When Housekeeping Became A Science

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By the 1850’s, the factory was beginning to supply the kitchen with many labor-saving devices from apple peelers to zinc-lined boilers. But it was simultaneously setting in motion another and much more profound revolution: the industrialized production of food itself. This process can be traced with fascinating clarity in Chicago. McCormick established his Chicago reaper plant in 1847. In 1849, he turned out 1,500 machines; in that year, too, the first railroad entered the town. A decade later, a dense network of railroads linked Chicago with the prairies; and McCormick production was up to 5,000. Mass-produced grain made possible mass-produced livestock; and that, in turn, led to meatpacking centers and the accelerated development of refrigeration and canning techniques. By 1870, meat canning had become a mass industry. In 1868, railroads and refrigeration were bringing the first out-of-season vegetables from the Gulf Coast to Chicago groceries. In 1869, they brought in the first carload of bananas and, in 1870, the first carload of vegetables, grapes, and salmon from California.

In 1869, the year that Catharine collaborated with her sister Mrs. Stowe to produce The American Woman’s Home, all these exotic foods would have almost certainly been beyond the budget of her audience, and decades would elapse before they became familiar items on the farm table. But the new book welcomes the process which was to shift the center of gravity from the home kitchen to the factory kitchen. Her families are now suburban consumers, and the men commute to work. “Railroads, enabling men toiling in cities to rear families in the country, are on this account a special blessing.” Elsewhere in this suburban Utopia she tells us that “every child should cultivate flowers and fruits to sell and give away, and thus be taught to learn the value of money and the practice of both economy and benevolence.” There is no waste motion in Miss Beecher’s world, no conflict between the practical deed and the morally elevated one.

In the new book there are no longer undefined spaces; from top to bottom, every cubic foot has been carefully organized for a specific purpose. In the kitchen we find cabinet work of surprising modernity, with shelving, cupboards, drawers, and counter-tops which fully anticipate contemporary practice. In the downstairs family room there is a full-fledged storage wall, on rollers. Together with a couch bed of Miss Beecher’s own design, this makes possible the rapid conversion of the room into a bedroom.

Her services are now complex and highly developed. Her design links a basement furnace, Franklin stove, and kitchen range into a central heating and ventilating system of considerable sophistication. She has eliminated all fireplaces as dirty and inefficient, and the cause of much work. Her house is now served with an essentially modern plumbing system: a laundry in the basement, fully equipped with tubs, sink, and heater; a sink in the kitchen; a complete bathroom on the bedroom floor, and an extra W.C. in the basement.

Her house is now fully lit by gas. It is cheaper and cleaner than the kerosene lamps, though these relatively new inventions give an excellent light, she tells us, and are of course portable. All reference to candlemaking has been edited out of this edition, as has any but the most casual to soapmaking. Her well-equipped kitchen does not yet have a refrigerator, which seems a little odd, though she does provide an “ice closet” in the basement. Judging by her section on cooking, however, it sounds as though her housewives buy their fresh meats from the butcher only as they need them. In the basement there are neat cupboards for storing canned goods, whether homemade or store-bought, and probably root vegetables.

In this long and encyclopedic book she has covered every aspect of woman’s profession—the management of a middle class American family. The family is essentially modern, and so is the house she evolves to shelter it. In fact, she has here set down the specifications for that free-standing, middle-class suburban house which was not to be perfected until many years later. “How would it simplify the burdens of the American housewife to have washing and ironing day expunged from her calendar!” the Beecher sisters cried in 1869. Not until the end of the century could this dream be realized. By then municipal water systems had brought potable water into the house; cistern, well, and pump had disappeared. Municipal sewers had arrived; cesspool and privy could be abandoned. Modern plumbing systems carried hot and cold water all over the house; gone was the squalid drudgery of backyard washpots, tubs, and fires. Washing machines had replaced the zinc washboard, and commercial laundries had banished washday from many homes altogether.