adventure, history lesson, williamsburg cookbook

Tips for housekeeping in the 18th century

1. Save all your wood ashes. You can gather them in a barrel and pour water over them to create lye. (See no. 2.)

2. Save all your cooking fat. You can boil it with the lye to make soap! Yes, people really got clean with this kind of soap.

3. Dip the hem of your skirt in water. You don’t want to catch on fire while you’re innocently checking the stew. Sadly, this was one of the main causes of death for women in the 18th and early 19th centuries. (The other one was childbirth.)

4. Store your baked goods in a pie safe. No refrigerator? No problem! All you need is a cupboard with punched-tin siding for ventilation (and make sure the rough edges of the holes face outwards, to discourage bugs). You can store your perishables on a shelf in the pie safe.*

5. Make sure your bake oven is the right temperature. Once you’ve let the bake oven fire burn down to ashes, toss some flour in there to see if it’s ready for bread. If the flour burns in ten seconds, you’re good to go.

6. Bake your goods in the right order. If you’ve taken the time to heat up the bricks of your bake oven, you don’t want that heat to go to waste. Bake your bread first, when the oven is the hottest. After the bread is finished, bake your pies and cakes. Save the cookies and biscuits for last, since they only need a little heat.

7. Keep a cup of water nearby in case you get too hot. While you may be working over a hot fire all day long (even in the summer!), you’re wearing at least two petticoats and a full dress, plus an apron and a corset. Otherwise you wouldn’t be proper.

8. Be prepared to smell like wood smoke. All the time.**

* Okay, pie safes are really a 19th-century invention (from the Pennsylvania Germans). But it’s still a good tip.
** When I worked at the living history museum, I found that the smoke got everywhere. Your hair, your underclothes, your skin. It didn’t matter if you changed before you went home. I would be clearing the dinner table and think for a moment that someone had lit a fire in the middle of summer…until I realized that no, it was just me.

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