Isabella Beeton: Management lessons from the kitchen

Over 100 years ago, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management was published. Now, in the age of celebrity chefs, what can business ...

Over 100 years ago, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management was published. Now, in the age of celebrity chefs, what can business people learn from the bestselling domestic bible?
Isabella Beeton Management lessons from the kitchenRobin Wensley’s classic 1996 article provides food for thought, but also suggests that the world described by Isabella Beeton is rather more calm and ordered than the frenetic and chaotic one we see nowadays on our TV under the direction of Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsay. Of course, it may be that this is more because the latter makes better TV.

In 1859, Mrs Isabella Beeton published the first of 24 monthly supplements to the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine. Republished as the 1,112-page Book of Household Management (1861), these became the essential source text, at least in the UK, on all aspects of household management. The book sold 60,000 copies in the first year. The households Mrs Beeton wrote about were the equivalent of small businesses, with between five and thirty full-time resident employees, plus parttimers working from their own homes. Household Management is mainly about “service business” – medical care and education and the management of stables as well as the cooking for which Mrs Beeton is chiefly famous today. But it strays into small-scale production management (making butter and cheese, perfume, shampoo and furniture polish; preserving seed for next year’s kitchen garden crop). Of course the household did not run at a profit: it might be seen as the Victorian English equivalent of a cost centre with an often tight budget – based on the salary and investment income provided by the man of the house. Profit was therefore irrelevant, but economy essential. And many of the management processes were not dissimilar from running a small company, then or now. How then does Mrs Beeton stand as a latter day management guru?

Mrs Beeton’s three principles of good management

Mrs Beeton’s approach can be summarised in three principles, which would certainly feature in most practical management texts:

  • setting an example and giving clear guidance to the staff
  • controlling the finances
  • applying the benefits of order and method in all management activities.

These three principles are expressed so clearly in her book that, even for today’s very different context and cultural norms, her own words more than suffice.

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