Encyclopedia Womannica

Tastemakers: Isabella Mary Beeton

Episode Summary

Isabella Mary Beeton (1836-1865) set the standard for everything related to cooking, homemaking, and more in Victorian England.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan. And this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

In case you’re just tuning in, here’s the deal. Every week day, we’re telling the stories of women from throughout history and around the world who you may not know about but definitely should. Each month is themed. 

Today marks the beginning of a brand new theme, Tastemakers. All November we’re featuring women who changed the culinary game. 

For much of history, women have been relegated to domestic tasks. Yet female innovators in food and beverage are often undercelebrated. Let’s change that. 

Our first tastemaker set the standard for everything related to cooking, homemaking, and more in Victorian England.  And she did it in a way that was accessible to millions of average, middle-class people. Let’s talk about Isabella Mary Beeton.

Isabella Mary Mayson was born in London on March 14, 1836. She was the eldest of four children and her father died when she was just four years old. Isabella’s mother then moved the family to Epsom and remarried a man with a successful printing business who had four kids of his own. 

Isabella's stepfather was clerk for the local horse racing association, so the family moved into the Derby, which could fit 5,000 spectators. In this new, unusual living space, Isabella took on a parenting role and looked after her siblings.

In 1851, Isabella went to Germany to study music and languages. There, she first got a taste for baking pastries. When she returned to England three years later, she taught piano and worked in a pastry shop, despite the protests of her parents who felt pastry-baking was below her station. 

In 1856, Isabella married a childhood friend, Samuel Orchart Beeton. Within a few months, Isabella was writing articles for one of her husband’s publications, “The English Women’s Domestic Magazine.” She became even more devoted to the work after her first two children passed away as toddlers from croup and scarlet fever. As Isabella dove further into the publishing company’s business operations, Samuel encouraged her to write what would become the company’s most famous book -- Beeton’s Book of Household Management, published in parts from 1859 to 1861.

The intricately illustrated book took four years to write. It became the go-to work for everything related to homemaking -- including family caregiving, budgeting, and even details like proper kitchen footwear.  Beeton’s Book of Household Management was also a culinary instruction manual. Isabella shared recipes and information that proved it was possible to live a good life on a budget. Her work culturally elevated home management to an art.

In 1858, a particularly harsh winter struck the country. Isabella opened a soup kitchen from her home in Pinner, England to help feed the poor. By that time, she was already known throughout the country for her work.

Isabella and Samuel’s publishing company continued growing with Isabella’s creativity leading the way. She traveled to  Paris to learn more about fashion and shared sewing patterns with readers.  

Tragedy cut Isabella’s booming success short.

On February 6th, 1865, just eight days after delivering her fourth son, Isabella passed away due to birth complications. She was 28 years old.

Without her, The English Women’s Domestic Magazine fell into decline. In 1867, it started losing favor from the public due to controversial articles. 

On the flip side, Beeton’s Book of Household Management sold about 2 million copies by 1868.

Despite her short life, Isabella Mary Beeton positively influenced the lives of millions -- whether it was through the conventional wisdom in her writing, or through her direct acts of service to her community.

As always, we're taking a break for the weekend. Tune in on Monday to hear the story of another remarkable tastemaker.  

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator. Also shoutout to Andi Kristins for our original theme music. 

Talk to you on Monday!