“Always keep the receipt”—that’s what my grandmother told me. It was usually uttered after she’d bought me something from a toy shop—probably because she was worried that whatever she purchased might be faulty and have to have it exchanged. Its meaning does appear to have changed over time. In the Victorian era “receipt” had a different meaning: it meant what we would nowadays more properly call a “recipe.”
It is with the Victorian meaning of the word in mind, then, that I gladly introduce you to a woman named Susannah Frances Reynolds—wife of George W.M. Reynolds, after whom this (recently rebranded) blog is named. She wrote a book in 1847 titled The Household Book of Practical Receipts, which I’d like to introduce to you today.
Susannah Reynolds née Pearson (born sometime between 1817 and 1819) is something of an enigma. It appears that at a young age, and for reasons we do not know, she upped sticks and went to Belgium where she settled for a time before moving on to Paris where, at the of 16 she met Reynolds. It must have been a whirlwind romance. The pair of them married on 31 July 1837 at the Anglican Church in Paris—their first child was born three months later.
Don’t let the domesticated image of Susannah fool you though. She wrote sensational novels and earned herself a “bad” reputation in the press, especially for the publication of Gretna Green; or, All for Love.
But it seems she could also play the part of Victorian domestic goddess and, after her husband founded the original Reynolds’s Miscellany in 1847, she began a weekly column titled “Practical Receipts.” The aim of the “Practical Receipts” was to help the working classes save money while also helping them to cook nice things to eat on a budget. Eventually all these recipes and tips were published as a single volume under the aforementioned title.
Some of the advice Susannah gave to the working classes would also help them check whether any of their food had been adulterated by unscrupulous butchers and bakers. For checking whether bread had been adulterated with alum (according to Wikipedia: a type of chemical compound, usually a hydrated double sulfate salt of aluminium) Susannah recommended that
The bread must be soaked in water, and to the water in which it has been soaked, a little of the solution of muriate of lime must be added; upon which, if any alum be present, the liquid will be pervaded with milkiness: but if the bread be pure the liquid will remain limpid.
Soggy bread! Presumably Susannah would want us to leave the bread to dry afterwards.
But the focus was not only upon food. Susannah had tips for a range of household issues—making your own ink, French polish, dyes for clothing, as well as the correct method for taking a cold bath.
Mrs Reynolds even gave us instructions on how to do our own vaccinations (which, if published nowadays, would probably come with a “don’t try this at home” warning): it involved taking a scalpel to an infected patient’s inflamed aureola, drawing out some pus, and then placing the pus inside an incision made on another person.
When the Reynolds ran into financial difficulties Susannah had to briefly sell her copyright to The Household Book of Practical Receipts. But it appears that the publisher John Dicks, who saved the Reynoldses from bankruptcy and poverty, bought the rights back from one of the creditors it had been sold to.
Susannah died in 1858, having been quite ill with “a disease of the heart” for a while before that. After her death her book continued to be published by John Dicks, sometimes under a different title such as The Household Book of Domestic Economy.
Sorry—were you expecting a different sort of post?
George W.M. Reynolds, The Necromancer, ed. by Dick Collins (Valancourt, 2009) which contains the most extensive biography of Reynolds to date.
Reynolds, Susannah Frances, The Household Book of Practical Receipts (London: John Dicks, 1847).
———, The Household Book of Domestic Economy (London: John Dicks, 1885)