I hate keeping house. I fully acknowledge my sloth. I mean, to waste a whole hour vacuuming and dusting? To take a few minutes to stack the dishwasher, put the detergent in, push a button, and then take the clean dishes out again? To move my laundry from my bedroom to the washing machine, then to the dryer, and then take it upstairs and put it away? Yuck! Such household drudgery…I hate it.
But I get a reality check every time I work on a Saint Maggie story.
In the 1860s, household conveniences that I take for granted were unheard of. Everything had to be done by manual labor and took hours to complete. Additionally, any activity relating to housekeeping was labeled “women’s work.” While Eli has some modern attitudes about women’s abilities to work outside the home, he does little in the way of helping Maggie with the housework. He doesn’t mind her doing “men’s work” but for the most part he is not about to partake in “women’s work.”
Maggie works all the time. As an old-school Methodist, she believes “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” (King James Bible, Proverbs 16:27b). But above and beyond her personal beliefs regarding the positive values of hard work, she also is faced with the unending drudgery of housekeeping.
Running a nineteenth-century boarding house was not unlike running a family household. Each setting had the same tasks: laundry, cooking, and cleaning. How quickly and efficiently one got the work done depended upon how much help one had. Daughters could be recruited into the effort. And, with a little money, other help could be procured.
In the short story, “The Dundee Cake,” set in 1852, widow Maggie Blaine struggles to keep her boarding house running. Her only help at this point are her daughters: ten-year-old Lydia and six-year-old Frankie who certainly are old enough to lend a hand with some of the tasks, but Maggie also wants them to go to school, which puts her in a bind. Finally, she hires Emily Johnson to do the cooking and to aid with laundry and cleaning. Not only is her problem solved, but she also finds a life-long friend in Emily.
But what was so hard about housekeeping in the nineteenth century? Let’s look at the three main household tasks: cooking, cleaning, and laundry.
Housekeepers had to provide three meals a day. They used either raw ingredients, canned ingredients (canned at home, of course), and meats or fish preserved by salting. Maggie’s town provides her with services she would not have had a generation or two earlier: a green grocer, a butcher, and a fishmonger. She can purchase basic supplies, like flour, salt, and sugar at a general store.Yet Maggie also keeps a garden for vegetables, chickens for eggs and meat, and a cow for fresh milk.
Cooking meant a great deal of chopping, slicing, husking, mixing, boiling, baking, and stewing. Measuring was done by teacup, handful, and/or spoon, since standard measuring cups and spoons are yet to come. And everything took time. There were no microwaves or convection ovens.
As for ovens, these were heated by wood or by coal. They had no dials to set temperature and no lights to indicate when the oven was ready. How did a homemaker tell when the right temperature had been reached? By sticking a hand into the oven. Of course. There were no timers, either. The cook determined whether a dish was done by sense of smell, sight, or touch.
After a meal, there were pile of dishes and pots to wash up. This excerpt from “The Enlistment” explains the process.
…Maggie, Matilda, Frankie’s older sister Lydia, and cook Emily Johnson collected plates and serving dishes. Then they put leftover food into the larder for the next day, scraped grease into the grease pot, and dumped the remaining scraps into a slop pail for the pig. Frankie and Chloe meanwhile filled two big tubs with hot water from the wash boiler on the stove. Together they lugged each one to the table. While Frankie added soap to one of the tubs, Chloe went to the sink and got a swab for the fine china and two washcloths for greasy dishes, pots, and pans.... Once the dishes had been organized on the table, everyone went to work. They washed the tumblers and tea cups first, followed by the chinaware. Clean items were dipped in the rinse tub and set to drain on a rack. Next, they tackled the silverware, then the greasy dishes, and finally the pots and pans.
Cleaning house presented the homemaker with even more hard work.
For instance, rugs could be cleaned by sweeping them with a carpet broom. To get the dust out, though, they needed to be rolled up, lugged out to a sturdy rope line strung between two posts, and beaten with a carpet beater – a device that looks a little like a tennis racket with extra big holes. That really made the dust fly!
Hardwood floors got swept with a broom. Next a homemaker pumped cold water into a bucket, added hot water from the tea kettle on the stove, supplemented it with soap, and scrubbed the floors with a brush. Alternately, floors could be wiped down with a rag.
Feather dusters naturally did the dusting, although one also could wipe down furniture and other surfaces with water and rub in beeswax to polish and protect them.
As for bed chambers, a landlady like Maggie would shake out and air the bedding, shake the curtains to free them of dust, and open windows to freshen the room. She also would dispose of water in the washbasins and fill them with fresh. And – urghh – she would empty and clean chamber pots into which her boarders did their nightly “business” (no toilets).
