Science in the 19th Century Periodical

The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, 1852–77


First Series, Volumes 1–8, 1852–60


Samuel Beeton, 1852–56
Samuel and Isabella Beeton, 1856–60


Samuel Beeton


James Wade




Fcp. 8vo.






5,000 (1852); 50,000 (1857)


All volumes


Leeds University Library
Cambridge University Library


Titlepage of the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, volume 2 (1853-54).  Reproduced by kind permission of Leeds University Library.

    The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine (henceforth 'EDM') broke new ground in being the first cheap monthly magazine published in Britain specifically for middle-class women. It was also one of the first mass-circulation women's journals and became a template for the plethora of women's domestic periodicals launched in subsequent decades. It was largely the product of the enterprising publisher Samuel Orchart Beeton who, in the early 1850s, demonstrated considerable business acumen when he took over Henry Vizetelly's series of cheap reprints of novels, one of which was Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. As one of the first English reprints of an already immensely popular work, this proved to be an great commercial success for Beeton who, as Margaret Beetham points out (Beetham 1996, p. 60), used the profits to finance a host of successful publishing ventures including periodicals for women and children, dictionaries, guidebooks, and most famously, Beeton's Book of Household Management (1859–61)). The latter was edited by Isabella Beeton, who had married Samuel in 1856.

    Beeton's launch of the EDM was an attempt to fill a niche in the changing market for women's periodicals. By the late 1840s serials aimed explicitly at women comprised principally expensive monthly magazines of fashion and leisure and evangelical monthly magazines. Monthlies such as the New Monthly Belle Assemblée (1834–1870) represented journals of fashion and leisure for the wealthier 'lady' reader, and offered fiction, poetry, needlework instruction, high-quality illustrations, letters, and articles on theatre and others amusements. The fiction in these serials typically aimed to develop readers' moral sensibilities, an objective that was even more pervasive in evangelical monthlies such as the Christian Lady's Magazine (1834–49). Through editorials, stories from scripture, fiction, and articles on such serious topics as politics and science these religious monthlies reinforced the ideal of woman as a pious mother and spiritual guardian. These were not the only periodicals that women read. Women from humbler, lower middle-class, backgrounds, were to a certain extent catered for in the plethora of new cheap, fiction-led 'family' magazines that flowered in the 1840s. Aimed at a broad family readership, journals such as the Family Herald (1843–1940) contained a large quantity of fiction but also emphasised woman's role as a domestic manager by offering cooking recipes, needlework patterns and others items of practical instruction.

Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine 1 (1852-53), 245.  Reproduced by kind permission of Leeds University Library.

    The 'family' serial was not written with the woman reader specifically in mind and by the early 1850s several publishers recognised a market for a cheap monthly magazine whose cost, content and tone would appeal to the burgeoning number of middle-class women. The EDM was by far the most successful attempt to satisfy this readership. The 'Englishwoman's Domestic' of its title (and illustrated frontispiece) projected the familiar ideal of an English woman as a moral and domestic figure, while 'magazine' signified a multi-authored, multi-genre text. It combined aspects of the expensive women's monthly and inexpensive family weekly to produce a new genre. While avoiding the trivialities of ladies' magazines and the severe moral tone of Christian mothers' monthlies, the EDM included the standard fare of serialised novels, tales, poetry, answers to correspondents, illustrations, and book reviews, all of which bolstered the ideal of woman as a leisured individual with the key responsibility of moral management. The primary difference between the EDM and its predecessors was its strong emphasis on practical instruction and useful knowledge, a reflection of the Beetons' concern for improved female education (Freeman 1977, p. 77). Regular columns such as 'The Flower and Fruit Garden', 'The Management of Household Pets', 'The Sick Room and the Nursery' and 'Things worth Knowing' provided readers with handy information and projected an ideal of the domestic woman as a knowledgeable and adept household manager. These columns were among the most common places where one would find scientific and medical material, although references to such technical issues as galvanism (volume 1, p. 61) and respiration (volume 7, pp. 89–92) were rare. Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of the EDM was the quantity of practical information on dressmaking. Few pedagogical features proved more important to the cultural impact of the magazine than the 'Practical Dress Instructor'. EDM was the first English serial to make dress patterns, and therefore the latest fashions, available to a mass audience.

