Conversations in Management: Mary Randolph

“Method is the soul of management.”  

                Mary Randolph.

Mary_RandolphLooking for a good book on management? You’d better look for one on time management first because it will take you a while to sort through the 102,000 titles listed on Amazon. Google, “management” and you’re in even more trouble because you’ll come up with nearly 3 trillion hits! This advice runs the gamut from the bare knuckle analytical like Six Sigma, to the altogether goofy—zombie management. But if you want to save yourself a lot of time and effort, look no further than America’s first management book. Its advice is as pertinent today as it was then with the added bonus of giving you menu ideas for tonight’s dinner. The work in question is Mary Randolph’s, The Virginia Housewife or Methodical Cook. That’s right; our first management guide was a cookbook.

Randolph (a cousin of Thomas Jefferson) was one of the elite hostesses of her day and for more than 40 years America’s aristocracy wined and dined at her table. Published in 1824, The Virginia Housewife reflected her guest’s astonishing range of tastes. Included among the 169 recipes are ones for curry, gumbo, gazpacho, fondue and two variations of mac and cheese. Oysters, however, were the runaway favorite of our forefathers. In addition to the expected fried oysters, Randolph included preparations for oyster soup, pie, loaf, sauce, catsup, and oyster ice cream (a favorite of Dolly Madison). If that last one doesn’t sound appealing, you’ll probably want to avoid the iced jelly as well. While sounding more promising, it was actually made from her calf’s foot jelly recipe. Yum.

Randolph’s management insights resulted from long experience managing her household. Despite the popular image, married women of the age bore more resemblance to a modern CEO than to Scarlett O’Hara. They were responsible for all household management which included the budget, provisioning, supervising servants, as well as raising and educating the children.  She noted, “The government of the family bears a Lilliputian resemblance to the government of a nation.” She elaborated: “The grand arcanum of management lies in three simple rules:–‘Let everything be done at a proper time, let everything be kept in its proper place and put everything to its proper use.’” Not bad advice: give folks enough time to do the job right, don’t rob the maintenance and human resources budgets for “other” things and  give people the proper tools to do their jobs. Randolph was also into participatory management. She advised housewives to clean up the family’s breakfast dishes and set the dinner table while the servants ate their breakfast. She cautioned her readers to pay attention and to , “detect errors in their infant state when they can be corrected with ease.”  She believed in regular staff training to be sure everyone knew their jobs. Importantly, she believed in establishing standard practices that would be continually, “modified until matured.” “Order and regularity,” she assured readers, would produce, “prosperity and happiness.”  It all sounds pretty good—even to our modern ear.

Given that The Virginia Housewife was a cookbook, Mrs. Randolph confined her management tips to the preface and introduction.  It was there she noted, “Management is an art that may be acquired by every woman of good sense and tolerable memory.” And at only three and a half pages in length, I’m sure men can master it too.  —Ebert

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