Margaret Black’s Household Cookery and Laundry Work (1882)

The earliest of the cookbooks I will consider was first published in 1882, and it is called Household Cookery and Laundry Work, by Margaret Black (1830-1903). If you have read the page on the reason that Dishes for the Sickroom is based in the GCU collections, you’ll know that Margaret Black taught at the original Glasgow School of Cookery before leaving in 1878 to set up her own institution, the West End School of Cookery. Born in 1830, Black attended the National Training School of Cookery in South Kensington, and so this diploma and then her years of work at both the Glasgow School of Cookery and then at her own institution, gave her a breadth of expertise in the field of culinary education. Indeed, it was the Glasgow School of Cookery who first sent Black to South Kensington for training so that she could come and lead the teaching at the Glasgow School of Cookery. 

Black wrote four cookbooks in her time: Household Cookery and Laundry Work; Superior Cookery; Hints to Young Housekeepers; and Choice Cookery “La Bonne Cuisine,”: A Selection of High-class and Household Cookery Recipes. All of them were published in Glasgow, and so Black’s recipes offer a key insight into the attitudes surrounding invalid recipes in Glasgow in the late nineteenth century, particularly since she was so central to the development of domestic education in the city.

Household Cookery and Laundry Work (1882), Margaret Black

Even before the chapter on ‘Sick-room Cookery’, Black emphasises the important links between food, cooking and health from the outset of her cookbook, as well as the need for women to be adequately taught: ‘Parents would never think of setting a young man up in business unless he had been trained […] and yet it has been practically decided by many people that a young woman instinctively knows about housekeeping; that she can cook without being taught’ (Household Cookery 1882: 8). Black writes that ‘perhaps the most important result of this training is, that a knowledge of the constituents of different classes of food is acquired, and children may be fed with suitable food, which so greatly promotes health’ (Household Cookery 1882: 8-9). In Black’s opinion then, women must not only be educated in the efficient running of the home or in preparing tasty food, but also in the links between food and health:

For improper or unsuitable food generally impairs health or saps its foundations; and want of health impairs very greatly the energy and usefulness, as well as the individual happiness. (Household Cookery 1882: 9).

The rest of the cookbook’s introduction contains a discussion of the ‘different constituents’ of food which must be eaten to ensure good health: ‘Nitrogenous, Carbonaceous, and Mineral Foods’. As Black explains, ‘Nitrogenous food forms flesh and muscle and supplies strength; carbonaceous food gives heat and acts as the fuel to the engine; mineral food is necessary for the formation and repair of bone, and is an important constituent of the blood’. The introduction of Black’s cookbook therefore shows that she took an interest in the scientific nature of food, and she provides list which tell readers which foods fall into what category.  

Black did not come up with this theory herself, however. The three constituents of diet were taken from the work of the influential German chemist, Justus von Liebig (1803-1873). Liebig specialised in organic chemistry, and his publications focused on both plants and animals, and later on food and nutrition. Taking from his work on the mineral nutrition of plants and soil fertility, in which Liebig identified the chemical elements needed for plant growth (and manufactured a nitrogenous fertilizer), Liebig determined that nitrogenous foods helped the human body to build tissue, while ‘nonnitrogenous aliments maintained respiration and body heat’ (Finlay 1992: 406).  

A balanced diet and an adequate amount of protein was therefore vital for good health, and as Mark Finlay writes, ‘Liebig’s nutritional theories stimulated physician’s interests in dietetics, the study of links between disease and nutrition’ (1992: 406). Indeed, Liebig went on to manufacture a beverage called ‘Liebig’s Extract of Meat’, a concentrated beef extract which could be diluted with hot water to make a protein-rich drink which was easy and instant to prepare. As we will see, beef tea was a staple of invalid cookery recipes. Men of science like Liebig recognised the links between protein and health, and in his beef tea he sought to create a substance that could be quickly diluted into a fortifying beverage which was cheaper than buying beef and making the tea yourself.

