June 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 4
Great-grandmother was a farmer’s wife, a little woman of considerable spirit and stamina who raised eleven lively children to be a credit to CX the community of Aquebogue, on Long Island, New York. In the age of homemade soap and the scrub board, cleanliness was harder to come by than godliness, but Great-grandmother saw to it that her family measured up in both respects. When the Civil War broke out and Great-grandfather left home to help hold the Union together, it was Great-grandmother who by sheer courage, character, and hard work kept the family from falling to pieces.
Although Great-grandmother’s formal schooling was short and sketchy, it is quite likely that she made up for this deficiency by consulting her copy of The Farmer’s Everyday Book , a sturdy brown volume with well-worn covers which is now my prized possession. John Lauris Blake (1788–1857), an East Coast Episcopal clergyman, country gentleman, and part-time farmer, had compiled this book as part of a one-man crusade for better education for country people. Since five editions were published between 1850 and 1857, it seems safe to assume that it was a best seller. Its 600 pages, packed with facts and philosophy to help the farmer and his wife meet every emergency from cradle to grave, offer the modern reader a fresh and fascinating picture of the farmer’s wife of a century ago, and of the rural America in which she lived.
Browsing through Great-grandmother’s copy of The Farmer’s Everyday Book , I soon discover that its author considered the farmer’s wife a very important person. True, she had no vote; she generally lacked formal schooling; she lived in a time when men were the heads of their households and the administrators of all public affairs. Yet as mother and homemaker in a society still predominantly rural, the farmer’s wife had it in her power to determine the quality of life in her home and neighborhood, and thus held the key to the future of the young nation. What have I in common with this little farmer’s wife of more than a century ago and the hard-working countrywomen on the eastern end of Long Island who were her friends?
Scanning the fine print of Great-grandmother’s book, I find my answer. The physical care of a home and family, the bearing and training of children, the fostering of fellowship in home and community, the search for values to express and transmit—these are the concerns around which her days, like mine, revolve. Despite surface differences, there is a striking sameness in our tasks and our goals. Following the farmers’ wives of 1850 as they move busily through the pages of John Blake’s book, I find them not strangers but familiar friends.
Every farmer, says Mr. Blake in ringing tones, needs a good wife. He then proceeds to describe the life of the unmarried farmer in phrases of unmitigated gloom. Returning from a day of exhausting toil, he eats his solitary supper and sinks into a tired stupor. “Is there aught about him to make his evening fires cheerful? Does any female voice or female step hush the gnawing of the timid mouse or the notes of the unwearied cricket? Save the one and the other, no sound is heard but that of the tell-tale clock, at last reminding him that the hour for repose has arrived. … To the bewitching prattle of children at daybreak, he is a stranger … there is naught to arouse him but the early crowing of the barn-yard fowl. … Thus he lives day after day and year after year, with no one to rejoice in his prosperity or repine in his adversity.”
This grim picture of a life in which companionship would be limited to a clock and a cricket and in which “the current of his life would flow with the monotony of a prairie river” must have sent many a prospective young farmer out on the double to go calling on the most likely young ladies of his acquaintance.
But since the best is none too good for the young countryman, he is warned that he must shop around for a wife with the same caution he would use in selecting, say, a plow. She should be beautiful, but not too beautiful lest she be tempted to vanity and extravagance. She should possess native intelligence and an education which will fit her to bear and bring up children. (The idea that a farmer’s wife needs no education is labelled a “vile and ruinous heresy.”) She should have an amiable disposition and, of course, deference for the views of her husband.
Trouble with in-laws must not have been unknown in the good old days, for there is the final suggestion that it would be well to scrutinize the religion, politics, associations, and spending habits of the girl’s relatives. “If the wife have brought with her a brace of venerable maiden sisters, or an impertinent and self-conceited mother, or an antiquated grandmother,” the domestic future may be dark indeed.
When the young farmer has found the girl who meets these specifications and she has consented to share his rural paradise, what manner of life will she lead? Make no mistake about it, her duties will be many and various. The active life of the farmer requires that he have good food and lots of it. The “personal comeliness” of husband and children are the wife’s responsibility and will entail endless hours devoted to washtub and mending basket. Furthermore, she must lose no opportunity to improve the minds of those in her care.
If in addition to these labors she cares to supervise the poultry house or the piggery, well and good. However, “active labors about the cowhouse and the enclosure of the swine are not properly her responsibility,” and a husband should realize that “her time is worth more in the house than out of it.”
