Tag Archives: The Housekeeper’s Tale by Tessa Boase

Book Review: Mrs. Pankhurst’s Purple Feather: Fashion, Fury and Feminism — Women’s Fight for Change, by Tessa Boase

Note: the accompanying images are not from this book, but much of what I learned, is. Any reflections about parallels with current events are mine, and mine alone. This book made me think.

The millinery and feather trades were a huge international business in 1910. Ad from Delineator.

I’m sorry I took so long to review this book; I loved reading it, and I’ve raved about it to friends, but it is so jam-packed with fascinating information that I was tempted to quote something from every other page — which would not be fair to other readers; it’s too much fun to discover surprising facts for yourself! [Even so, I couldn’t resist sharing a few. My enthusiasm carries me away. A shorter review can be found at The Vintage Traveler ūüôā ]

In her previous book, The Housekeeper’s Tale, Tessa Boase poured through old account books, legal proceedings, letters and diaries, and used her research to unearth the life stories of several women servants over a period of nearly two centuries. I confess that history was the class that bored me the most in high school — although I was a good student, I hated “history.” But history vividly told though the lives of ordinary women — that is fascinating, and suspenseful, reading.

This teenaged girl wears entire bird wings on her hat. Delineator, March 1910. In 1892, 800,000 pairs of wings were imported by one London dealer. [Boase, p. 87]

In Mrs. Pankhurst’s Purple Feather, the women central to her story are not ordinary — most of them are women who achieved great things: They changed the laws of England in the early twentieth century. And they did it against all odds:

“Right up until the First World War, the idea of bird protection was as laughable to the general population as the concept of female emancipation.” — Boase, p. xiii

Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst was the very vocal leader of the movement for women’s suffrage, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU.) Mrs. Etta Lemon was the primary founder of the Society for the Preservation of Birds (SPB,) seeking to prevent the extinction of birds which were being hunted for women’s hat trimmings. Both of them were up against an all-male parliament, male voters, and a public perception that women should stay home and keep their opinions to themselves.

But, surprisingly, the crusading Mrs. Lemon,¬† — like many of her supporters — was an “Anti:” she was opposed to women getting the vote.

Did you know? In 1913, the Antis had 33,000 members; “the Pankhurst’s WSPU just 2,000.” [Boase, p. 237.]

It’s very hard for a modern woman to identify with Etta Lemon, — and this conflict between two successful, activist women is the paradox that shapes Boase’s book. It twines together two stories about women: the campaign for wildlife conservation and the campaign for voting rights. [The large cast of characters is helpfully listed and described early in the book — a very good idea!]

Wisely, Boase uses the gripping story of working woman Alice Battershall, ” a lowly feather washer,” to plunge us into the very big business of millinery and the feather trade in late Victorian and Edwardian England (and the world.) Alice was tried for the crime of stealing two ostrich plumes from her employer.

The trade in feathers was world wide. Ad for South African ostrich, Delineator, April 1910.

Alice Battershall earned 5 shillings a week — not a living wage even by the sweatshop standards of 1885. Her employer would have sold the feathers for 7 shillings each. Alice sold them to a “fence” for 1 shilling apiece. I had to stop and think about these figures: one ostrich plume was worth more than a week’s wages. Even by selling them to so cheaply, Alice increased her starvation wages by 40% — a powerful temptation.

And ostrich plumes were not the most valuable; ostrich were farmed, and the ostrich didn’t have to be killed for its feathers.

A family of Snowy egrets. Photo By AdA Durden from Jacksonville, USA Uploaded by Snowmanradio, CC , via wikipedia.

The bird that faced rapid extinction was the snowy egret. (Milliners called its feathers “Osprey.”) In 1903, a single ounce of Osprey feathers cost almost twice as much as an ounce of gold. [Boase, p.124] But snowy egrets only sported these long, delicate feathers (their nuptial plumage) while mating and raising their young. Egret nestlings need to be fed by both parents over a long period of time; whenever a plume hunter shot and skinned the parent birds, the next generation of snowy egrets died of starvation. When a colony was hunted two or three years in a row, it became extinct.

One famous hunter, David “Egret” Bennett, first wiped out egret colonies in Central America, then moved on to the colonies in Mexico and Baja California. He, too gets a chapter. He was aware that he was driving the species to extinction, but “I have never found any occupation as profitable,” he explained.

[Personally, I see a parallel with the fossil fuel industry today. For me, history — brought to life in Mrs. Pankhurst’s Purple Hat — keeps informing and illuminating the present.]

