5 Tools For the Victorian Gardner

Do you like the feel of a wooden handle? The weight of a well-crafted tool?

I know I do.

It’s time to rummage in the shed and dust off those tools whether you are looking forward to the spring thaw or are preparing your garden for winter. Here in Perth, I do all my gardening from autumn to spring as summer gardening is just too disheartening.

Here are  5 Handy Tools from the Victorian shed


1.The Cloche

The bell shaped glass cloche creates a protective environment for tender young shoots

The bell-shaped glass cloche creates a protective environment for tender young shoots

On first seeing this word I thought it was perhaps french for clock, maybe some sort of sundial?

It is French, French for bell, as in a bell shaped glass to ward off frost from tender young plants and extend the growing season in chilly climates.

Presumably, cloches used to all be bell shaped but by the Victorian age many looked like glass lanterns with wooden or metal frames and panes of glass. They range in size from small enough to be carried in one hand for the protection of a single young plant to large enough to pass for a portable greenhouse requiring two persons to move it.

Most of the tools we use in the garden today are variations on those that have been around since the middle ages.

2. The billhook


I had a vague idea this was a tool used in butchering animals, another erroneous conclusion.

The billhook is a cross between a machete and a butter knife, the fat rounded type of butterknife. It has a hook-shaped blade, with the sharp edge on the inside curve.

It is a tool of precision for pruning, shaping decorative hedges and grafting. However it can be a weapon of mass destruction in the hands of an enthusiastic novice gardener, both to the plants and the gardener,

It should always be kept sharp, dry and out of the reach of children and novices.

3. The Dibbler


I want one of these just so I can say, “Pass me the dibbler love.”

A perfectly formed wooden instrument worn smooth from years of frequent use or a metal handle and wooden spike, a dibbler looks like the top of a shovel sawn off, its tip whittled to a rounded point for the purpose of making holes for seed.

Essentially it is a large substitute finger to save strain on your own digits.

4. the Daisy Grubber

Daisy Grubber by Amber Seah

What I always called the snake-tongued-weeding-thing has a name!

Daisy grubber is so much more concise than my long-tail name for it. It is for getting the daisies out of your lawn by the roots with minimal damage to the lawn.

The metal loop at the back is for leverage. For obvious reasons, these are still immensely popular today and can be found at any gardening store.

5. the Mattock

Mattock by Amber Seah

Vital for trench digging or tree root removal

I have heard the word mattock but did not know what it was.

It has a pick on one end and a cutting tool on the other. In my family, we call it a pick-ax.

You need a mattock for preparing a new garden bed, digging out a square of lawn or making a trench for drainage and reticulation. The only time I’ve used one was for digging a trench to lay down new plumbing.

They come in a variety of sizes, some measure a meter long and weigh several kilos requiring the strength of a well-built man to even lift let alone swing. Others are of more modest, manageable proportions suitable to the rest of us.

Helen in the Garden

All of these would have been new but indispensable tools, to Helen Kerr when she first arrived at Hamilton Hill for her summer as an under gardener. Personally, I’d keep her away from the billhook and give her a wide berth if swinging a mattock.

To read about Helen’s adventure from print shop to garden shed click here for Kindle and here for Kobo

For more information on the history of gardens and gardening see The History of the Garden in Fifty Tools by Bill Laws

a Note on the artwork

The pictures of the cloche, the billhook and the dibbler I sketched on my Wacom tablet, trying to get the hang of computer drawing. Then we moved house and I put the Wacom somewhere very safe and cannot locate it so the daisy grubber and mattock were sketched on ordinary A5 paper with colour pencils and scanned.

I haven’t picked up a sketch pad in years so beg your patience as I flex my illustrating muscles and try to work them back into shape.

What is your favourite garden tool or word? 

leave a comment here or on twitter @SeahAmber.


3 Suprising Things About Grand Central Station

The origional Grand Central Depot brought to fruition mainly by Cornelius Vanderbuildts strength of well--Photo NYPL Collection

The origional Grand Central Depot brought to fruition mainly by Cornelius Vanderbilt’s strength of will–Photo NYPL Collection

#1  Grand Central Station is a Government Post Office

……..not a train station, and it is almost next door to  THE Grand Central.

There is a subway station named Grand Central but it has little to set it apart from the other stations on its route.

