife we learn quite a bit about her feistiness and the fact that she seemed to be happy with her role in life working as a housekeeper, which she continued to do even after the success of her books.

Her opening sentences in the Preface have been the source of comment by a number of writers. The words Eliza used were:

It being grown as fashionable for a book now to appear in public without a preface, as for a lady to appear at a ball without a hoop-petticoat, I shall conform to the custom for fashion-sake and not thro’ any necessity.

Eliza Smith, 1727

The writers have attributed the hoop-petticoat comment to all sorts of reasons. Most of the comments have been about her proclaiming her independence as a woman, however the reason is much simpler, although somewhat related.

She is attacking the male author of a book called “The Cook’s and Confectioner’s Dictionary or the Accomplish’d Housewifes Companion” published 4 years earlier in 1723, by John Nott.

In his Preface he started with the following words:

To All Good Housewives.

Worthy Dames,

Were it not for the sake of Custom, which has made it as unfashionable for a Book to come abroad without an Introduction, as for a Man to appear in church without a Neckcloth, or a Lady without a hoop-petticoat, I should not have troubled you with this.

John Nott, 1723

So there is little doubt that she was having a swipe at his assumption that a ‘lady’ would appear in a hoop-petticoat.

She then goes on to give a little background about how The Compleat Housewife came about:

But what I here present the World with, is the Product of my own Experience, and that for thirty Years and upwards, during which time, I have been constantly employed in fashionable and noble Families, in which the Provisions ordered according to the following Directions, have had the general Approbation of such as have been at many noble Entertainments.

Eliza Smith, 1727

From this we can tell that she worked for around thirty years in service. She also mentions in the Preface that she had been working on these recipes for much of her time in service.

The Recipes and Measurements

Many of the books published in the 17th and 18th Centuries had general descriptions about how to assemble and cook the recipe but very little exactitude about quantities.

This is not the case with Eliza in The Compleat Housewife. In fact, quite a few of her recipes have very precise measurements about the ingredients but not much about how long to cook them for.

Take, for example, her recipe for Carrot Pudding which sounds quite delicious.

Take raw carrots, and scrape them clean, grate them with a Grater without a Back. To half a Pound of Carrot, take a Pound of grated Bread, a Nutmeg, a little Cinnamon, a very little Salt, half a Pound of Sugar, and a half a Pint of Sack, eight Eggs, a Pound of Butter melted, and as much Cream as will mix it well together; stir it and beat it well up, and put it in a Dish to bake put Puff paste in the Bottom of your Dish.

As you can see, she details the ingredients quite well with half a pound of carrots to a pound of bread, a half pint of sherry (Sack) and so on. However there is little direction on how to make the puff paste or how long the pudding needs to be baked for.

Conclusion

The Compleat Housewife is a fascinating book with some excellent recipes. We have included it in our Foodtourist Top Fifty Cookbooks as an exemplar of 18th Century cookbooks.

You can download the eighteenth edition of the book which was published 41 years after her death by clicking on the link below.

The Compleat Housewife

You can buy The Compleat Housewife by clicking on the link below. We receive a small percentage of the sale which goes towards maintaining this site.

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