All this ought to keep the farmer’s wife fairly well occupied, which is as it should be. Mr. Blake has scant patience with the cult of idleness for ladies that was becoming popular at that time. He closes his chapter on the choice of a wife with nostalgic references to those bygone times when even royal ladies fashioned their clothing with their own fair hands. What, moans Mr. Blake, is this present generation coming to?
The term “gracious living” had not yet come into vogue, but our author coined a phrase, “living prettily in the country,” to express the same idea. In a chapter with that title, he points out that it is not enough that food should nourish, garments clothe, and a house protect from the elements. The farmer’s wife who aspires to “live prettily” must be on her toes to add those little extras which country people—alas!—sometimes neglect.
First of all, there is her house, which, though it be modest, must be neat and clean and must express her own taste and originality in its furnishings. For this purpose, the husband should give his wife an allowance large enough to cover more than the bare essentials. Having said this, the author hastily adds that this need not be a large sum. The farmer’s wife will frequently be satisfied with what the city housewife might spend on her parlor curtains alone. There is to be no going hog-wild on spending sprees; furniture and household equipment should be bought carefully, one piece at a time. “Thus, spending |io.oo or more yearly for furniture in a farm house, nothing being cast away or destroyed, by the middle of life, when the children are becoming grown up, there will be no lack of everything needed for convenience or ornament.” No mention is made of the wear and tear on furniture incidental to the growing-up process.
Good country food needs no fancy cookery to make it tempting, but the farmer’s wife is reminded that ”… if the table furniture is in a ruinous condition—if it has been cast upon the table in wild disorder—a relish for the repast is greatly impaired. For such negligence there is no excuse. The excuse usually given [is] that none but the members of the family are present. It is a species of domestic economy with which we have no fellowship that a family live like pigs when by themselves.”
This is plain speaking, and it applies also to dress and personal grooming. The Reverend Mr. Blake dislikes slovenly women. He is not happy about the fact that countrywomen tend to neglect their personal appearance because they live an isolated life and are seldom seen. All the more reason to make a good impression on the rare occasions when someone happens by. A wife should be so clothed that she is always “in a condition to be seen by strangers without mortification, and without an expenditure to embarrass her husband.” Mr. Blake’s eye is ever on the family finances.
The contribution of the farmer himself to pretty living is neatly disposed of in one paragraph. Among other things, he is to see that the Sunday wagon is kept clean and painted; that the door fastenings of the house are in order and the windows free of broken glass; and that there are “no loosened weatherboards to become Aeolian harps to the rats and mice while the family is asleep.” Compared to the round-the-clock requirements placed on his wife, it seems the farmer comes off rather easily.
This the good preacher is the first to admit. Having described in great detail the obligations assumed by the woman when she married her man, he is suddenly appalled at what has been asked of her and proceeds forthwith to turn his attention to “resources for preserving her spirit unbroken and buoyant.” Her husband’s labors vary with the seasons and are performed amid the beauties of the great out-of-doors; but “how in the kitchen does summer differ from winter, or spring from fall, save in atmospheric temperature; or how does the evening differ from the morning, save that one displays the boiling teakettle and the other the boiling coffee-kettle? … To woman, shut up in the kitchen, there is seemingly no summer, no spring, no autumn; naught but dreary winter.” Clearly farmers’ wives must be cheered by some recreation.
For physical and mental relaxation, Mr. Blake recommends the quilting party and the afternoon tea party as just the thing. Here the weary ladies get a new lease on life. “The current news of the day, true and false, probable and improbable, is analyzed and collated as if prepared for a revised edition of the press. … Here, too, fashions and morals are duly expounded. … Nor are the probabilities or improbabilities of future matrimonial alliances overlooked.” It must be confessed that on these occasions that admirable spirit of neighborliness common in the country sometimes degenerates into nosiness and gossip. Slander, like the dropped pebble which sets the whole surface of the quiet pool in motion, is sometimes “propagated through the whole community on the concentric waves of the social breath.” Nevertheless, these gatherings serve a great social purpose. They send the ladies happily back home with something new to think about.
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.
By my fireside rests the brass kettle from Great-grandmother’s home—a repository for the daily papers of 1965, full of the sound and fury of a world that Great-grandmother never dreamed of. How far apart the years have taken us. Yet there we are, she in her century and I in mine, sharing those “holy labors” by which life is carried on into the future, and trying along the way to live as “prettily” as we can.