THE Grand Central, the one in all the movies, the one that draws more visitors than any other NY attraction isn’t a station at all. It is Grand Central Terminal. terminal as in terminus, as in all trains stop here and you must disembark.

This American icon  was briefly called Grand Central Station from 1899-1913. The 28 years before that it was called Grand Central Depot. and for the last 103 years it it has had engraved above its doors “Grand Central Terminal”.

So why do we still call it a station?

My theory is that subway stops, train stops and even bus interchanges across the English speaking world are called stations, by default we assume it is called a station.  The central most grand station of them all. Which leads me to discovery number 2

New York City, Grand Central Station, New York 1800, Victorian New York, Victorian Post Card

An actual postcard from before the 1899 refurbishment when 3 more floors were added–postcard from the NYPL Collection

#2 Its name has nothing to do with its location.

It was named for Vanderbilt’s train company New York Central Railway.

The original train interchange built in 1871 was called Grand Central Depot.

Grand Central Depot was expanded between 1899 and 1900 and renamed Grand Central Station.

It was entirely rebuilt over a period of 10 years from 1903-1913 when it was renamed Grand Central Terminal. This is the Grand Central we know, love and marvel over today.

#3 The Shear Volume of Victorian TRAVELERS

IN 1899 the Station (that is when it was a station) served 1.5 million passengers per day. To put that in perspective today 700-750,000 people visit the concourse daily, many of them tourists come to marvel at the Edwardian splendor.

By some estimates at the end of the Victorian age 45% of the population of the United States had passed through Grand Central at some point in their life.

I don’t know about you but these details just make me more curious I want to uncover the stories behind it’s architecture, its grandeur and its technological achievements. So who knows we might be be seeing more of Grand Central Depot/Station/Terminal around here in the future.

Happy Travels through history!


Cake Revolution #3: Layers

Layer cakes opened the door to endless possibilities that still fire the imagination of cooks.

Layer cakes opened the door to endless possibilities that still fire the imagination of cooks.

#3 Layers

Okay so this is really a continuation of  #2 but layers are so integral to our imaginings of what a cake should be I felt it deserved its place as an invention in its own right. The Little House Cookbook explains:

You could make enough batter for all your small milk pans, bake all the batches at once and stack up the results in a single, glorious confection. Thus was the American layer cake born.  With the introduction of fine cake flour at the end of the century, its triumph over the pie as dessert favorite was assured.

I could go add on a number of other inventions such as affordable fine milled flour and refined white sugar which led to ever lighter more delicate creations but these three are my favorite. Without the invention of cast iron cook stoves, baking powder and layers cakes would still be something us common people would rarely taste.

As a child I dreamed about layer cakes, usually with some element of chocolate. For example chocolate cake with raspberry jam filling, German chocolate cake sandwiched with chocolate butter cream and iced with its nutty coating, white cake with fresh berries and fluffy butter cream icing. Flat rectangular cakes just dodn’t have the possibilities inherent to layer cakes.

As an adult the perfect homemade layer cake remained a dream until I discovered the…

Victorian Baking Tip of the Week

When making a layer cake do not cut your well risen  beautiful cake into layers, it will only lead to heartache and lopsided-asymmetrical disappointment .  Instead decide how many layers of cake you want and divide the batter between that many pans.

Simple cake layers

My Grandmother’s 1961 edition of the Betty Crocker Cookbook uses this method but only ventures to 2 layers. Trust me you can make as many layers as you want within reason. I wouldn’t try to replicate the Petronis towers or anything.

I recognize the average household today will be short on the requisite number of milk pans but do not let that deter you. Inexpensive round cake pans can be purchased from many stores for a few dollars. The small outlay of cash is well worth it when  you can wow your friends with a beautiful cake of uniform layers.

If you insist on trying to cut your beautiful cake into layers here are the tips from my Betty Crocker Cookbook circ 2000. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

This really seems to complicated

This really seems to complicated

So the next time you are ogling that fantastic layered creation on the cover of Women’s Day or are weighing up your options at the bakery stop and think of the Victorian house wives who used the inventions of their day to revolutionize cakes.

Happy Baking!

The Cake Revolution Invention #2: Baking Powder

#2 Baking Powder

Egg Whites Vs Baking Powder

Egg Whites Vs Baking Powder

Prior to commercial production of reliable baking powder (Think: Anne Shirley and Rollings Reliable Baking) there were two ways to achieve lift in baked goods.

