Distaff and kitchen

Note: pages in our 18c Leverhulme study section were originally published in 2010. Links have since been checked and updated. A full study of Austen and the OED can be found in Brewer 2015a, downloadable on our Library page.

‘The Distaff or the Kitchin’: vocabulary relating to domestic and household matters

18th-century Dutch kitchen interior. Source: Jane Austen’s World

Once women began to write and publish in significant numbers at the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th century, it was repeatedly commented – by both male and female writers – that such activity was in competition with women’s proper sphere, namely the domestic household: sewing, cooking, and household management in general. Initiating a correspondence with the philosopher John Norris in 1693, Mary Astell asked him to take notice of her literary endeavours notwithstanding her departure from more appropriate female employment:

Sir though some morose Gentlemen wou’d remit me to the Distaff or the Kitchin, or at least to the Glass and the Needle, the proper Employment as they fancy of a woman’s Life; yet expecting better things from the more Equitable and ingenious Mr Norris, who is not so narrow-soul’d as to confine Learning to his own sex, or envy it in ours, I presume to beg his Attention a little to the Impertinencies of a Woman’s Pen… (Norris 1695: 1-2; for comment and context see Perry 1986: 73ff.)

Source: Wikipedia

In 1710, the Tatler poured scorn on Astell’s ‘Scheme of a College for Young Damsels’, using much the same imagery to make the point that women should stick to their own territory rather than usurping male provinces:

instead of Scissors, Needles, and Samplers; Pens, Compasses, Quadrants, Books, Manuscripts, Greek, Latin and Hebrew are to take up [the women students’] whole Time. (Steele 1710: vol. 2, p. 199; see Perry 1986: 229)

The perceived opposition between proper female domestic employment and intellectual activity, particularly writing (or, in Astell’s words, ‘the Impertinencies of a Woman’s Pen’), continued strong throughout the eighteenth century (for examples of some typical attitudes see Jones 1990: chapter 4, ‘Writing’, pp. 140-91). Years later, Jane Austen’s brother James felt he had to justify his sister’s labours by defending her against any imagined implication that she had neglected the housework. In verses composed shortly after her death in 1817, he wrote:

They [her family] saw her ready still to share

The labours of domestic care

As if their prejudice to shame;

Who, jealous of fair female fame

Maintain, that literary taste

In women’s mind is much displaced;

Inflames their vanity and pride,

And draws from useful works aside.

for full text of poem see Selwyn 2003: 86-8

Readers are assured that Austen did not stint on her useful works, the domestic labours proper to women, and it is these James sees as manifesting ‘Her real & genuine worth’, ‘Her Sisterly, her Filial love’. Austen afficionados will remember that Leslie Stephen particularly noted the writer’s domestic accomplishments in his DNB entry of 1885: ‘Jane learned French, a little Italian, could sing a few simple old songs in a sweet voice, and was remarkably dexterous with her needle, and “especially great in satin-stitch”‘ (Stephen takes his information from J. E. Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of Jane Austen and Other Family Recollections, published in 1871, pp. 71, 77.)

Satin stitch and ‘skinny’ cording. Courtesy of Gabriel Amaya at House of Embroidery
Satin stitching in gold thread on cloth of gold. Courtesy of Mary Corbet’s Needle ‘n Thread

For historians, whether literary or linguistic, this is a contentious and difficult matter. Should we celebrate the importance to women of domestic matters, thereby running the risk of keeping them shut up in the kitchen, or should we be suspicious of the urge to demonstrate links between women and domesticity, thereby running the risk of ignoring one of the few areas of activity in which they had the chance to excel?1

Whatever the right answer to this question, the close correlation claimed, and – as Astell’s letter shows – often resisted, between women and domesticity is in some instances strikingly confirmed by the OED’s citation sources for such vocabulary. If we look at the quotations for one of the few female authors cited in large numbers in OED1, Jane Austen (around 700 in total), we find a remarkable prevalence of words to do with domestic or household matters, e.g.

  • beaver (‘a particular kind of glove’)
  • butler’s pantry (‘a pantry where the plate, glass, etc., are kept’)
  • cousinly
  • consequences (the game)
  • spot (‘a spotted textile material’), etc.

Burchfield’s 20th-century Supplement added nearly 350 more quotations from Austen, in which the same characteristic dominates even more strongly, e.g.

  • baby-linen
  • baker’s bread
  • bath-bun,
  • black butter (i.e. ‘apple-butter’)
  • bobbinet (‘A kind of machine-made cotton net, originally imitating the lace made with bobbins on a pillow’)
  • brace (‘One of a pair of straps of leather or webbing used to support the trousers; a suspender’)
  • china crape
  • china tea
  • coffee urn
  • corner shelf, etc.
Title page of Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery (1774) taken from Google Books

Some other female writers, for example the 17th-century writer Hannah Woolley (c. 70 quotations), and the 18th-century writers Hannah Glasse (c. 400) and Elizabeth Raffald (c. 270), are cited almost entirely for domestic cooking terms taken from their books on cookery and housewifery. The same is occasionally true for male writers too (e.g. J. Knott, quoted around 70 times for culinary terms from his Cook’s & Confectioner’s Dictionary of 1723).2

In general, the explanation for the female provenance of the quotation sources for such vocabulary must be that domestic and household matters were often a matter of discussion or responsibility for female writers rather than for male. But it may also be the case, given prevailing assumptions about women’s roles and women’s characteristic subjects of interest, that the OED lexicographers were more likely to pick up on such vocabulary in female- than in male-authored sources. To clarify this question we need to carry out more research into both source texts and the OED itself.

