Sarah Ban Breathnach's Mrs. Sharp's Traditions: Reviving Victorian Family Celebrations of Comfort and Joy

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The seeds for the ground-breaking Simple Abundance, Sarah Ban Breathnach's hugely successful bestseller, were first planted in Mrs. Sharp's Traditions. In this revised, redesigned edition of her charmingly illustrated Victorian style- and sourcebook, Sarah introduces to her legions of new readers the old-fashioned pleasures of family, customs, and home.
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The seeds for the ground-breaking Simple Abundance, Sarah Ban Breathnach's hugely successful bestseller, were first planted in Mrs. Sharp's Traditions. In this revised, redesigned edition of her charmingly illustrated Victorian style- and sourcebook, Sarah introduces to her legions of new readers the old-fashioned pleasures of family, customs, and home.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
This treasury of Victorian traditions is a winning volume filled with old-fashioned advice on the art of domestic bliss. Arranged by month, it offers pointers on minding the home and children, as well as recipes, activities, and tips on tending the garden. Beautifully packaged, it also includes many charming illustrations.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780641531064
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 5/2/2001
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 8.04 (w) x 10.30 (h) x 0.95 (d)

Read an Excerpt


Are you pleased with your family life? Forgive Mrs. Sharp for being too personal, but if your answer is no or even "I don't know," then, dear Reader, welcome home to Mrs. Sharp's Traditions, an old-fashioned resource created especially for you.

The Pursuit of Happiness

In modern life, the days, weeks, months, and seasons hurtle past us at breakneck speed. Do we even pause to acknowledge autumn's arrival in crimson and gold, winter's first snowflake, the sprouting of spring daffodils, or the return of lemonade leisure with the first hot summer afternoon? These simple pleasures should be savored and celebrated, but we have so little time! A century ago the four seasons of our lives were linked with traditions, and the cycle of the year held cherished pastimes for families to enjoy together. Gone forever, it seems, are those halcyon days when the pursuit of happiness at home was considered worthy of devoted attention.

The Mortar of Loving Memories

You say that you wish to step off the dreary treadmill of today's accelerated pace to enjoy happier moments with your family, but at the end of a long week you don't know how or where to begin?

May Mrs. Sharp be of assistance?

It has been both her lot in life, as well as her great joy, to have spent the majority of the past century as a preserver of home-centered customs. Family traditions played a major role in Victorian lives and were reassuring points of comfort and security. They can be for your family, as well. Throughout her long life, Mrs. Sharp has always looked upon these homegrown celebrations as opportunities to cement her family together with the mortar of loving memories.

Mrs. Sharp is pleased to show you how traditions are not simply family fossils to be hauled out once a year along with the turkey platter, but rather year-round celebrations that can be integrated readily into even the busiest lives. What joy and contentment come from seeing your children create May baskets, just as you did when you were young, or serving tea to your family using your grandmother's special teapot and knowing that you are joined together in love through ritual. What a sense of continuity comes from passing on a personalized cookbook of favorite family recipes to a child who has just married. Eventually these beloved family customs stretch like a golden ribbon over long years to bind generations together tenderly in memory. Simply stated, what more in life could any of us ask?

For the Skeptics Among Us

For the skeptics among us, Mrs. Sharp assures them that they will be pleasantly surprised to discover that the simple pleasures that amused children and brought families together a hundred years ago still have the power to charm. Trust that Mrs. Sharp knows how to adapt the pastimes and seasonal pleasures of yesteryear to family life today. And should some of the old customs not fit your modern lives, Mrs. Sharp has altered and improvised, providing her readers with Victorian traditions that have a contemporary twist.

A Pause of the Past That Inspires

So take a deep breath, be of good cheer, and come into Mrs. Sharp's parlor. The kettle is on for tea. Here, away from the distractions and demands of your daily life, may you encounter a pause of the past that inspires, so that before long you will find yourself easily incorporating good, old-fashioned memory-making traditions of love and togetherness into the lives of your very busy, modern family.

Mrs. Sharp's Story: Lessons Life Has Taught Me

Out of Necessity, a Mother Becomes Inventive

Perhaps you would like to know how I first began my career as a curator of home-centered Victorian customs? Once upon a time, it all began, simply enough, out of necessity.

Although it happened long ago, I can still vividly hear the footsteps of our family physician, Dr. Orton, as he came down the stairs to talk with me. In our bedroom my beloved husband, Edmund, lay seriously ill with tuberculosis, or consumption, as it was then known. As I went through the motions of sewing by the fire, it took all my resolve not to cry in front of the children. I was so frightened that I couldn't hold the needle steady.

Fate Deals a Cruel Blow

"Victorianna, I do believe Edmund is over the worst," the doctor said, smiling sympathetically.

"Oh, thank God," I answered, my heart leaping.