The dominant discourses surrounding health, nutrition and food can thus be traced through the opening pages of Black’s Household Cookery. She was clearly well-versed in the discussions about the links between food and science that circulated throughout the nineteenth century. Indeed, Black mentions Liebig later in the cookbook in her discussion of tea: ‘It also contains a peculiar substance called theine, which Liebig says “plays a part in the nourishment of the body”’ (1882: 119). Intriguingly, in the preface to Animal Chemistry: or, Organic Chemistry in its Applications to Physiology and Pathology (1842), Liebig writes that ‘At the meeting of British Association in Glasgow, in 1840, I had the honour to present the first part of a report on the then present state of Organic Chemistry, in which I endeavoured to develop the doctrines of this science in their bearing on Agriculture and Physiology’ (1842: v). Liebig’s theories had therefore been heard by Glaswegian audiences, in a nice link between the two. Black’s cookbook, and indeed many cookbooks written by and for women around the same period, were therefore not simply anchored in the domestic world of the home. Their writing extended out into and showed an awareness of contemporary views about health, science and nutrition, and for more about how nineteenth-century cookbooks engaged with science, see this article by Caroline Lieffers.

Sick-Room Cookery

Black’s chapter on Sick-Room cookery has a short introduction which outlines some of the basic principles of the practice. She opens the chapter with the declaration that ‘Sick nursing is even more essentially women’s work than housekeeping, and requires knowledge, combined with tenderness and care, a feeling heart, and skilful hands’ (1882: 107). This is an interesting statement which reveals just how important Black thought invalid cookery was. By describing sick-nursing as a skill that requires ‘tenderness and care, a feeling heart, and skilful hands’ Black characterises the treatment of the ill as a feminine task: something women were best suited to. This is perhaps not surprising, given Black’s role as an educator of women. But rather than subscribing to the common idea that efficient housekeeping and the well-ordered home was the most important thing for a woman to master, Black places the care of the sick above this as the most important ‘essential’ work that women can educate themselves in. For Black, knowing how to prepare food for the ill was clearly a core skill that all women should have.

After describing the cleanliness and ventilation required in a sickroom, Black writes: ‘The food of the sick should be varied as much as possible, and prepared in the very best manner that the materials will admit of. Beef tea particularly requires skilful preparation, as life and returning health often depend on it’ (1882: 107). There are twenty-six recipes for foods and beverages in Black’s chapter, but she mentions beef tea in the chapter’s introduction, framing it as something which was a matter – or elixir – of life and death. She continues, describing how grated toast or bread can be added to the tea and how Harvey sauce or ketchup can be used to add colour. By opening the chapter with these remarks, Black makes it clear that the drink was a cornerstone of invalid cookery.

Of the recipes that follow, four are centred upon beef tea: ‘Beef Tea – Simple Way’; ‘Beef Tea – Best Way’; ‘Raw Beef Tea’; and ‘Beef Tea Pudding’. Interestingly, the three tea recipes all have the exact same ingredients: lean beef, salt, and water. The difference between the ‘basic’ and ‘best’ tea is in the cooking process and the time required. In the basic tea, the ingredients are combined and then steamed in a bain-marie over the fire for ‘20 to 30 minutes’, before it is stained and then served. In the best tea, however, the ingredients are steeped at a lower temperature for an hour. Then the beef is removed and boiled with more water for another 15 minutes minimum, before this concentrated mixture is added to the rest of the tea for added flavour and nutriment. In the raw recipe, raw beef is steeped in cold water that is not heated: ‘There are extraordinary healing properties in the unboiled juices of meat, and in cases of extreme illness this is invaluable’ (Black 1882: 112). Then in the final recipe, beef tea is combined with grated bread and eggs to form a kind of custard that is baked.

Interestingly, despite her later reference to Liebig and use of his mineral theory in the cookbook’s introduction, at no point does Black suggest that an instant beef tea like his Extract of Meat should be used. Instead, she gives three recipes that readers can adapt to the amount of time they had for the preparation of the tea. The nitrogenous, flesh-forming and protein-rich nature of beef tea was clearly useful for the ill, however, and in this fluid form it was particularly digestible – whether it was made from scratch or using a manufactured concentrate.

