When Housekeeping Became A Science

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Thus, when she came to paint her own Utopia, Catharine Beecher had an established tradition on which to draw. A remarkable woman—daughter of the noted preacher Lyman, sister of the trenchant Mrs. Stowe and a pride of reformers and divines, including the eloquent Brooklyn pastor Henry Ward— Catharine Esther lived until May 12, 1878. But she had been born long before, in 1800, and had been mistress of her own school in Hartford at the age of twenty-three, at a time when teaching was almost literally the only occupation open to a respectable middle-class woman. She was not the first woman to teach nor the first to teach girls only; but she was the first to seize upon female education as the instrument of female liberation. The Hartford Female Seminary was but one of the three she would personally set up—the Western Female Institute in Cincinnati (1833) and the Milwaukee Female College (1853) were the others— and of the dozens upon which she would lavish funds and advice.

She looked on the formal education of women as the means of raising them to the same level of respect as professional men. She defined “the woman’s profession” as the practice of childbearing, child rearing, and housekeeping; and she would free women from thralldom to the male by training them for their household profession exactly as men had been trained for medicine or law. The curricula of her schools were masterpieces of hardheaded realism. She built up a series of courses in child care, calisthenics, cookery, and housekeeping into the discipline we call “domestic science” today. These theories got their first comprehensive exposition in her book, A Treatise on Domestic Economy, first published in 1841.

The liberation of woman depended in large measure upon industrialization, and industrialization was the basic fact of the opening of the Middle West. To settle the prairies, it would be necessary simultaneously to industrialize them; and it is anything but accidental that the economy which mechanized wheat farming and meat packing turned also to the mass production of domestic cookstove and furnace, of the washing machine and the mechanical carpet cleaner, of home canning and refrigeration. Time-saving and labor-saving devices in the fields were soon matched inside the farmhouse: what the farmer demanded, his wife soon shared. There were to be profound changes in the family structure, the position of the wife, the fabric of the house, and Catharine was there, at the height of her faculties, to observe and record them. She had moved to Cincinnati with her family in 1832, and much of her subsequent life was spent crisscrossing the Midwest.

The plans and details of the “ideal” houses which Catharine Beecher published in her 1841 book, and again in a greatly expanded 1869 version, mirror very clearly the impact of industrialism on American houses. It radically altered the conditions of life and work— and hence the exterior social and economic landscape —in which the house existed. At the same time, it remorselessly altered the internal structure of the house itself, whether by adding or removing housekeeping functions or by altering the very materials out of which it was built and furnished.

At first, in her 1841 Utopia, the designs she gives us are surprisingly orthodox. In plan and elevation, her houses follow very closely the Greek revival idiom so popular in the Western Reserve in the early forties. Her standards of heating and plumbing are modest. Every room has a wood-burning fireplace, though she does rather wistfully suggest that parlor and dining room could be thrown together with folding doors and heated by a large coal-burning stove. There is no suggestion of a bathroom or of an interior toilet, though she does complain that outdoor privies are hard on the sick who “are obliged to go out of doors in all weathers....” Her theories of illumination are conservative. Though many big cities were already lit by gas, she nowhere mentions this possibility but instead gives detailed instructions for candlemaking.

In 1841 the overwhelming majority of American families were still farm families, and the farm family of that day was an economic unit in the real sense of the word—self-sufficient to an extent hard to reconstruct today. The kitchen was itself a factory, family-run. Big as it was, it was merely the center of a whole industrial complex: icehouse, springhouse, well house, milkhouse, smokehouse, root cellar, washhouse, and woodpile. Farther out lay vegetable garden, orchard, cow barn, pigpen, chicken run, corncrib, and hay barn. It was not, by modern standards, a very efficient industry. Without refrigeration, meat could be preserved only by smoking or salting and milk only in the form of butter or cheese. Home canning was not possible until the glass Mason jar (a typically midwestern invention) appeared in 1858. There was no means of extending the life of green vegetables, though cellars kept roots like turnips and potatoes fairly well.