Maggie dreads laundry day. When her family is relocated after a fire takes the boarding house in Walk by Faith, she observes how she and the other women feel living at her brother Samuel’s house where maids do the laundry: “We have no scrubbing, no steaming tubs of water, no bluing, no rinsing, no hanging wet things on a line or draping them before the fire. Our hands are no longer red and chapped, nor do our backs hurt. We never knew we could feel so good.”
Just preparing the laundry for washing was a big deal, as in the excerpt from Saint Maggie:
While Lydia, Emily, and Carrie gathered and changed the sheets on the beds, Maggie checked the heavily soiled items that required soaking and then saw to the water heating in two huge pots on the stove. By the time the three other women returned, the water was getting hot.... Spots were addressed first by the application of soap and vigorous scrubbing on washboards in cool water. Then Lydia and Carrie wrestled one pot of hot water to the laundry tub and dumped it in, careful not to scald themselves with either water or steam. Finally, Emily soaped the hot water and they all began the general wash.
The general wash involved, stirring the laundry in soapy water, then rinsing, wringing, and hanging on a line. And let’s not even talk about ironing.
Are you nostalgic yet?
Personally, I would not give up twentieth-first century conveniences to go back to Maggie’s “simpler” time. The back-breaking drudgery women of her era experienced is daunting.
I think I’ll stay in my own time. Unless, of course, Doctor Who shows up in his TARDIS. Then I just might reconsider. Mainly because we could leave when laundry day arrived.
Interested in the story behind SAINT MAGGIE? Check out the graduate school research paper I wrote on Jacob S. Harden. The story stuck with me and eventually I decided to fictionalize it.
While the paper tells the sad story of Rev. Harden and his wife, Louisa Dorland, it primarily looks at the way Harden's trial and execution were covered by various newspapers - from local to regional.
I'm not sure how riveting a research paper is, but it certainly shows one way this historical fiction author was inspired.
Scandal of scandals! Maggie Blaine runs a boarding house located on the Blaineton, New Jersey town square. The opening of Saint Maggie finds our heroine hoping that a new addition to her household will change some attitudes.
"I was so delighted when the Presiding Elder came to me and asked if my boarding house could find a room for the new minister. At last, I thought, perhaps the people of Blaineton will afford me and my establishment some respect."
But why on earth would the town look down its nose at Maggie to begin with? After all, she is a church-going woman with a big heart. Sadly, those facts do not negate the poor reputation boarding houses had in nineteenth-century America. The reason for this is manifold.
For one, cities were becoming places of opportunity for both immigrants and for Americans from rural areas and small towns. Boarding houses proliferated because they offered the newly-arrived with affordable housing. Perhaps boarding houses began to be closely associated with the rough and tumble of urban life.
And then there’s this: scholars have noted that these accommodations confused nineteenth-century concepts of “home.” Ideally “home” was supposed to be a woman’s sphere, a calm, spiritual haven from the hustle, evil, and temptation of the male working-for-pay world. So, if room and board were given in exchange for money, the arrangement was automatically suspect. Any woman who defied the ethereal ideals of womanhood to run a business in her home may have called up images of a madam and her bawdy house. Similarly, unrelated people living under one roof certainly were not kin, and who knew what went on among strangers in a boarding house?
The viewpoint above, as it is with most things, was not universal. Attitudes about boarding houses could be mixed. In Louisa May Alcott’s novel, Little Women, Jo March leaves her small town to live in New York City with her mother’s friend, Mrs. Kirke, who runs a large boarding house. In suggesting the idea to her mother, Jo seeks to ease Marmee’s mind by telling her that Mrs. Kirke’s family has their own quarters that are “separate from the rest” of the residents (Alcott, Kindle ebook file, 2017, Ch. 32, location 4523, par. 5), meaning she would not be exposed to the wrong elements. When Jo arrives in New York, she is welcomed by Mrs. Kirke in a way that is “so kindly I felt at home at once, even in that big house full of strangers” (Ch. 33, location 4564, par. 5). To a young woman from a small town, interacting with strangers must have been an intimidating prospect. To have a friendly face, particularly in the form of the landlady, helped make an awkward situation less so. Better yet, Mrs. Kirke informs Jo that there “are some pleasant people in the house if you feel sociable” (par. 7). So far, the boarding house stereotype is not holding up.
But when Jo finally takes a meal at the “big” table, she is less than impressed with the other inhabitants: “There was the usual assortment of young men absorbed in themselves, young couples absorbed in each other, married ladies in their babies, and old gentlemen in politics” (location 4606, par. 3). It seems she is saying that the tenants were interested in nothing but those people and things in their immediate circle. So, while Mrs. Kirke’s boarding house is by no means a den of iniquity, Jo does experience it as a place lacking the warmth and close relationships of a home. She only finds friendship with a few select people, one of whom is Professor Bhaer, the man she eventually marries.
