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When Housekeeping Became A Science

June 2024
10min read

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.

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.

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.

It was after Miss Beecher’s day that central heating by furnace and boiler became standard, that stoves and fireplaces, with their daily clutter of ashes, kindling, fuel, and paper squills, disappeared forever. She never foresaw that the backyard woodpile would give way to basement coalbin, buried gas pipe, hidden oil tank, nor imagined that electric lighting would someday eliminate the sooty lamp chimney or faulty gas mantle. The continuous refrigeration of perishables (in the home, the grocery, the dairy, or the abattoir) took better than two centuries for Americans to accomplish. A thorough-going technological revolution had to occur before milkman, butcher boy, and iceman appeared at the back door. But only then could the labor of milking and churning, butchering and lard-rendering, soap and candle making, disappear forever.

The food industry had by then also been busy removing the processing of fruits and vegetables from the kitchen. Another constellation of domestic facilities dropped out of sight: root cellar, icehouse, vegetable garden, and grape arbor. Municipal garbage collection- was instituted, and trash pile and garbage pile disappeared. Finally the trolley car and interurban, and then the automobile, replaced the horse and buggy: and gone along with Dobbin were his boxstall, hay barn, pasture, and manure pile. Catharine Beecher had by this time long since gone to her reward. She did not live to see the modern suburb, row on row of the houses that her own plans prefigured, designed to be occupied by the new women she had fought to create. They, like Catharine Beecher, believe in combining comfort, culture, and convenience; and they share with her that characteristic American daydream of a happy ending which has everybody smiling, nobody hurt, and nobody a penny out of pocket. She dreamed it first.

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