When Housekeeping Became A Science

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No other country but ours ever painted so many Utopias—so comprehensive in scope yet so domestic in scale, so tidily balancing plumbing and poetry, or life on earth with life hereafter. The prophets were often male —George Rapp, Robert Dale Owen, George Ripley, Edward Bellamy—but their programs were almost as domestic as Catharine Beecher’s:

Let us suppose a colony of cultivated and Christian people, having abundant wealth … emigrating to some of the beautiful Southern uplands … where the fertile soil is easily worked, where rich tropical fruits and flowers abound, where cotton and silk can be raised by children around their home, where the produce of vineyards and orchards find steady markets by railroads ready made; suppose such a colony, with a central church and schoolroom, library, hall for sports, and a common laundry, (taking the most trying part of domestic labor from each house)—suppose each family to train the children to labor with the hands as a healthful and honorable duty; … suppose all this, which is perfectly practicable, would not the enjoyment of this life be increased and also abundant treasures be laid up in heaven … ?

The time is 1869, the place is West 38th Street in Manhattan, the writer is a peripatetic New England schoolmarm; but the concept is quintessentially American. The juxtaposition of tropic fruits and railroads to market, of central churches and central laundries, of silk and cotton growing in the dooryard but with docile children instead of unwilling slaves to pick it— where else but in nineteenth-century America could such a combination be found? It is a doll-house Utopia, at once sagacious and saccharine, poignant, progressive, and petit bourgeois. No one but an American woman could have invented it—and just such women, with just such a perspective, were to give to modern American homes their characteristic appearance.

It was inevitable that all of these Utopias should be of either New England or midwestern origin, for literacy was their precondition. Whatever her other problems, the mistress of a Louisiana plantation had no real cause for complaint as far as household drudgery was concerned. The black slave woman or white sharecropper’s wife, on whom such burdens fell, was illiterate. She could not have read Utopian tracts even had they been able to penetrate the sealed and airless prison house of the South, which was in the highest degree unlikely, as southern legislators themselves were fond of boasting. But northern reformers saw the connection between abolitionism and women’s rights. Harriet Beecher Stowe had immortalized the double enslavement of pigmentation and sex in her grim and two-dimensional Uncle Tom’s Cabin; and sister Catharine understood it, too.

The conditions of life for most American women had been extremely difficult, even in the North, and feminine resentment against them rose steadily throughout the nineteenth century. Susan Anthony remembered that her mother, married in 1817 to a New England mill owner, had boarded eleven of her husband’s mill girls the summer that her third child was born. She had done all the cooking, washing, and ironing, with only the part-time assistance of a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl. And another summer, when Susan was twelve, her mother had furnished bed and board to ten or twelve brick burners (making brick for the family’s new house) in addition to her regular roster of mill girls. This was a normal course of life for middleclass wives in prosperous New England; frontier wives fared much worse.

Already the literature of self-help was beginning to appear. Mrs. Lydia Maria Child’s book on housekeeping had been published in 1829. Even the title is revealing: The American Frugal Housewife, and the modifying dedication: “For Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy.” The Frugal Housewife is a cookbook combined with a text on housekeeping and domestic pharmacopoeia, and it has that air of crisp infallibility which has marked this sort of literature ever since. Nothing dismays Lydia Maria: how to keep the pump from freezing (wrap it in a horse-blanket); how to clean kid gloves (wash them in cream of tartar); how to cure “inveterate” cancer (dress it in potash and tar). Her section on cooking is, like the rest of the book, a very bible of improvisation and make-do. Use the cheapest cut of meat: calf’s liver at two cents a pound. Save suet for soap or candles. Avoid green fruit pies (“dear pies,” she calls them) because they take so much expensive Havana (sic!) sugar.

Lydia Maria Child’s was a way of life whose satisfactions came from virtuous abnegation. The families for whom she wrote had big broods, and she was aware that children could be a dreadful liability unless, by putting them to work, they were converted into an asset. When other household chores were exhausted, children could be kept out of mischief by being put to making patchwork quilts or knitting socks or— where the family kept geese or turkeys—making feather fans. It was a great deal better, she felt sure, “for boys and girls to be picking blackberries at six cents a quart, than to be wearing out their clothes in useless play.” Always she writes with that heartbreaking mixture of snobbish gentility and pathetically transparent bravado which is the hallmark of the nineteenth-century “lady” with her living to make.