In 1884, Cassell’s Household Guide to Every Department of Practical Life: Being a Complete Encyclopaedia of Domestic and Social Economy — whew! — purported to share everything the average housewife should know to run an efficient household. At 396 pages, it contained articles about how to make paper chains for Christmas decoration, how to pickle lemons and how to deal with the dreaded influenza, the cause of which, Cassell’s noted, “has been attributed to a deficiency of ozone in the atmosphere, or to an alteration in the electrical conditions of the earth.” There was a whole section dedicated to that timeless and contentious topic “The Rearing and Management of Children,” and another called “Odds and Ends,” which offered advice on cleaning “the fur” from the insides of bottles, and also included “Facts Worth Knowing about Glue.” According to Cassell’s, glue should be purchased when the weather is hot, for glues of inferior quality would then reveal themselves by their soft texture. “Glue that is not perfectly hard,” the guide stated, “… is of inferior quality, and should be rejected, for it does not hold so well, and is liable to become putrid.”
Cassell’s was a treasure trove of information for the housewife of the Victorian period and beyond. Originally published in 1869 in four volumes, it was reprinted in 1884 and again in 1911, by which time it had grown to six impressive volumes, included illustrations and 22 coloured plates, and had pared its name down to Cassell’s Household Guide: A Complete Cyclopaedia of Domestic Economy.
Of course the advice dispensed changed with the times. The 1869 edition contained five mentions of crinolines (that voluminous underskirt of wires and starched netting), warning about “severe burns, such as arise from the clothes taking fire” — so-called “crinoline accidents” — and “Housemaid’s Knee,” a condition aggravated by kneeling on the crinoline’s wires. By the time of the release of the 1884 version of the guide, crinolines had dropped out of style, and Cassell’s included just one reference to the fashion craze.
But who was the knowledgeable Cassell, expounding with equal authority on ladies’ garments, the treatment of gall stones, and how to make Meg Dods’ stuffing (“the liver parboiled and chopped, if in a sound state”)?
John Cassell was born in 1817 at the The Ring O’ Bells pub, Manchester, where his father was the landlord. What opportunity he had for schooling came to an end when his father was seriously injured in a fall and could no longer work, and a few years later, died. In his teenage years John worked at first in a textile factory, and then later, showing some skill and promise, was indentured as a carpenter’s apprentice. But John was motivated beyond merely learning a trade. The Fireside Annual, published in 1882, tells us that even as a young man, John was “determined to educate himself, to break down the trammels of class ignorance, first of all in his own case, and, that once accomplished, to assist with all the energy he possessed, his brother workmen to do the same.” After putting in a hard day’s work, evening studies were difficult, but eventually he acquired “an extensive acquaintance with English literature, great general information, and a fair mastery of the French language.” But what stood him in greatest stead was what he learned from his fellow workers in the carpenter’s shop, “for here he gained an insight into … the struggles, privations, and miseries, as well as the hopes and ambitions of the working classes; and this knowledge was carefully stored up until he should, at a future time, see some way of firing their minds and ameliorating their condition.”
Eager for new ideas and yearning for a worthy cause, he chanced to hear Joseph Livesey, leader of a temperance group that advocated abstinence from the evils of drink, and he was drawn to the movement. Livesey was equally impressed by Cassell, recalling their first encounter in a Manchester lecture room. “I remember quite well … his standing on the right, just below or on the steps of the platform, in his working attire, with a fustian jacket and an apron on — a young man of eighteen, in the honestest and best of uniforms — his industrial regimentals.”
