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Parson Blake And The Farmer’s Wife
June 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 4
While the Reverend John Blake was busily at work on his opus, three million American girls were growing into womanhood in farm homes. In a majority of cases they would become farmers’ wives. What kind of training should they have to prepare them for their calling?
Ideally, it should be a judicious mixture of learning and labor. These lucky girls had educational ad- vantages unknown to their mothers, who had grown up before the time when the country was “thickly dotted over with schools,” as it was in 1850. They should grasp every opportunity to secure as much learning as possible—and for two reasons. It would prepare them for their future duties to their children and, in the meantime, it would enable them to become “lights and counselors” to their parents, whose educational limitations were often a severe handicap and embarrassment.
But the daughters of farmers should not be allowed to spend all their time just mooning over their books. Definitely not. They must learn to be useful in other ways. In no case should the work required of them be such as would endanger their femininity. A lady is a lady, even on the farm! But there are plenty of opportunities for contributing to the family welfare which present no problems of this kind.
It is taken for granted that daughters will help their mothers with household chores, but there is also a service they can do for their fathers. Every farmer has need for a certain amount of letter writing and book-keeping in connection with his business. Mr. Blake’s description of the reluctance of men to spend their evenings in pencil pushing, and of the excuses they can conjure up for putting off desk work, is a pithy little masterpiece which many a modern woman could read with understanding. What could be more suitable than that the daughter should assume the duties of secretary and bookkeeper? And who knows … these skills might be a considerable asset in later matrimonial competition.
Daughters can also make themselves useful by planning for family fun, which in those days was strictly homemade. Without radio and TV, and with fewer forms of public entertainment available, the girls could provide recreation and intellectual stimulation derived from books or, as the author hopefully suggests, “from the scintillations of their own united genius.” When the men come in from the fields and have eaten supper, there is to be no flopping down without a change of clothing to spend the evening in
glum silence broken only by snores. This is the fellowship of the barnyard, not of human beings. Let the daughters of the family read aloud, “let them sing; let them converse.”
Mr. Blake knows young people well enough to realize that these evenings at home may provide something less than hilarious entertainment for the sons and daughters of the family. Hence he feels called upon to discuss the whole subject of amusements for young and old, within the home and outside of it. Here he shows himself to be a man of convictions that do not always coincide with those current at the time in the circles in which he moved. Amusements, he believes, are essential to a balanced life; some are beneficial, others detrimental. But the broad-minded Mr. Blake states that he is not in sympathy with those who make dogmatic assertions and blanket condemnations of this or that activity. He is, however, unequivocally against indulgence in liquor and gambling, and lukewarm toward the theatre, prone as it is to spectacles of a debasing nature. Certain other pleasures which he does not name but which involve loss of needed sleep and exposure to the cold night air, though in themselves innocent, should be indulged in with restraint. Buggy riding on moonlit nights, no doubt.
With these warnings, this forthright gentleman turns his attention to dancing, a fighting word to many of his contemporaries. The young people must have noted with delight that he quoted Solomon’s mention of “a time to dance.” This time, according to Mr. Blake, started in the early years of every child’s education. It is not clear whether he refers to ballroom as well as square dancing, but certain it is that he recommends some sort of dancing as a part of the curriculum of the country school. It provides healthful exercise and teaches grace of motion and good manners. The horse with the awkward gait and the ill-tempered cow who kicks the milker are not tolerated in the barnyard; should not the children of the farmer be taught the social graces expected of dumb animals?
What moves Mr. Blake to dwell so long and earnestly on the farmer’s wife? Obviously he appreciates a smoothly running household where meals are on time, buttons always in place, and children clean and well-behaved. He is not insensible to the personal charms of a lady. But it is not merely gratitude for service rendered, nor is it pure chivalry which inspires his flowery and sometimes sentimental prose. It is a deep conviction that the role of the farmer’s wife is one of unsuspected importance for which she needs to be better prepared.
Out of the pages of The Farmer’s Everyday Book there emerges the picture of a woman obscure but powerful. She will leave her mark on her child, her community, her country. Whether it will be for good or ill will depend on the measure of her understanding, her training, and her devotion to what she conceives to be her duty.