    Much of the EDM was written by the Beetons themselves. Samuel undertook all the editorial tasks until 1856, when he shared the responsibility with Isabella, but he also contributed essays and short fiction. According to one of her biographers (Spain 1948, pp. 125, 150), Isabella was responsible for most of the domestic management material, embroidery patterns, and all the translations of French novels that were serialised in the periodical from 1855 until her early death in 1865. Isabella's sources for the more technical aspects of Household Management were somewhat limited and it is doubtful whether she read Justus von Liebig's works on agriculture and the other technical sources from which she quoted (Freeman 1977, p. 155). For Household Management she appealed to the scientific expertise of Samuel's colleagues (including Samuel's collaborator on Beeton's Dictionary of Universal Information (1858), John Sherer), John Morton's Cyclopedia of Agriculture (1851), and William Rhind's History of the Vegetable Kingdom (1857), and it is likely that she relied on many of the same sources for the EDM.

Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine 3 (1854-55), 136.  Reproduced by kind permission of Leeds University Library.

    As a multi-authored text, the EDM offered plenty of opportunities for women to be producers and consumers of periodical literature, opportunities that in earlier decades had been enjoyed mostly by socially more elevated women contributors to the expensive monthlies. Although such celebrated writers as Thomas Hood and Harriet Beecher were responsible for some of the fiction, many of the essays, tales and recipes were submitted by obscurer writers, only a small proportion of whom signed their work.

    The phenomenal commercial success of the EDM gave the Beetons the extra capital and security to develop the format of their journal. Accordingly, in May 1860 they presented readers with a new look EDM. The abolition of paper tax earlier in the year had made it considerably cheaper to produce serials, and the launch of rival cheap monthly magazines for women prompted the Beetons to direct their journal to a wealthier and more fashionable readership. For the increased price of 6d, it was larger (28cm) and longer (48 pages), it boasted coloured steel engravings, and came with large coloured foldout embroidery patterns. Equally significant, the Beetons changed the periodical's content. There was proportionately much more space devoted to fiction and fashion, and new regular columns such as 'Conversazione' facilitated much debate including fierce and prolonged exchanges over tight lacing. As Beetham explains, this shift reflected the fact that the class of woman to which the Beetons were now addressing themselves—middle to upper-middle class—were increasingly preoccupied with the 'Woman Question' and fashion. The biggest casualty in the new look EDM was the instructional material falling outside the domain of embroidery. While the EDM still featured serious essays on historical subjects, biographies, and occasionally, natural history, the magazine's shift towards woman as a leisured subject left less space for scientific material.

Notes on Indexing

Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine 3 (1854-55), 281.  Reproduced by kind permission of Leeds University Library.

    The EDM's projection of woman as an intelligent domestic manager partly depended on its inclusion of scientific, technological and medical material. Scientific material had been a small, but not insignificant, feature of early-nineteenth century women's periodicals. Sciences such as botany, natural history and geography formed part of the discourses of genteel amusement, moral improvement, and domestic advice in these serials.

    It was in the format of the cheaper middle-class family weeklies and pioneering mid-Victorian women's monthlies such as the EDM, that scientific and medical matters could be introduced more effectively as part of these periodicals' diet of wholesome fiction and practical instruction. In its regular columns of practical instruction, the EDM typically provided elementary scientific and medical information with which readers could better tackle domestic tasks. A basic medical knowledge made the mother and wife more competent at treating and understanding diseases affecting her family and pets, chemical knowledge made her better at baking bread and removing stains, and botanical knowledge improved her conversation and gardening abilities. The Beetons' emphasis on the how and why of 'scientific' protocols around the home is neatly illustrated in one instalment of the 'Sick Room and Nursery' (volume 4, p. 287) which, in addition to 'Fifteen Rules for the Preservation of Health', gave physiological reasons for cleansing the skin and other technical justifications for clean living. By the same token, the Beetons did not hesitate to publish an anonymous article on cooking urging that knowledge of 'botany, chemistry, physiology' and the 'medicinal properties of various vegetables [...] should be instilled as the foundation or groundwork for the reformation of our style of living' (volume 8 (1859–60), p. 92).

    Practical instruction was not the only genre in which science was presented to EDM readers. It appears in biographical essays (for instance, 'Great Men and their Mothers', volume 8, pp. 77–80), in notices of natural historical works and, more commonly, in fiction. In short stories and serialised novels, the EDM offered stock representations of physicians and practitioners of such alternative sciences as mesmerism (volume 5, pp. 345–49), and some of this material subverted the very medical authority being represented in the journal's pedagogical columns. 'Charlotte May' of October 1855, for example, features a physician who is forced to tell the mother of a seriously ill girl that her 'own feelings probably tell you as much [about the girl's condition] as all my science can', and the girl's death causes the physician to bicker with his colleagues about the treatment she should have received (volume 4, p. 183).

Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine 1 (1852-53), 90.  Reproduced by kind permission of Leeds University Library.