Mrs. Lemon and her friends began a campaign against the wearing of osprey; they sent letters to newspapers all over England; they wrote to parish newsletters and to clergymen citing biblical passages in support of their views; they wrote (and spoke) to other women and of course, to members of Parliament. But, while Mrs. Pankhurst was leading demonstrations and being arrested (repeatedly) for advocating votes for women — always while elegantly dressed and wearing hats bedecked with feathers,¬† the anti-suffrage ladies of the [eventually Royal] Society for the Protection of Birds hired men to carry the placards in their most effective education campaign. And, although Mrs. Lemon actually ran the SPB until she was forced out in 1939, on paper her husband Frank was its “honorary secretary.” She did not assume its leadership — officially — until he died.

Exotic birds, like the bird of paradise, were especially valued. This “Paradise Bird” was sold by Sears.

If you couldn’t afford the real thing, parts of many birds might be combined to make one. Sears catalog, 1910.

The sheer numbers of birds killed and skinned and transported to auction in New York and London boggles the mind. An undercover reporter from the American Ornithologists Union slipped into a plumage sale in London in 1888.

“Here were birds by the shipload,” writes Boase, listing about 7,000 parrots, 1,000 woodpeckers, 14,000 quail, grouse and partridge, 4000 snipes and plovers and other domestic birds like the 7,000 starlings, jays, and magpies. There were 5000 tanagers; hundreds (each) of birds of paradise, gulls, finches, orioles, larks, toucans; and 12,000 hummingbirds from all over the world. [It’s a mercy that my mind simply cannot picture a pile of 12,000 dead hummingbirds.]

Until I read this book I knew very little about Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst; I didn’t realize that she was a widow who had to support herself and her daughters, while trying to maintain the appearance of a respectable and “womanly” woman of the upper classes. Cartoonists often depicted suffragettes as mannish women with ties and cigars or as frustrated spinsters. Mrs. Pankhurst was determined to break that stereotype. As in all things British, social class came into it. She didn’t believe that the exclusively male Members of Parliament, who were middle class by virtue of inheritance and/or wealth, would pay attention to the pleas of working class women. This led to a painful break with her socialist daughter Sylvia, who championed “equal pay for equal work” and an end to the “sweating trades” (e.g., ostrich feather curlers) in 1918. [That was 100 years ago….]

The women who worked in the millinery and feather trades were exploited in wretched, health-destroying working conditions, and often reduced to prostitution during the regularly occurring months when their trades were dormant.

A child might have worked for days to “willow” this plume. Peckham’s ad in Delineator, June 1910.

This is an ostrich plume that has been “willowed.” An ordinary ostrich feather has been made longer, fluffier and more luxurious by having extensions tied to every flue — a job which the small and nimble fingers of children were good at.

“One women and two children might labour for a day and a third on a single ostrich plume — whose preparation required as many as 8,613 knots…. In 1910, this earned them 3 cents….”¬† — Boase, p. 13.

“Pulmonary tuberculosis was a slow and steady killer of women in the feather trade.” [Boase, p. 13]¬† Nevertheless, abolishing the trade was a political hot potato: workers often preferred the risk of slow death to unemployment and starvation. (Hunger was already part of their lives.)

[This is another dilemma we face today. Although Boase never mentions these parallels, this book offers plenty of food for thought. Silicosis and¬† pneumoconiosis kill coal miners, and mesothelioma kills asbestos workers; nevertheless, eliminating these trades means eliminating jobs — a problem in 1910 and in 2018.]

As the new century progressed,¬† some women — like Etta Lemon; Eliza Phillips; Emily Williamson; Virginia Woolf;¬† and Winifred, Duchess of Portland — campaigned against the extinction of entire species for hat trimmings.¬† Mrs Pankhurst, immaculately dressed but debilitated from her frequent protest fasts, saw her supporters’ demonstrations become increasingly violent. Then came World War I, and a great change in women’s lives….

As I have mentioned, Mrs. Pankhurst’s Purple Feather is history told by a scholar with a novelist’s touch, focusing on the small detail and the personal story to bring its events vividly to life.¬† And, although the author does not mention their relevance to modern life, I can’t help being stimulated by many of the facts she shares.

