A mere century and a half ago, one Isabella Mary Mayson sat down and penned what would become Victorian England's rip-roarin' best-seller of the moment.
It was titled "Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management."
The dang thing had 2,751 entries — from how to cut a side of lamb to just when to put away the white summer curtains — spelled out across more than 1,680 pages. And back in 1861, millions of copies were sold. Millions.
Then came the bra-burning latter half of the 20th century, and along with it permanent-press sheets, the paper napkin, and Hamburger Helper served up on melamine plates.
We say, Whoa. We might have ditched too much. Lost all hints of luxury in the household department.
And while no one's recommending a return to the drudgery, we are saying there's both reason and a way to bring back at least a handful of those high notes to the homefront.
Backing us up on all this is Eddie Ross, former senior style editor at Martha Stewart Living, now a stylin' blogger (eddieross.com) and a man who oozes the art of the beautiful. We asked what he'd bring back home from the land of lost luxuries, and how to get the job done, the 2010 way.
Mrs. Beeton, were she still among us, would be beamin' at all this resurrected refinement.
Crisply ironed bed sheets
Why it will change your life: Have you ever slipped beneath a creaseless high-thread-count sheet (think hotel linens), one where the cuff met your cheek with all its pristine softness intact? Now picture yourself pulling the covers up to your chin only to encounter a crinkly mess that will never, ever look or feel as good as it did before it went through the wash.
How your grandma got it done: She set aside a whole day for ironing, darn it.
How you can make it happen: We say never mind the parts that you can't see. Just put that hot iron to the pillowcase, and the top quarter of the top sheet. Says Ross: "You spend more than half your life in bed. Why not have beautiful crisp sheets?" You can even try the super shortcut: Just press the cuffs of pillowcase and sheet, and see what a difference that makes.
An anti-wrinkle trick: Never let your sheets and pillowcases fully dry. Setting the dryer to "less dry" makes for easier ironing.
Why it will change your life: One, it's eco-friendly. Two, you'll feel like a grown-up. An elegant one at that. Three, if you have messy kids around, the extra absorbency of cloth can be a godsend.
How your grandma got it done: She washed and ironed every blessed damask square. Week after week.
How you can make it happen: Ditch the iron here. Go for rumpled. Says Ross: "It's a much more casual look." Check the napkins for cleanliness, and if they're still acceptable, let everyone use the same napkin again tomorrow. (Keep them sorted by using a distinct napkin ring for each person in the family.)
Why it will change your life: A beautifully set table, we believe, is a sacred gift to those who'll sit down to share the feast. Even if it's plain old PB&J.
How your grandma got it done: Maybe she had a weekly delivery from FTD.
How you can make it happen: Grab your clippers and have at your garden. A fat handful of stems is all you need. Or plunk down a few pots of herbs. Or a mound of lemons. Says Ross: "There's more of a wow factor in numbers." He'd go with, say, a dozen apples, recommending you eat 'em and replenish with whatever is in season. Would he ever go with fake? we asked timidly. "I would not," he replied boldly. Instead, he'd go for a few real branches — forsythia, dogwood, quince, whatever needs pruning.
Why it will change your life: Is there anything so sublime as opening up a boring old linen closet and seeing shelves spruced with pretty printed paper? And once you line those horizontal planes, your bed things will glide on and off the shelf with nary a stumble or a splinter.
How your grandma got it done: Chances are, she stuck to plain white rolls of paper. Cut and tacked it down. Might even have muttered a swearword or two when, after all that, the paper promptly ripped.
How you can make it happen: Double-stick tape. Just plop it down and add the paper of your dreams. Ross points out that there are some really fine Contac papers out there these days. He also frequents Paper Source (www.paper-source.com), where he finds gorgeous pre-cut papers for all of $1.99. Go for smooth, not chunky-textured papers. And he'd steer clear of dark red or navy papers: "You never know what sort of dyes are used, and it could stain your linens."
China, silver and assorted heirlooms
Why it will change your life: Because isn't it true that the ones you love the most, the ones you live with day after day, are worth the good stuff? Why let all the pretties gather dust when you can elevate any old weeknight dinner? And besides, setting the table with heirloom hand-me-downs is a way of bringing history to the everyday.
How your grandma got it done: She kept the good stuff tucked away in her china cabinet. Washed it all by hand. Used it once, maybe twice a year.
How you can make it happen: For starters, keep it close at hand. The more you use silver, the less it will tarnish. And speaking of tarnish, why not just embrace it a little? Ross says he loves the aged look of gold-edged plates that have been run through the dishwasher. It adds to the patina. And when it is time to shine up that silver, he swears by SimiChrome Polish, which you can find online or at finer hardware stores.