Domestic Nursing: An Introduction to Maintaining the Sick-Room

The following blog post was contributed by Isabel Luce, who is the Museum of Health Care’s 2018 Margaret Angus Research Fellow. Isabel has a BA in Canadian Studies and Art History from McGill University, and an MA in Art History and Curatorial Studies, and is working towards completing her PhD in Art History at Queen’s University. This is Isabel’s second blog post in a series she will be writing throughout the summer. Special thanks to Trustees of the Estate of Larry Gibson, Graeme Fraser and Jay Rayner, for their generous support of this fellowship.

Cover page of Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861)

Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management: A Complete Cookery Book (1861) was perhaps the most well-known and referred-to home advice manual of its time. It was originally published in 24 separate parts from 1859 to 1861, and then compiled as a bound book in 1861, soon becoming a staple in most Victorian homes. Though the author, Isabella Beeton, died just four years later at the young age of 28, her book lived on. Her husband sold the copyright several years after and it was republished and modified many times over the next hundred years, though the later versions retained little of Beeton’s original advice and flair. The book was primarily composed of advice on how to cook a great variety of Victorian foods along with delicious illustrations of these dishes; however, it was not simply a recipe book. This Book of Household Management also contained a wide range of helpful advice targeted at the newly-married wife tasked with keeping the home clean and her family healthy. Chapters included an overview on how to cook for invalids and the rearing and management of children, as well as diseases of infancy and childhood, and sections on “The Doctor” and domestic nursing.

Beeton believed that all women would, at some point in their lives, have to play the role of sick-nurse, and so they “should prepare themselves as much as possible, by observation and reading, for the occasion when they may be required to perform the office.”(1) Where on-going care for a serious illness was needed, Mrs. Beeton recommended turning to a professional nurse or doctor; however, in the early stages of sickness, it was undeniably the woman-of-the-home’s role to take on domestic nursing tasks.

In 1864, several years after Beeton’s book was first published, John Ruskin gave two lectures at Manchester University entitled Of Kings’ Treasures and Of Queens’ Gardens in which he outlined the ideals of Victorian masculinity and femininity. Ruskin described the ideal woman, or the “Queen of the Home,” as one who stays within the private sphere, passively taking care of the family and providing moral and religious guidance. The ideal man, or the “King of the Home,” on the other hand, should actively provide for the family in the public sphere as a creator and worker.(2) Due to these generally accepted conceptions of gender, women were regarded as innate caregivers, best-suited to administering care to ill family members. Beeton’s book echoes these commonly held beliefs, describing a good domestic caregiver as having a “good temper, compassion for suffering, sympathy with sufferers, which most women worthy of the name possess, neat-handedness, quiet manners, love of order, and cleanliness.”(3) Great attention to detail was required to care for sick family members, and the aforementioned qualities would allow the carers to overcome any disgust they may face in the sick-room.

beeton isabella mary beetons M00027 30
A page from Isabella Beeton’s The Book of Household Management (1861). This edition is from the British Library’s website:

The first steps in caring for an ill family member are outlined in Beeton’s book as well as in the many other home advice manuals that proliferated in the later years of the 19th century. I have organized the advice I’ve come across for home care into the following general categories:

  • Light
  • Nursing as maternal devotion
  • Cleanliness and disinfectants
  • Ventilation, bad smells, and draughts
  • Temperature
  • Drainage, plumbing, and water
  • Bathing
  • Food for invalids
  • Remedies for small ailments
  • Noise
  • Disposal of refuse
  • Nursery and children’s health
  • Sick-Room, furniture and decoration

In my upcoming blog posts, I will be looking at each of these topics in more detail and will include some of the most common advice as well as the more bizarre. Often this advice is quite holistic and to the modern-day reader would seem like common sense. For example, Emma Hewitt’s advice book Queen of Home contains a whole chapter dedicated to the “Sick-Room” and begins by denouncing quack medicines or the use of spirits and alcoholic tonics that only produce temporary relief in favour of,

“A systematic caring for one’s self. […one should] take all the time for sleep that you can possibly allow. The brain, overtaxed, is like an Octopus—it seizes and feeds upon all around it. Many an illness has been warded off by a prolonged sleep. While the devourer slept, Nature had time to restore the weary body and strengthen it to resist the demands upon it.”(4)

This tip may sound like general, good “self care” to us nowadays, but between all the meals and chores one would have been responsible for in the Victorian era (not to mention the task of child-rearing), finding time to take care of oneself was hard, particularly when a family could not afford the luxury of employing a maid.

NPG P3; Isabella Mary Beeton (nÈe Mayson) by Maull & Polyblank
Hand-tinted albumen print of Isabella Beeton (Mrs. Beeton) by Maull & Polyblank form the National Portrait Gallery, London, 1857. More information can be found here:

Beeton explains in her introduction that she consulted the correspondents of Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine and a private circle of women for the recipes outlined in her book, while the chapters on “The Doctor” and “Legal Memoranda” were compiled with the assistance of “gentlemen fully entitled to confidence; those on medical subjects by an experienced surgeon, and the legal matter by a solicitor.”(5) These home advice manuals, primarily written by women authors and aimed at the newly-wed young wife inexperienced in her role, often quote doctors or “experts” to legitimize their health-related advice, with men dominating these positions. When it came to medical advice, the authors would defer to doctors, repackaging advice from medical papers and articles in a more accessible format.

For sections on decoration, cooking, and general household management, women authors seemed more comfortable claiming that they were the experts in this field. This is particularly interesting when you look into Isabella Beeton’s own background as, by some accounts, she was hardly an expert at cooking despite having published one of the most well-known and highest selling cookbooks of her time! Beeton was born on March 14th, 1836, in London, England and married publisher Samuel Orchart Beeton (known for being the first in Britain to publish Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe and the creator of The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine and Boy’s Own magazine) at the age of 20. She gave birth to four children, and sadly only two survived infancy. In total, Beeton had only been married for three years before her first book was published; however, having grown up the eldest of 21 children, she was by no means inexperienced with household management. Her expertise on household matters, though, has come to be debated as an article from the British Library shows.(6) Her first published recipe was a great failure: In 1857, she submitted “A Good Sponge Cake” recipe to The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine and forgot to include the amount of flour required, leading to a written apology in the following issue for those who attempted her recipe to disastrous results. Upon deeper examination, many of her recipes were in fact compiled from ones others contributed to her husband’s magazine (The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine) and were uncredited, while others were copied from older books on cookery with outdated copyrights. Like her advice on health, the recipes were compiled from a vast range of sources; however, it is undeniable that the product was an indispensable compendium of knowledge.



  1. Isabella Beeton, The Book of Household Management (London: Ward, Lock and Co., 1880), this version was accessed from – Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenburg:, 2416.
  2. John Ruskin, “Of Queen’s Gardens,” in Sesame and Lilies: John Ruskin, ed. Deborah Epstein Nord, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 58.
  3. Ibid
  4. Emma Hewitt, Queen of Home (Philadelphia: Miller-Megee Company Publishers, 1889), 210.
  5. Beeton, The Book of Household Management,
  6. Kathryn Hughes, “Mrs. Beeton and the art of household management,” British Library, May 15, 2014,

2 thoughts on “Domestic Nursing: An Introduction to Maintaining the Sick-Room

  1. A profession relating to health and medical career is a rewarding job but, also a tough one. It is important to know where you are passionate and pursue that dream of yours! Thank you for sharing this helpful information.

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