Over 100 years ago, American Ornithologist Henry Oldys addressed the U.S. Congress on the topic of wildlife conservation, urging legislation to prevent the extinction of species:

The spirit of the age, was, he said, marked by ignorance, cupidity and supineness — a toxic combination that was steadily exterminating creation. “History will not listen to the plea, ‘It was not my business,’ ” he cried. ‘It will answer: “You were there and could have prevented it; therefore it was your business. You failed to do your duty. The only explanation is that you were corrupt, ignorant, or weak.” ‘ — from Boase, p. 226.

[In the light of my country’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, and the U.N.’s recent report that irreversible climate change is happening more rapidly than predicted, someone needs to say that to Congress again.]

Nevertheless, I also found hope from the fact that women, working together, can accomplish the near-impossible. Even the story of the troubling Mrs. Lemon gives me hope:

The RSPB began with a letter writing campaign organized by a few Victorian ladies — bird-lovers excluded from all-male ornithological societies because they were women.

“Within six months… this little ‘bird and bonnet’ society [grew] from 1,000 to 5,000 members.” In two years, it had almost 10,000, “most of them women.” [p. 74.] Today, “The RSPB is a behemoth — a charity with 1.2 million members, 200 nature reserves…, 2000 staff and 14,000 volunteers. It has an annual income of 100 million pounds and it wields great political power. Its business today is international nature conservation.” (p. xi.)

Reading that makes me feel a lot better about our chances.

Summary: By focusing her complex story on the lives of individual women, Tessa Boase has turned an extraordinary mass of scholarly research into a memorable and fascinating book, filled with surprises and startling details. I used to think history was boring. Not this one.

The publishers deserve praise, especially for the footnotes (actually endnotes) which are printed in two-column format. They never intrude, but if you want to check a source, they are easy to read without constant page flipping. Full index and bibliography; color plates; and Ms. Boase herself collected the illustrations for the end papers from period magazines. Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review.

Mrs. Pankhurst wore a purple feather because the Suffragette colors were purple (for freedom and dignity,) white (for purity,) and green (for hope.) Click here to see the (faded) feather that inspired this book.

Tessa Boase blogs at tessaboase.com/blog,¬†where you can see more Edwardian feathered hats in full color (including eyes and beaks….)

Fashion sketch of a chic Parisienne; Delineator, May 1910. She is wearing a glorified chicken.

Four feathered hats. Delineator, February 1910.


Filed under 1870s to 1900s fashions, 1900s to 1920s, 1910s and WW I era, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Edwardian fashions, Hats, Musings, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Vintage Accessories, World War I

Book Review: The Housekeeper’s Tale, by Tessa Boase

This book isn’t so much about fashion history as it is about social history. I loved it.

Cover of The Housekeeper's Tale by Tessa Boase. Please do not copy.

Cover of The Housekeeper’s Tale by Tessa Boase. Please do not copy.

It really is “gripping!” Deeply researched, written in a lively manner (but not “dumbed down”,) ¬†The Housekeeper’s Tale covers the period 1832 to 2013 by going into the stories of five women who managed English Country Houses, great and small. (Confession: When I think of a “Housekeeper” I still think of Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, rather than Mr. Darcy’s devoted¬†old housekeeper at Pemberley. This book made me more sympathetic to both of them.)

“This was the top job for a working woman in the nineteenth century. You could do not better, nor live more comfortably or with greater security…. Uniquely, it was a life that had no need of a man…. She ended the century in a black silk dress, a senior management figure of absolute authority…. She answered only to the mistress of the house, hiring and firing dozens of maids and controlling the entire household budget.” — Boase, pp xii-xiii.

The Housekeepers’ Tale¬†is well-footnoted from some¬†famous and some¬†obscure¬†sources, with a bibliography that promises more engrossing reading for the armchair time-traveler, but Boase wears her scholarship lightly. It reads like a series of novelettes. If you love the downstairs part of “Upstairs, Downstairs” or “Downton Abbey,” there are great stories here.

After Victorian Working Women and Munby, Man of Two Worlds reawakened my interest in the lives of 19th century servants, Boase’s Housekeeper’s Tales provides additional¬†evidence that real lives are much more riveting than those on TV.

The subtitle of The Housekeeper’s Tale is The Women Who Really Ran the English Country House — and some of their stories are quite dramatic.

Boase first tells the story of Dorothy Doar, Housekeeper at Trentham Hall from 1818 to 1832.