More on OED’s under-treatment of Austen and her female contemporaries

Many of these domestic terms in Austen’s writing – including all those quoted above – are also first quotations in OED. This is a notable feature. In particular, of Burchfield’s 350-odd additions of Austen quotations to OED in the twentieth-century Supplement, about half are first quotations. Was Austen really the first person to use these terms in print? or does OED cite them from her work simply because this was relatively thoroughly combed by the lexicographers and readers, i.e. OED was more likely to find such vocabulary in Austen than in other less well known sources? (and also, as suggested above, that readers and lexicographers would have a prior expectation that texts written by women were a good source for such terms?)

Music and (somewhat illegible) instructions for the Boulanger (‘baker’) dance. Source: Jane Austen Information Page

Notwithstanding OED’s comparatively thorough treatment of Austen, the readers or lexicographers on occasion still overlooked such terms in her writing. Sometimes they went altogether unrecorded, e.g.

  • Boulanger (a dance): in Pride & Prejudice, 1.iii.13, Mr Bingley danced ‘the two sixth with Lizzy, and the Boulanger’; the term crops up again in the Letters (5 September 1796; Le Faye 1995: 8: ‘We dined at Goodnestone, and in the evening danced two country dances and the Boulangeries’)
  • family party: as in Pride & Prejudice, III.xviii.384, ‘The comfort and elegance of their family party at Pemberley’
  • netting silk: as in ‘There were no narrow Braces for Children, & scarcely any netting silk’ (letter of 27-28 October 1798 from Austen to her sister Cassandra, Le Faye 1995: 75). OED3 draft entry June 2008 lists several sewing-related compounds for netting (n.3, s.v. C1), e.g. netting-cord, –cotton, –needle, etc., but misses this one
  • out of place (‘without a place or situation’, said of a domestic servant): as in ‘I believe I could help them to a housemaid, for my Betty has a sister out of place’, (Sense & Sensibility, III.i.260). Cf. OED3 draft entry June 2009 s.v. place, 14a: ‘A job, office, or situation’; the Dictionary does not recognize the phrase ‘out of place’. The phrase is used by both Good Mrs Brown and Rob in Dombey and Son, XVII.lii (p. 775 in Oxford Classics edition), 1848: ‘”You’re not out of place, Robby?” said Mrs. Brown in a wheedling tone. “Why, I’m not exactly out of place, nor in,” faltered Rob. “I – I’m still in pay, Misses Brown.”‘
  • working candle (‘candle for working [e.g. sewing] by’), as in ‘I hope it won’t hurt your eyes – will you ring the bell for some working candles?’ (Sense & Sensibility, II.i.14)

Alternatively, the terms were sometimes recorded in OED, but Austen’s prior use was missed, e.g.

  • lottery (the card game), mentioned in Pride & Prejudice, I.xvi.84 (first published 1813) but dated from 1830 onwards in OED.

Or occasionally what was missed was an example of usage which supplied valuable additional evidence for a term under-represented in OED’s quotation record:

  • satin-stitch: ‘I beleive I must work a muslin cover in sattin stitch, to keep it from the dirt’ (letter of 17-18 January 1809 from Austen to her sister Cassandra, Le Faye 1995: 165). OED records only two examples of this term, from Hannah Wooley’s work on household management, Supplement to The Queen-like Closet, dated 1684, and Fanny Trollope’s novel The Widow Married of 1840: Austen’s instance usefully bridges the 156-year gap between these two quotations.

Similarly, domestic and household vocabulary in other 18th-century female writers was also occasionally missed by OED, even in writers whose work they read and quoted from relatively intensively, e.g.

  • brass, used by Mary Wortley Montagu in her Journals: ‘he proffers to…see to get Pewter and Brass as much as you will have occassion for’ (Halsband 1965: vol. 1, p. 193). OED2 recorded the definition ‘Pewter utensils collectively; pewterware’ for pewter but has no analogous definition for brass.
  • braziery, to mean ‘brass household equipment of various sorts’, as in a letter by the same writer of 1713: ‘you have plates hir’d for 5s., and other Pewter at the rate of one d. per pound. But we are like to have a good deal of trouble to get Brazerie’ (Halsband 1965: vol. 1, p. 195). OED1/2 does not recognize the specific household application and defines simply ‘Brazier’s work’, with a first quotation of 1795.
  • winter-room, a combinatorial form which OED records only from 1911. In a letter of 1790 Anna Seward wrote, ‘It is the pleasantest winter-room in the house, where many are pleasant; – but the sun looks on this at noon, and gilds it on through the winter day’ (1790; Constable 1811: vol. 3, p. 37).

Finally, such terms are sometimes recorded but with insufficient information to be able to understand the implication of their usage. An example is:

  • thread-satin, listed in OED1/2 without comment as a combinatorial form of thread, with a quotation from the London Gazette of 1713 (‘A Thread- Sattin Night-Gown, striped red and white’). Wortley Montagu writes in a letter of 1721, ‘I have taken my thread satin Beauty into the house with me. She is allow’d by Bononcini to have the finest Voice he ever heard in England’ (Halsband 1965: vol. 2, p. 13). As Halsband’s notes tell us, the reference is to Anastasia Robinson (d. 1755), ‘prima donna’, closely associated with Bononcini. Wortley Montagu’s use is clearly figurative but what does thread-satin mean? Is she referring to the (poor-quality?) dress material Robinson wore, or intending some reflection on the singer’s voice or her character?

Last updated on 24 October 2019


  1. See further Macheski 1986.
  2. The quotations from Nott seem all to have been added to OED by Burchfield in the 20th-century Supplement, perhaps at the prompting of Marghanita Laski (see further our Who’s who and Individual readers pages).