Though a lot of the political issues and some of the activities mentioned in the book are outdate, the basic idea that Mr. Cobbett advocates is not: using a bit of land, skills, and hands-on labor to make the home a place of production, instead of a place only used for consumption.
He speaks of giving your children an education that consists of the following: "to labour with steadiness, with care, and with skill; to show them how to do as many useful things as possible; to teach them to do them all in the best manner; to set them an example in industry, sobriety, cleanliness, and neatness...." As a society, not only have we neglected to bring up children in such a way, but we've neglected to give ourselves the kind of education that Mr. Cobbett talks about in his book.
Some of the "skills" he mentions are brewing beer, making bread, keeping cows, keeping pigs, keeping bees and fowls, braiding straw for hats and bonnets, and a few other skills that I am probably forgetting. He goes into great detail on how to do each thing above; the detail is so great, in fact, that it was a little hard for me to understand or fully appreciate. However, I did learn some new and interesting things.
My chief interest in reading this book was to find some new goat and/or chicken feed ideas, but I got a lot more than that. Keep in mind that the advice was from the 19th century, so...
Here are some notes I took from my Kindle:
"Every farmer will understand me when I say, that he ought to pay for nothing in money, that he can pay for in anything but money." That is, if you can barter for something or do it yourself, don't spend money on it.
Mr. Cobbett includes in the book a plan for growing cabbages and turnips (and/or rutabagas...like I said, the language is a little obsolete) to feed cows for free. In the book he lists proper varieties and planting times for each, and has done the math on how many cabbages and turnips one must plant in order to sustain the cow.
"When young, [ducks] should be fed upon barley-meal, or curds, and kept in a warm place in the night-time, and not let out early in the morning." There is a whole section devoted to duck-raising, which I've been very interested in since I got my first ducks in August.
He says of feeding chickens during the winter:
"...give them very stimulating food; barley boiled, and given them warm; curds, buck-wheat, (which, I believe, is the best thing of all except curds;) parsley and other herbs chopped fine; leeks chopped in the same way; also apples and pears chopped very fine; oats and wheat cribbled; and sometimes [the French] give them hemp-seed, and the seed of nettles; or dried nettles, harvested in summer and boiled in the winter. Some give them ordinary food, and, once a day, toasted bread sopped in wine. White cabbages chopped up are very good in winter for all sorts of poultry."
About the chicken coop: "It is good to fumigate the house frequently by burning dry herbs, juniper wood, cedar wood, or with brimstone; for nothing stands so much in need of cleanliness as a fowl-house, in order to have fine fowls and plenty of eggs."
"Fowls should be put to fat about a fortnight before they are wanted to be killed. The best food is barley-meal wetted with milk, but not wetted too much."
He says about feeding rabbits: "A variety of food is a great thing; and, surely, the fields and gardens and hedges furnish this variety! All sorts of grasses, strawberry-leaves, ivy, dandelions, the hog-weed or wild parsnip, in root, stem, and leaves."
He says about feeding goats: "In summer they picked about wherever they could find grass; and in winter they lived on cabbage-leaves, turnip-peelings, potatoe-peelings, and other things flung out of soldiers' rooms and huts."
Of furniture: "In household goods, the warm, the strong, the durable, ought always to be kept in view. Oak tables, bedsteads and stools, chairs of oak or of yew tree, and never a bit of miserable deal board. Things of this sort ought to last several lifetimes."
He says of the factory-culture of 1800's England: "One of the great misfortunes of England at this day is, that the land has had taken away from it those employments for its women and children which were so necessary to the well-being of the agricultural labourer. The spinning, the carding, the reeling, the knitting; these have been all taken away from the land, and given to the Lords of the Loom..."
Applying "Cottage Economy" to the 21st Century
What Mr. Cobbett is trying to say throughout the whole book is "Hey guys! Don't forget that we still have hands! We can make stuff at home, and then we don't have to pay for it. Maybe if we stop depending on the factories for sustenance and re-learn how to do some of this stuff, we can get out of poverty."
And really, I agree. In fact, one of the goals of my blog here is to give you a real-life example of what "cottage economy" looks like in our modern day. Instead of making beer, it might mean growing herbal tea. Instead of dipping rushes for light, it might mean growing miniature pumpkins for decorating. No, I probably won't be platting straw to make Hubs' hat. Probably, but that's not a guarantee.
I'm sure you've noticed that some of my "home economy" projects haven't worked out so well. Making noodles, or my first year of farmers market, for example. Some skills are as obsolete as platting straw, but others are definitely worth learning. I like saving money, but for me it is not just about the money. It's about proving that life as a homemaker is creative, productive and satisfying work. That homemakers can bring wholeness to their families by lowering stress, providing structure in the home and yes- still contributing financially, either by saving or earning.
I don't think it's being at home 24/7 and/or never working for money that makes a difference. It's having the heart of a homemaker that really counts. Some people say, "I don't have time to cook/clean/decorate/etc.", but where there's a will, there's a way. In our day and age, housewives can earn quite a bit of money from home (or even work outside the home a bit) and still be homemakers. Thank you to whoever invented dishwashers and washing machines, right?! Instead of just being a place to sleep and watch TV over microwave dinners, let's make home something memorable and financially viable.
Last Words From Mr. Cobbett
I'll leave you all with this quotable: "...the way to make [your] daughters to be long admired, beloved and respected by their husbands, is to make them skillful, able and active in the most necessary concerns of a family."