I Made a Living As a Domestic “Dear Abby” in the 1950s
Courtesy of Good Housekeeping archives.
The “domestic arts” (cooking, cleaning and the like) are having a resurgence. But June Streets, now 92, was among an early wave of women who excelled at so-called homemaking. In the 1950s, she was part of a small team at the Good Housekeeping Institute that spent its days answering the phone and responding to letters about “every domestic crisis imaginable.”
June was also a mother of four and became a voracious collector of vintage cookbooks, including rare and early editions of books by the very first “cookery” writers such as Eliza Acton, a trailblazer often credited with inventing the recipe as we know it. Years later, June’s daughter-in-law Annabel Abbs acquired her collection and used it as inspiration to write a book, Miss Eliza’s English Kitchen, that follows the unconventional path of the woman who started as a poet and ended up as a cookbook author. Here, June explains how she came to work at GH and why connecting with loved ones in the kitchen will never go out of style.
My training in “domestic sciences” started early.
“As the oldest of five children, I began cooking, cleaning, gardening, needlework and raising my younger siblings long before I had a child of my own. My mother had her hands full and my father was usually absent, so I helped look after the younger children as well as cooking, cleaning, washing up, helping with laundry and ironing, repairing clothes, picking and preserving fruit and vegetables and feeding and butchering the animals. By the time I left school in 1946 to go study domestic science at a teacher-training college in London, I had a good foundation to build upon — besides, it was one of the few courses deemed suitable for girls, and I actually enjoyed the work. After that, I taught domestic science for two years in North London, including needlework, laundry and ironing, house hygiene and cooking, all skills children would need to keep a home. Lots of the children didn’t come to school at all until late October, after spending the summer and autumn helping with harvests and picking hops. Then I moved to a school outside London, and after two years there, I went to a military base in Germany and taught the children of soldiers.”
In 1956, I wrote to the Good Housekeeping Institute and told them they didn’t know what they were missing!
“Apparently they agreed! They offered me a job straightaway, and I began working in the London offices. In those days the GH Institute was a vital source of information for housewives. Readers wrote in or telephoned with their domestic queries, which could be anything from how to remove a stain from a carpet to how to starch a shirt collar or how to butcher a chicken — anything to do with running a home.
“The GH Institute was the best-known place for getting help. I was a sort of domestic ‘Dear Abby,’ part of a team that took phone calls and answered letters about every domestic crisis imaginable. You have to remember there was no Internet, and this was the tail end of rationing. People had to make do and mend. Fitted carpets in particular were precious and costly, so I dealt with many, many carpet inquiries. People wrote with pen and ink then, and ink was always being spilled, so we got a lot of questions about removing ink stains, as well as how to deal with carpet beetle infestations. I spent so long researching the latest cookers that I became an expert on stoves and ovens. I later used this expertise to really go all out on a fantastic range, one of those purchases you never forget.”
My love of cookbooks is connected to my family.
“I always loved my mother’s collection. And when I had kids, my fascination continued. My son James had very bad asthma, and every month I had to take him to London to see an asthma specialist. Afterward we would go to a secondhand bookshop and he would look for books about his obsession, Napoleon, and I would go to the cookbook section. On one of those outings, I found a very old, very battered and torn cookbook from the 19th century. The owner of the bookshop said I could get it rebound at a specialist print shop in London. Bit by bit, I began buying very old cookbooks until I had quite a few. The collection eventually numbered almost 200 books dating back to the 18th century and included many books compiled by housekeepers or mistresses of country houses as well as two Eliza Acton books and books by Mrs. Beeton and early female cooks like Hannah Woolley and Maria Rundell. They weren’t expensive in those days, because no one was really looking for them. Of course, now old cookbooks are quite rare and expensive, with many celebrity chefs building up their own collections too.”
Cookbooks and recipes have always reflected the changing tastes of the culture.
“I was fascinated by how social and economic changes were reflected in food and cookbooks. English food was often lambasted, but when it was prepared by home cooks using traditional recipes and local ingredients, it was very good indeed. But the cuisine was changing at the time because American heiresses were coming over and marrying English aristocrats, and they wanted to be very thin like Wallis Simpson, so recipes began to change — less butter and cream. One of my favorites was Eliza Acton — she was a celebrity chef of her day.”
I wrote recipes on cards so my cookbooks wouldn’t collect drips and splatters.
“My mother loved looking at my cookbook collection when she came to visit and would pick out dishes for me to try. I cooked many different versions of rice pudding and bread-and-butter pudding, and I often made traditional English sauces like Cumberland sauce. Fried parsnips with walnuts was another favorite. I also wanted recipes for the fruits and vegetables I could buy locally — black currants, gooseberries, trout, cream and so on. These were the freshest, most readily available ingredients.”
With four children, I had a team of recipe taste-testers.
“I ran cookery classes for eight years, and though my children didn’t want to join my classes, I made sure they could all cook. It runs in the family — my mother was a superb cook, and so was her mother. We grew all our own vegetables and killed our own pigs — I was responsible for making sausages and black pudding. My mother raised five children on her own, with everything cooked from scratch. From when I was very small, she asked me to taste whatever she was cooking and to tell her what I thought. This developed my palate, and I grew to have a very good palate. With my own children, I kept them involved — not just in the stirring and washing up, but by asking their advice on flavors and inviting them to taste everything.”
GH Book Club Feel Good Pick of the Month
Our GH Book Club’s November pick was inspired by June Streets! Join our monthly book club and crack open an empowering read about the woman who changed cookbooks forever. When a publisher asks poet Eliza Acton to write him a cookbook, she’s initially insulted. But when dire circumstances force her hand, she discovers there’s beauty in food writing too. Eliza hires a destitute young girl named Ann Kirby to assist her in developing recipes, and the two form an unlikely friendship. But when a secret from Eliza’s past comes to light, they have to decide whether their bond can transcend their work. It’s a story of independence and resilience that also celebrates the legitimacy of the culinary arts.
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