"Yes, we do indeed have much to be grateful for, but while Edmund is out of danger," he continued, "now the hardest part for you is about to begin." Dr. Orton explained that he thought Edmund could recover best at the new Trudeau Sanitarium in the Adirondacks. But he gently warned me that life would be different now. "You're going to have to" -- Dr. Orton paused, clearly uncomfortable at broaching such a sensitive subject with a woman -- "make a major adjustment. I don't know when Edmund will be well enough, if ever, to resume work or enjoy a full married life."

Loving Partners in This Business of Life

And with those solemn words Mrs. Sharp's happiness came to a crashing halt. It was 1890. We had been married for only five years when fate tested us.

Although Edmund and I did not go on a wedding trip, our honeymoon has lasted since our wedding day. We went directly from our wedding dinner to our little dream cottage in Takoma Park, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C., and began our lives together as loving partners. I was not to be an inferior in my new husband's eyes but an associate. Edmund told me after he carried me over the threshold, "My darling Victorianna, I want us to be equal partners in this business of life. Let us be each other's first confidant."

So we immediately began setting up our own, separate spheres: Edmund, the practice of law, and mine, the raising of a family and the creating of a comfortable home for us to live in contentment. Being young and so much in love, we were soon blessed with adorable babies, each such a treasure that another was welcomed with open arms. At the time my husband grew ill, we had four young children, including one set of twins. We were both just twenty-five years old. It seemed as if nothing could mar our happiness. In just a few short years Edmund had built up a thriving law practice, which he maintained from an office adjacent to our home. A fair bank account grew and we enjoyed a substantial yearly income. Like most of my Victorian contemporaries, I did not hold a position of responsibility outside the home circle. With my husband indisposed, however, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with our situation and "make arrangements," a Victorian euphemism for adjusting to any change in one's circumstances.

At first I gave considerable thought to selling our house and moving to smaller quarters, but that would never do. More goes into building a house than bricks and wood. Edmund and I had poured all of our hopes, dreams, and aspirations into our cherished home, "The Vicarage" (so named in loving jest because Edmund's father had wanted him to follow in his footsteps as a clergyman). Yet we couldn't manage indefinitely on our savings. Finally, Mrs. Sharp came to the simple conclusion that she had to seek gainful employment.

Mrs. Sharp's Guilty Secret

I waited until Edmund was comfortably settled at the sanitarium before seeking work, deciding that only after I had found a job and made a success of it (as I was confident that I should) would I confide -- or confess -- to Edmund. As you no doubt realize, dear Reader, in every marriage there comes a difference of opinion between couples. My husband held very strong views about a woman's place, and I shared his belief that a woman's ordained role was that of mother and mistress of the home. So to speak frankly (as I always shall), if I had told Edmund my intentions, it would have been a stroke, not consumption, from which he would be recovering.

First I had to make sure of my child-care arrangements. Bridget, a young Irish girl who came in to assist me weekly with laundry, agreed to come in full-time to care for the children. With that worry eliminated, Mrs. Sharp successfully answered an advertisement for a secretarial position in the newly opened Washington, D.C., branch of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. I was about to embark on what can only be described as a new adventure.

The World Lures Her Away

Mrs. Sharp must admit that the novelty of entering the working world was quite alluring. Taking the train into Washington each morning, enjoying pleasant adult conversation, and being able to visit the shops on my lunch break, all held an appeal. My weekly pay packet was also most welcome. Alas, my work was not particularly challenging after I had put the office in order, which was accomplished in a few weeks' time. What the male working world doesn't realize is that the same creativity and organizational skills necessary to raise a family successfully and efficiently run a home can easily be applied to workplace settings. Frequently Mrs. Sharp had assisted her husband in maintaining his files, correspondence, and bookkeeping records, and this experience was also aptly applied to the Pinkerton office. As for the handling of the temperaments of a half dozen male detectives -- each of whom thought his needs the most urgent -- Mrs. Sharp relied on her skills as a mother.

Dame Opportunity Comes Calling

Then one day Mr. Pinkerton asked me if I might be willing to accompany him in the surveillance of a couple suspected of being jewel thieves at one of the city's fashionable hotels. Mr. Pinkerton felt that if we posed as a married couple, this would not arouse suspicion among the criminal elements. Of course, the agency did not normally employ any "lady detectives," but as all of the operatives in our office were already engaged, my employer used this occasion to be the instrument of Dame Opportunity knocking. Mr. Pinkerton complimented me on my powers of observation, diligence, attention to detail, self-reliance, and, above all, that most necessary quality for detective work, common sense. He also admitted having a high regard for women's intuitive powers. I jumped at the chance to use my creative intellect and embraced detective work earnestly, shortly becoming a full-fledged Pinkerton operative -- or a petticoated private eye.

Her Web of Deceit Grows

Now, dear Reader, accepting a position as a clerk in an office out of necessity and embarking on a time-consuming career as a lady detective, even if both situations take place in identical locales, are not the same thing. As Edmund's stay at the sanitarium lengthened, I found it increasingly difficult to explain the nuances of my particular position. For though Edmund had accepted my going to work at Pinkerton's until he returned home, one shock to the system was enough.