    Medical practitioners was one of many topics where the Beetons allowed the EDM to become a space for a range of views on a given subject. Like most 'magazines', the EDM did not contain much 'news', but its varied format still allowed engagement with, and debates on, topical scientific issues of the day. An explicit endorsement of mesmerism in a book review of 1856 (volume 4, pp. 373–74) was challenged implicitly months later in a serialised story featuring a character who questions the ability of others to find treasure by clairvoyance (volume 5, pp. 345–49). The thorny question of women doctors divided women as much within the pages of EDM as outside. In July 1854 'Annie C.' warned in a lengthy essay that 'medical training and, moreover, a medical career' must be 'highly offensive' to and destructive of 'female modesty and reserve' and challenged the arguments of the pioneering woman physician Elisabeth Blackwell by insisting that the woman's 'natural' qualities of 'gentleness, affection, and delicacy of feeling' made her suitable for nursing but not for the work of a physician or surgeon (volume 3, 74–79). A more progressive ideal of femininity was presented approximately four years later when, in an analysis of Blackwell's life and work, 'M. S. R.' warned members of the 'movement' to extend women's education of the impossibility of persuading the world that women medical practitioners are 'possessed of the same feelings as the generality of women'. The writer was resolute, though, and urged her fellow campaigners to 'stand the brunt of any and every battle', to not complain when they become 'bespattered by both blood and brains', and to be prepared to be 'regarded with more curiosity than gratitude' (volume 8, 16).

    The marked reduction in instructional material in the second series of EDM justifies the decision to provide an index to only the first series of this groundbreaking women's serial. As with so many mass-circulation periodicals, the EDM appears in different forms in different libraries. Leeds University Library holds a complete run of the first series of the EDM and this comprises the bound yearly reissues of the journal. In contrast, Cambridge University Library took the journal on a monthly basis, and it holds only a partial run of single issues, each one of which is complete with advertising matter. Important though advertising material is for developing our understanding of the EDM's complex representations of the female body, it was decided to focus the index on the Leeds run (Beetham 1996, pp. 84–88) because this better reflects the copies held elsewhere in Britain and in the United States.

    Every attempt has been made to identify anonymous or pseudonymous contributors, although this has proved very difficult. Articles containing practical domestic information constitute a high proportion of the articles indexed and while most of them seem to have been written by Isabella Beeton, it was felt better, in the interests of accuracy, to leave them as unsigned contributions. Articles containing only passing references to scientific material have been included here more frequently than in indices to other periodicals. A good example is one of the replies to a correspondent (volume 2, 351) which recommends consulting John Herschel's Outlines of Astronomy (1849). In a journal containing a greater quantity of scientific material, this kind of reference would have been omitted, but in the EDM it stands out as a striking illustration of the way feminine domesticity was being tied to scientific knowledge. Descriptions in entries for pedagogical articles have, however, typically been omitted or kept short because the content of such articles can be satisfactorily conveyed with subject classifiers. In other genres, notably biographies, fiction and essays, longer descriptions have been included because this material frequently shows scientific and medical matters being represented or engaged with in unusual, complex, or polemical ways. For instance, the short biography of Elisabeth Blackwell (volume 8, 13–16) warranted a more detailed description because it was used to define a position on the controversy regarding the 'natural' abilities of woman; instalments of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter warranted longer descriptions owing to their representation of a physician associated with occult practices (volume 6, pp. 46–53;, 134–43); while reviews of books on homeopathy and mesmerism required descriptions because they promulgated different positions on the efficacy of mesmeric powers (volume 4, 349–50, volume 4, 373–74).


    Beetham, Margaret 1996. A Magazine of Her Own? Domesticity and Desire in the Woman's Magazine, 1800–1914, London: Routledge

    Drotner, Kirsten 1988. English Children and their Magazines, 1751–1945, New Haven: Yale University Press

    Freeman, Sarah 1977. Isabella and Sam: The Story of Mrs Beeton, London: Victor Gollancz

    Hyde, H. Montgomery 1951. Mr. and Mrs. Beeton, London: George S. Harrap & Co.

    Shteir, Ann B. 2004b. 'Green-Stocking or Blue? Science in Three Women's Magazines, 1800–50', in Culture and Science in the Nineteenth-Century Media, ed. by Louise Henson et al., Aldershot: Ashgate, 3–13

    Shuttleworth, Sally, Dawson, Gowan and Noakes, Richard 2001. 'Women, Science and Culture: Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical', Women: A Cultural Review, 12, 58–70

    Spain, Nancy 1948. Mrs Beeton and Her Husband, London: Collins

    White, Cynthia 1970. Women's Magazines 1693–1968, London: Michael Joseph

Richard Noakes