The American Frugal Housewife

This weekend I ran across a book that has me fascinated. It’s called The American Frugal Housewife by Lydia Maria Child, and it was originally published in… 1828. The entire text is available for free in a variety of formats at Project Gutenberg (I downloaded my copy to my Kindle) and it has made for some very interesting reading.


(As an aside, Lydia Child was an Abolitionist, a women’s right’s activist, and a voice for Native American rights decades before the Civil War broke out. Also, she wrote a poem that is still quoted today – the first two lines, anyway. Not bad for someone who’s been dead for 130 years!)

The book is dedicated to “those who are not ashamed of Economy,” and while some things are not exactly useful today (I’ll leave the herbal remedies and the tips on avoiding wear on my carpet-broom, thanks) there are a great many recipes, a lot of advice, and many of her observations are still relevant. Here’s a sample:

In this country, we are apt to let children romp away their existence, till they get to be thirteen or fourteen. This is not well. It is not well for the purses and patience of parents; and it has a still worse effect on the morals and habits of the children. Begin early is the great maxim for everything in education. A child of six years old can be made useful; and should be taught to consider every day lost in which some little thing has not been done to assist others.

Here’s another that I like:

Provided brothers and sisters go together, and are not allowed to go with bad children, it is a great deal better for the boys and girls on a farm to be picking blackberries at six cents a quart, than to be wearing out their clothes in useless play. They enjoy themselves just as well; and they are earning something to buy clothes, at the same time they are tearing them.

I’ve recently become interested in how food was prepared and preserved before refrigeration and mass production completely changed the game. Did you know that you can preserve fresh eggs for more than a year without refrigeration just by sealing the shell against air? No, really! There were lots of different ways to do it, like packing the eggs in salt or bran, coating them in paraffin, or placing them in a lime solution, but back in the day if you wanted your eggs between September and April, you had to lay them up against the winter. Crazy, right?

Mrs. Child had a great deal to say about things like living beyond your means and educating children, as well as general tips for health, life, and frugality. I’m serious about testing some of these recipes, though. Here’s her recipe for pancakes:


Pancakes should be made of half a pint of milk, three great spoonfuls of sugar, one or two eggs, a tea-spoonful of dissolved pearlash*, spiced with cinnamon, or cloves, a little salt, rose-water, or lemon-brandy, just as you happen to have it. Flour should be stirred in till the spoon moves round with difficulty. If they are thin, they are apt to soak fat. Have the fat in your skillet boiling hot, and drop them in with a spoon. Let them cook till thoroughly brown. The fat which is left is good to shorten other cakes. The more fat they are cooked in, the less they soak.

* Baking soda can be substituted for pearlash.

I’m intrigued. At any rate, I’ll leave you today with one more thought from Mrs. Child:

The prevailing evil of the present day is extravagance. I know very well that the old are too prone to preach about modern degeneracy, whether they have cause or not; but, laugh as we may at the sage advice of our fathers, it is too plain that our present expensive habits are productive of much domestic unhappiness, and injurious to public prosperity. …It is not to the rich I would speak. They have an undoubted right to spend their thousands as they please; and if they spend them ridiculously, it is consoling to reflect that they must, in some way or other, benefit the poorer classes. People of moderate fortunes have likewise an unquestioned right to dispose of their hundreds as they please; but I would ask, Is it wise to risk your happiness in a foolish attempt to keep up with the opulent? Of what use is the effort which takes so much of your time, and all of your income? Nay, if any unexpected change in affairs should deprive you of a few yearly hundreds, you will find your expenses have exceeded your income; thus the foundation of an accumulating debt will be laid, and your family will have formed habits but poorly calculated to save you from the threatened ruin. Not one valuable friend will be gained by living beyond your means, and old age will be left to comparative, if not to utter poverty.

Food for thought, indeed.


  1. mildred says:

    maybe more of our young should read The American Frugal Housewife
    I came to your site for the slipper pattern but will be back for other things thank ou

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