She Should Have Known Better

At the agency, the remuneration at the conclusion of successful cases was very handsome. Accordingly, during the time I worked as a lady detective I was able to accumulate a tidy sum. But the demands of my new career extracted a high price. I was extremely fatigued from both the type of work I was engaged in and with my daily trips to and from The Vicarage. Sometimes while on a case, it was even necessary for me to stay overnight in a ladies' boardinghouse. I missed my children terribly and they missed their mother, too. Our emotional estrangement began to manifest itself in eating, sleeping, and discipline problems. My beautiful home life began to unravel before my very eyes. When I was with the children, I was easily distracted because of the intricacies and intrigue of my work. Frequently, she is sorry to disclose, Mrs. Sharp became unnecessarily irritable with them. Although our worlds are separated by a century, dear Reader, Mrs. Sharp knows only too well the very real difficulties that working mothers face each day and how torn one can feel between loving duty at home and the challenge of interesting, rewarding work in the world. I began to suffer from attacks to the nervous system and was burdened with guilt because I had not been forthcoming with my husband. Despite my best intentions, my dear Edmund would be returning not to his beloved home, but to a shambles.

Coming Events Cast Their Shadows Before

Finally, one day I awoke to the realization that the making of a life was infinitely more important than the making of a living. With reluctance, Mrs. Sharp resigned from Pinkerton's and returned to her home, steadfastly determined to chart her own course but with her husband and children beside, not behind, her. I wrote to Edmund and revealed all. The next afternoon, I sat down and wrote to Godey's Lady's Book detailing for other women my story, "Lessons Life Has Taught Me as a Lady Detective." I wrote from my heart. I knew that many other women must be experiencing the same tension that occurs when domestic duties collide with the need for personal accomplishment. Perhaps Mrs. Sharp could offer them a glimmer of hope. I told my readers that after making my way successfully in the world, I had learned a most valuable lesson: If you want to make the world a better place, you must start with your own home. The "modern" woman had begun to embark on a journey into the realms of the intellect, business, and science (and someday even politics), Mrs. Sharp acknowledged, but she wondered, after achieving worldly success, was it possible for her to return to her home with a new realization of its value as a place for the exercise of her highest faculties? This was Mrs. Sharp's heartfelt challenge a hundred years ago.

Her Tale Has a Happy Ending

Little did I realize, as I wrote that heartfelt essay, that I had struck a chord that would resonate with American women. The editor of Godey's immediately wrote back, accepted my story for publication, and enclosed a welcome check. Godey's also commissioned from me a series of articles entitled "At Home with Mrs. Sharp." My mission was to offer monthly advice on how to make "homemaking a high calling." Soon other periodicals began to solicit my work, and so began my career as a literary domestic.

It goes without saying, as I write this, that my story has a happy ending. Edmund eventually recovered and, returning home, began working again at the practice of law. Our married life blossomed in true felicity, including the dividend of ten more wonderful children, each a blessing. We remained at The Vicarage living a quiet, contented life. In a hundred years the only cloud to hover over our happy union was whether Mrs. Sharp should use her abilities as a lady detective to alleviate the suffering of those in need. But that, dear Reader, is, as they say, a story for another day.


May Mrs. Sharp share with you some of the principles of her old-fashioned petticoat philosophy of parenting, which for many years have guided and been a source of comfort to her?

First of all, obligations already existing in your family life can become perfect opportunities for family tradition making and togetherness.

Special family times must be scheduled into modern lives; they do not occur spontaneously. Strong, emotionally healthy, and loving families spend time together -- working and playing.

Third, never forget the three P's of perfect family life: setting priorities, planning, and prayer. These three elements are essential for parental peace of mind.

Fourth, by incorporating routine, rhythm, and ritual into your life, many happy moments and memories will flower.

Copyright © 1990 by Sarah Ban Breathnach
Copyright © 2001 by Simple Abundance®, Inc.
Mrs. Sharp's Traditions® is a registered trademark of Simple Abundance®, Inc.
Originally published as Mrs. Sharp's Traditions: Nostalgic Suggestions for Re-creating the Family Celebrations and Seasonal Pastimes of the Victorian Home. Copyright © 1990.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 12, 2003

    Stuff for Stay Home Moms

    Three years ago I decided to become a stayhome mother and was looking for assistance in my endeavor.I first read this book from the library, then I decided that I needed to buy it. Since then I have read it twice from cover to cover and am reading it a third time. I like this book for many reasons. My 11 year old loves the historical aspects and illustrations in this book. I like the ideas that I get from this book for my own family and the memories that it prompts from my own childhood. It has great holiday ideas as well as nice poetry pieces. I have enjoyed this book very much and continue to do so.

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