I have never really given the idea of the “housewife” much thought in my life. It simply never came up on my radar, after I decided (and knew) that my future contained other plans for me. Since that moment, I never gave the role any thought, beyond the stereotypical perspective of what it means to be a housewife between 1950 through today. Imagine my surprise when I came across the concept whilst researching the history of confectionery and candy.
The concept of “housewife” was born of economic and social necessity once the idea of the landed gentry took hold in Renaissance Europe, specifically in England in Ireland, but it does show up in other areas of Europe, albeit on the smaller scale. Without getting into Titles too deeply, landed gentry were land-owning upper class men, who were often, but not always, royalty. And while the Man of the house was often responsibly for the financial obligations surrounding the land, the woman of the house, more often than not the “wife” (although mothers, daughters, and other female relations could fulfill the role), managed the day to day operations of the house. While the concept of the “gentleman of the land” started roughly at the beginning of the 1400′s, by the beginning of the 1500′s, the “housewife” was as much as a fashion term as “soccer mom” is today. “Housewife” meant something specific, typically a woman of nobility or noble nature, who had the mental faculties to run a household, manage servants and staff, plan meals depending upon what was in season, garden, sew, and take care of those who were injured or ill. All the while keeping up the standards of fashion afforded to the upper class.
Many of the lands owned were often times quite a distance from the major cities of the day, and the smaller towns and villages did not necessarily have the goods needed to run a household, goods we often take for granted today. A household had to be self-sufficient for weeks at a time before heading out to the village or city to pick up any needed supplies. If someone was ill, one could not pop off to the local apothecary, as the closest one may be dozens, if not hundreds of miles away. In order to run a household effectively, the housewife needed to know of medicine.
And when someone in the fifteenth century was to know of medicine, one of the skills they had was the ability to make boiled sweets with herbs and spices mixed in such as peppermint oil, ginger, horehound, or cinnamon. These medicines, made popular by the apothecaries of the time, would be recognizable to you and me today as confections or candies.
While the apothecaries of the era established the recipes and ingredients needed to create the many versions of medicines which we would recognize today as candy, it was the housewives of the landed gentry who helped propagate them.