John put all his energies toward the cause of temperance, but he was practical too, and understood that except for the privileged few, lecturing didn’t put food on the table or pay the rent. Looking both to find work as a carpenter and to further spread the word of the temperance mission, John set his sights on London, and like his contemporaries, our own Benjamin and Margaret Jones, walked the length of the country to arrive in the city in October, 1836. Within a few days he’d found his way to the New Jerusalem Schoolroom in Westminster Bridge Road and delivered his first public speech on temperance, appearing to an observer as “a gaunt stripling, poorly clad, and travel-stained; plain, straightforward in speech, but broad in provincialism.” He came to be noticed by John Meredith, the founder of the London Temperance Mission, a man considered “the Napoleon of the temperance warfare,” and whose goal it was to “cover the whole country with temperance influence.” Meredith, though, did not have the gift of oration, and had difficulty delivering his message attractively, but in Cassell he had found an eloquent speaker — young, enthusiastic and energetic. Cassell became a paid temperance agent, trudging from town to town, shaking a rattle to draw attention and then hopping onto a crate to call out against the “vices that sat like skeletons beside half the hearths in England.” His zeal drew many converts as well as sneers and derision, but in Lincolnshire it attracted a woman named Mary Abbott, and their marriage signalled the end of Cassell’s days as a circuit lecturer. Cassell remained a strong advocate for the temperance movement, though, and with money Mary had inherited from her father, the couple settled in northwest London, and John began a tea and coffee business, partly because he recognized an untapped market, and partly for philanthropic reasons. As a penniless youth and later as a visitor to poor homes and villages, Cassell knew that tea and coffee — obvious temperance drinks — were expensive and not readily available, and that the much cheaper beer and gin filled the poor man’s mug. Selling cheap tea and coffee to the masses would not only promote sobriety but would be a good business.
He was right, and so successful that “Cassell’s shilling coffee” became a household staple, and John found himself with an excess of money and leisure time. He bought a used printing press and began to dabble in publishing, printing temperance tracts and pamphlets, and experimenting with illustrated covers, which he noticed sold better than those without. His first publication was a little magazine called the Teetotal Times, and he followed that with an attempt at a weekly paper called The Standard of Freedom which advocated for freedom in religion, and reflected Cassell’s “courageous and independent mind.” But he was most successful printing cheap educational books, and a newspaper that he called The Working Man’s Friend, which “did not patronize, give itself airs; nor did it play down to the lowest intelligence. It was full of sympathy and understanding of the working man’s life.”
Cassell’s expanded, moving premises and growing its list of publications geared towards and affordable for the working man. In 1852 the company published a 26-volume work entitled Cassell’s Library, with a variety of authors contributing pieces like the “Account of the Steam Engine,” and a “Natural History of Man.” It sold cheaply, meeting its intended audience, and was followed immediately by the Popular Educator, the “crown and culmination of John Cassell’s experience and judgment of the needs of those to whom general education had been denied.” Weekly issues included lessons in botany, geography, geometry and French, as well as ancient history, architecture and arithmetic. It was “a school, an academy, and a university all in one… [arousing] real wonder in the minds of the reviewers who wrote about it.” Its editor, Professor Robert Wallace of Glasgow University, wrote of the weekly, “It cannot be but pleasing for us to reflect that each successive week nearly 100,000 families are undergoing a course of useful instruction by means of this periodical.” Popular Educator had quickly become a national institution, and classes formed to expand on the lessons introduced in the publication.
But what, then, of Cassell’s Household Guide? By the time it was published in 1869, replete with the illustrations and diagrams that John Cassell had understood were so important to the working-class appeal of his publications, the man himself was dead. His early demise in 1865 at the age of 48 was attributed by some to “his closely continued application to … business, and the anxiety it entailed,” but in fact he’d succumbed to “an internal tumour,” the effects of which had been noted for many months in his loss of strength and general ill health. His name was “a veritable household word” by then, and Cassell’s itself soldiered on in his absence, continuing in the tradition he had begun, and building “an Empire of literature in the hearts and homes of the working man.”
Cassell’s Household Guide, Cassell, Petter and Galpin, London, 1869.
The Fireside Annual, Home Words Publishing Office, 1882.
The Story of the House of Cassell, Cassell & Co. Ltd., London, 1922.
The History of the Temperance Movement in Great Britain and Ireland, by Samuel Couling. William Tweedie Co., London, 1862.
“Death of Mr. John Cassell,” Carlisle Journal, 4 April, 1865.