The majority of Black’s other food recipes are also based around liquids or jellies: ‘Veal Jelly’; ‘Milk Jelly’; ‘Arrowroot’; ‘Egg Drink’; ‘Suet and Milk’; ‘Apple Fool’; ‘Gruel’. All of these were relatively plain in terms of flavour, had simple (and few) ingredients, and because they were liquids or soft, they would be easy to digest for those who were bed-bound, had digestive issues, or lacked an appetite. Indeed, even the recipes for ‘solid’ foods were centred on the plain and digestible: ‘Rice Pudding’; ‘Bread Pudding, with Egg’; ‘Bread Pudding, without Egg’. While these were baked, steamed, or boiled into puddings, there would have been very little resistance when it came to eating the food in terms of texture or the need to chew. Digestibility is therefore key for Black.

Except for the beef tea recipes (from which the beef was always removed) and the ‘Veal Jelly’ (again, the turnip and beef are strained), it is interesting to note that none of these recipes contain meat or vegetables. Indeed, despite Black writing that the ‘food of the sick should be varied as much as possible’, there is little in the way of variety amongst her recipes. Most dishes have a base of milk or eggs which are flavoured with sugar or fruit and then thickened with a carbohydrate or fat: breadcrumbs, oatmeal, rice, sponge cake, suet or arrowroot. In terms of taste, there would have similarities between these bland, creamy, soft meals – little texture, and certainly no bold flavours for the ill, and no large portions of ‘meat and two veg’. Black refers to this in her introduction, writing:

‘Animal food [meat] is by no means an absolute necessity, and may, with the advantage to health in many cases, be entirely dispensed with […] The combination of eggs, milk, butter, and cheese, with vegetables, makes a dietary that is quite sufficient for life and health; and it is questionable whether it is not really the best sort of food for all’ (1882: 10).

Meat is therefore not required for either the ill or the healthy, so long as fats and proteins were consumed in large enough quantities. While this was not a declaration in the support of vegetarianism, Black recognised that meat was not the most important part of a person’s diet, and she was realistic about the fact that for most working-class people in Glasgow and the wider United Kingdom, meat was an expensive luxury that could not be afforded in sufficient quantities that would fill stomachs.

Nutritionally, however, these meals were well-balanced in terms of Black’s focus on Nitrogenous, Carbonaceous, and Mineral Foods, even without meat and vegetables. In her introduction eggs, milk, flour and oatmeal are listed under ‘Nitrogenous’’ ‘suet, sugar, rice, and ‘all starchy foods’ are listed under ‘Carbonaceous’; and wheat, oatmeal, water and milk are listed under ‘Mineral’. Most of Black’s recipes contain a combination of these ingredients, and given that some ingredients like milk have multiple health benefits, it would have been supposed that these dishes were high in nutritional and medical value as well as being easy on the system. As she says, ‘Those three constituents which ought to enter into the daily food of all, are to be found in plain ordinary materials, and, as will be seen by the foregoing table, in vegetable as well as animal food’ (1882: 10). By explaining the nutritive qualities of different foods to her readers, Black gave them the knowledge necessary to combine certain ingredients in order to have a balanced diet.

Health and invalid cookery were therefore a key part of Black’s Household Cookery and Laundry Work. She did not just include a ‘Sick-room cookery’ chapter, but also referred to nutrition and the dominant scientific perspectives on food in her cookbook’s introduction. From her point of view, being able to nurse and prepare food for the ill was ‘essential’ women’s work. The recipes she supplied showed a considered approach to invalid cookery whereby simple ingredients and cooking skills could be used to provide a comforting and nutritious diet.


Black, Margaret. 1882. Household Cookery and Laundrywork (London and Glasgow: William Collins, Sons, & Co)


Liebig, Justus von. 1842. Animal Chemistry: or, Organic Chemistry in its Applications to Physiology and Pathology (London: Taylor and Walton)

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