Trentham Hall, as it was. From Boase, The Housekeeper's Tale

Trentham Hall, as it was in the 1800’s. From Boase, The Housekeeper’s Tale

Unusually, Mrs. Doar was already married, and the mother of a child, when she was hired. She lived at the Great House; her husband moved to a nearby village, and she used her salary to support him and put her daughter through school. Her employers, the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland, moved among their five houses (one was a castle) during the year, and were among the wealthiest¬†landowners in Britain. They spent just a few months per year at¬†Trentham Hall.¬†Tessa Boase uncovered the story¬†of Mrs. Doar (“like a gnat squashed between the pages of a book”) in packets of correspondence between two land agents working for the Marchioness of Stafford (as she was then titled.) One of them¬†wrote that he considered “Mrs. Doar’s wages too small for the faithful discharge of such a trust,” but she didn’t get a raise. In fact, she was fired, after 14 years of service, for becoming¬†pregnant by her husband.

“It is quite impossible in such an establishment to permit of her breeding,” an agent¬†said. What happened when Mrs. Doar¬†asked for six¬†weeks’ maternity leave¬†makes for painful, page-turning reading.

Uppark, West Sussex, from the book The Housekeeper's Tale by Tessa Boase

Uppark, West Sussex, from the book The Housekeeper’s Tale by Tessa Boase

Sarah Wells, housekeeper at Uppark, West Sussex from 1880 till 1893, had a different problem. The owner of Uppark, an old bachelor, had married his dairymaid¬†( he was 71 and she was 18.) They wanted everyone to forget that she had once been a servant. The former dairymaid¬†eventually left the estate to her humbly-born sister, who hired Sarah Wells — who had once been a lady’s maid at Uppark — as housekeeper in 1880; perhaps the two old ladies¬†then¬†living at Uppark still found it hard to command the respect of servants, themselves. It wasn’t an easy job; servants came and went with depressing frequency — 10 cooks in 12 years, for instance — and by 1893 Mrs. Wells was 69 years old, hobbled by¬†rheumatism, and with no prospect of saving enough money for retirement. Boase can use Sarah’s¬†own words, because Sarah was a lifelong diarist, and her son, the writer H.G. Wells, also wrote about her. Both Sarah¬†and her employer became deaf. “They were two old deaf women at cross purposes. The rather sentimental attachment between them evaporated in mutual irritation and left not a rack behind,”¬†wrote Wells. Nevertheless, they entertained royalty late in 1892: first the¬†Duchess of Connaught, and later Prince Arthur, the Duke of Connaught “with his demanding retinue of valets and coachmen.” And then …. ¬†Another tale of one-way loyalty:

“What shall we do for a living? Please God find me work to do. How cruel of that woman.” — Sarah Wells’ Diary, early in 1893.

The story of Ellen Pesketh, housekeeper at Erdigg in North Wales from 1902 to 1907, ended in the law courts. This chapter gives an idea¬†of how incredibly hard the work was. ¬†Ellen’s employers, the Yorkes, were trying to economize, so, instead of hiring a housekeeper and a cook, they hired Ellen to do both jobs. Normally, Boase tells us, each of these employees¬†would earn a salary of about sixty pounds per year; ¬†Ellen was hired as cook/housekeeper at forty-five pounds. When Boase¬†gives us this description of the amount of food prepared in addition to regular meals — and Mr. Yorke was a vegetarian who¬†required different dishes¬†from his guests’¬†— we get some idea of Ellen Pesketh’s proficiency as a cook:

Meals served -- in addition to the usual four a day -- during roughly three weeks in 1905.

Meals served — in addition to the usual four a day — during roughly three weeks in 1905. Louisa was Mrs. Yorke, Ellen’s¬†employer. Text from The Housekeeper’s Tale, by Tessa Boase.

Sixty people for tea one day, sixty-six people the next! Followed by a party two days later, and 121 people to tea the day after that! At the end of each of these days (after stupendous amounts of baking,) Ellen would take off her cook’s apron, drag herself into the Housekeeper’s room, and do the accounts. Her job involved paying the servants and the tradesmen’s accounts in cash. Sometimes the equivalent of ten thousand pounds cash in today’s¬†money would pass through her hands, while she earned the equivalent of 2,500 pounds per year.

The Yorkes insisted that Ellen spend less on household expenses, but the number of house parties and other entertainments they gave increased every year. If their expenses were “too high,” Ellen was scolded — although the decision to¬†stock the cellar with¬†fine¬†wines and feed dozens of house guests, weekend after weekend, was not hers. In 1903, they entertained¬†68 house guests; in 1906, there were 120. Most of these brought their servants with them– more mouths to feed. The Yorke’s household expenses came to 694 pounds in 1903 (about 40,000 pounds in today’s money;) by¬†1906 it had¬†risen to the equivalent of 88,500 pounds.