First there was yeast or sourdough, commonly used for everyday breads and some cakes. The down side to this method was it required time to allow the batter to rise. Also both yeast and sourdough have a strong flavor.

The second choice was eggs, primarily in the form of beaten egg whites, each of which must be beaten by hand as described in These Happy Golden Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder:

That afternoon the finished black cashmere was carefully pressed, and then Ma made a big, white cake. Laura helped her by beating the egg whites on a platter with a fork, until Ma said they were stiff enough.

“My arm is stiffer,:” Laura ruefully laughed, rubbing her aching right arm.

“This cake must be just right,: Ma insisted if you can’t have a wedding party, at least you shall have a wedding dinner at home, and a wedding cake.”

Have a go:

  • Seperate one egg
  • Place white on a small plate
  • Beat with a fork to stiff peak

Imagine doing this for the requisite 3-10 eggs called for in a cake and you will understand why cakes were reserved for special occasions. Not to mention the scarcity of eggs in many Victorian homes. Even if you had your own chickens you probably wouldn’t choose to squander them in frequent cake baking.

The first ever baking powder was invented in 1843 by British chemist Alfred Bird for his wife who was allergic to eggs and yeast. It took a number of decades and dozens of chemists and manufacturers to perfect baking powder into the reliable kitchen staple we rely on

While chemists delved into cookery experiments the chemical saleratus, (aka, baking soda) became more widely available but it required you to sour the milk before it would have the desire effect, this required fore thought and planning, no good for surprise visitors.

However by the 1860’s there were tolerably reliable baking powders on the market turning cakes from special occasion treats into weekly staples. This is what The Little House Cookbook has to say on the subject:

Now cake baking was practically instantaneous; there was no long beating of eggs, no waiting for milk to sour. 

When I use saleratus I don’t have the patience to allow milk to sour naturally so speed things up with a teaspoon of vinegar. I use this for quick breads. But for cakes my go to raising agent is good old baking powder.

This miraculous invention leads us to the next innovation in the cake revolution  layers…

In our next post I, 1880’s Girl, will wax lyrical on the delicious possibilities introduced by the creative use of milk pans.

3 Inventions that Revolutionized Victorian Cakes


This isn’t like any stove I’ve ever seen before, and I’m not sure how you would go about using it as an oven.

Cakes are something we take entirely for granted today. It only takes a few minutes to whip up a simple butter cake or a coffee cake for unexpected visitors.  But this was not always the case. The home desert of choice used to be a boiled pudding. It may have been quick to throw together but it took ages to cook, three or more hours (remember last weeks wedding cake recipe which was half-way between a cake and a pudding?)

To the Victorian’s  homemade cakes were something to get excited over; they were something to fuel the culinary imagination. American’s especially embraced these new technologies. (Okay so I know technically Americans aren’t Victorians not being under the reign of Queen Victoria but who lets such technicalities get in the way? Not 1880’s Girl, that’s for sure.)

Here are three Inventions that changed the face of dessert forever.

  1. Cast Iron Stoves
  2. Baking Powder
  3. Layers

Each of these proved to be such fascinating lines of research I have broken them up into three shorter posts, petit fours instead of a massive fruitcake.

#1 Cast Iron Stoves

Prior to the advent of iron stoves ovens were massive built in structures made of brick and mortar, only the wealthy would have houses big enough for them. Or as is recorded for us in Patty Cake, Patty Cake you might pay a fee to the village baker for the use of his oven.

Most cooking was done over an open fire with an assortment of arms, hooks and spits worked into the masonry to accommodate boiling and roasting. Hence the popularity of the boiled pudding.

 In 1728, well before the days of Queen Victoria, the first Cast iron stoves began to be made in commercial quantities in the U.S.  but these were primarily designed for increased heat efficiency not for cooking.

In 1800 Benjamin Thompson invented the first cook stove but it was still large, cumbersome and expensive. But the idea caught on. Inventors, designers and blacksmiths across New England began patenting their own new designs. By the mid 1800’s Troy New York hand nearly 200 factories making stoves for homes all over the U.S.

This meant housewives could now easily and efficiently bake in the comfort of their own kitchens,  bread and biscuits (scones) for everyday, pies for something sweet, cakes for something extra special.

Just having a cook stove wasn’t enough Victorians needed

Stay tuned for the riveting history of baking powder.