When it turned out that some tradesmen’s bills had not been paid, Ellen was arrested for theft. This is a more complex¬†story than can lend itself to television drama — but it is engrossing reading! Was Ellen ruined? Vindicated? Was Louisa Yorke forced to testify in court? Did Justice triumph?

In great houses, the housekeeper had to keep the Railway Guide, Crockford’s Clerical Directory, and Burke’s Peerage in her office. In addition to all the other stress of constant inventories, hiring and firing, and making or ordering supplies, she was responsible for seating and housing the visiting servants according to the rank of their employers, and errors in precedence could cause endless turmoil and ill-feeling.

Not all the housekeepers Boase studied suffered disaster; the formidable Hannah Mackenzie helped to convert Wrest Park in Bedfordshire into a military hospital during World War I, then moved to the United States and became Housekeeper for the Vanderbilts at a time when great houses were struggling for survival in England. She lived long enough to enjoy a cigarette and a glass of whisky on her 100th birthday.

There are two photos of Hannah Mackenzie on the cover of The Housekeeper’s Tale.

Housekeeper Hannah MacKenzie. She worked for the Vanderbilts. Book cover, The Housekeeper's Tale.

Housekeeper Hannah MacKenzie, in the 1920s, and in the kitchen when she was still a cook. She eventually worked for the Vanderbilts. Book cover, The Housekeeper’s Tale.

The story of Grace Higgens, who served a¬†complicated family of Bloomsbury artists and writers at Charleston Farm from 1920 to 1971, and was sometimes painted by them, shows both the unconventional 1920’s and the hardships of World War II. Her 41 diaries are now a resource for biographers of Vanessa Bell and her sister, Virginia Woolf, of Duncan Grant, and costume historian Quentin Bell, among others.

The “Epilogue” introduces us to Nicky Garner of Holkham Hall in Norfolk, a great house now open to the public. “The Family” still live there, but Nicky is a modern woman who has a life and home away from her job, although she takes her work very seriously, too. The relationship of employer and employee is an acknowledged partnership in the 21st century. (A good ¬†BBC documentary about Chatsworth, home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire,¬†also depicted this interdependency¬†between a Great House and its¬†local community.)

The Housekeeper’s Tale¬†is a marvellous book for trivia buffs,¬†as well, since Tessa Boase has put¬†a timeline of events — both huge and trivial — in front of each chapter. Here are just a few samples:

1835:  First pre-packaged baking powder

1849:  Safety Pin invented

1856:  Cage crinoline reaches six feet in diameter

1858:  Can opener invented. Preserving jar with screw lid patented.

1885: ¬†Invention of the motor car, and first “safety bicycle.” Singer “vibrating shuttle” sewing machine patented, “the first practical sewing machine.” [Perhaps she means practical outside a factory setting?]

1901:  Life expectancy for men is 45; for women, 49. First vacuum cleaner patented.

1909:  Persil washing powder arrives in British shops.

1911: 1.4 million indoor servants working in Britain.

1931:  [Only] Five percent of England and Wales employs a resident domestic servant.

Related Online Resource:

You can read the text of the original 1861¬†Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management complete: click here.

ON THE IMPORTANT SUBJECT OF DRESS AND FASHION we cannot do better than quote an opinion from the eighth volume of the ‚ÄúEnglishwoman‚Äôs Domestic Magazine.‚ÄĚ The writer there says, ‚ÄúLet people write, talk, lecture, satirize, as they may, it cannot be denied that, whatever is the prevailing mode in attire, let it intrinsically be ever so absurd, it will never look as ridiculous as another, or as any other, which, however convenient, comfortable, or even becoming, is totally opposite in style to that generally worn.‚ÄĚ ¬†— Advice from Mrs. Beeton, 1861

Recipes, servants’ duties, laundry, budgets, etiquette…. If you need to know how much to pay a butler, or¬†the correct way to pay a call, the duties of a scullery maid, or what tools a Victorian kitchen would have, this is the resource that Victorian households relied on. Unfortunately it is not searchable, but¬†it’s easy to skim¬†chapter by chapter.





Filed under A Costumers' Bookshelf, Costumes for the 19th century, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Resources for Costumers