In Saint Maggie, Maggie and her husband John take refuge with his aunt Letty Blaine after they are disowned for eloping by their business-rival families. After John dies, Letty gives permission for Maggie to take in boarders to help ends meet and later wills the house to her. Maggie continues to run the establishment after Letty dies. Rather than being sympathetic to the young widow’s plight, however, the town looks askance her activity. Maggie is scandalous because she eloped, because she has been disowned by her family, and because she operates a boarding house on the town square and thereby defiles the respectability of the town center.
But Maggie doggedly works challenges the nineteenth-century boarding house stereotype. She treats those renting her rooms as family. In fact, she goes so far as to see old Jim O’Reilly, an indigent Irish immigrant, as a grandfather figure. The younger men she perceives as nephews or brothers, and she treats mid-life Chester Carson as a close friend or uncle. Maggie then hires a black woman, Emily Johnson, to help her with the cooking, which would have been acceptable to the town gate-keepers had Maggie not taken Emily and husband Nate in after their home is burned to the ground. She invites the couple to live, free of charge, upstairs in the “new wing” of the house. It galls the town opinion-makers that Maggie treats Emily is more like a sister than an employee. Her determination to create a welcoming home is illustrated in the way she rebukes daughter Frankie for grumbling about the way their home is perceived.
…Frankie continued to pout. “I don’t know why he [the new minister] has to stay here. No one seems to like our place, anyway.”
Maggie had to remind herself that her daughter was not yet an adult. She took a deep breath and prayed for patience. “What others think of us also is of no real importance.” How she wished that were true! “We live as we do because it is right. Our boarders have nowhere else to go and have become our friends. I believe everyone is deserving of respect. As for Mr. Madison, the other rooming houses are full, so he too has nowhere else to go. I for one am pleased that our Presiding Elder has confidence that we will provide Mr. Madison with a pleasant and comfortable chamber.”
Throughout the first novel Maggie defies the stereotype laid on her by the town. She is a business woman whose heart is so big that she would find it impossible to evict a tenant who fell behind in the rent. She keeps the building and its furnishings spotless, serves the best meals she can afford, and treats the boarders and others under her roof as family. Her boarding house therefore is a home. But because it exists in a liminal space (a place of transition), it is suspect to those who do not or will not see what her love is creating.
Next week we’ll look at what it took to keep a boarding house in 1860 America running smoothly. Time for chapped hands and a sore back!
Image: CC0 Public Domain
Long before the first shot is fired, people are aware that war is on the way. They may try to live their lives as usual, but there’s always something hovering over them that threatens to throw their world into chaos.
My characters in Saint Maggie live in New Jersey during the years1860-61, a time during which the prospect of a war between the states is ever present. In this scene, Maggie and the other women in her boarding house are in the parlor during Election Night of 1860. Maggie, Emily, and Leah are all pregnant. The men return to the parlor, having been outside among the rowdy, mostly male crowds.
The election campaigning had been vicious, replete with deplorable mud-slinging, but Nate was right. It was an important election. It grieved [Maggie] that Nate, because of his color, could not vote. She did not understand why New Jersey maintained such a law, nor did she understand why so many people in her town looked askance at Nate, Emily, and the handful of families on Water Street. They are people, she thought, just people. Why do others persist in seeing them as inferior?
Her musings made her angry and she began to mend with a vigor that bordered on the vengeful.
“Personally, I don’t care who wins,” Leah was grousing. “I’m tired. I think I’ll go to my room.”
“Good night, my dear,” Jeremiah said as she passed him.
“Good night,” she replied without any warmth whatsoever.
Carrie’s enthusiasm was undeterred. “Well, I think this is all very exciting!”
“In more ways than one,” Jeremiah told her. Suddenly he became quite somber. “Sadly, the outcome will most likely lead to disunion.”
“Perhaps you’re mistaken. Perhaps those elected will exercise good sense.”
“You’re a dear girl, Carrie. And you have great faith in mankind, but mankind possesses a sinful nature. I’m afraid common sense will not prevail in this case. Whatever the voters decide will cause rancor on one side or the other. The sad truth of it is everyone is anxious for a fight.”
Eli agreed. “Things are too far gone. Too much hatred and misunderstanding have piled up for too long.”
Mr. Carson lit his pipe. “Too true. The South hates us, and we do not exactly like them, either.”
“So the South will secede from the Union,” Patrick deduced. “Bet it’ll happen within the week.”
The older man smiled fondly at the boy. “No, no, my dear lad, it’ll take a bit longer than that, I should think.”
“But they’ll still secede. And then we’ll have war.”
“Oh, yes. War. No doubt about that.” He picked up one of the New York newspapers, sat down, and opened it. The pages crackled loudly. “No doubt at all.”
Eli noticed that Maggie was overly-focusing on her mending. He put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “Hey, baby clothes!” he declared and, picking one of the items up, he whistled. “Will you look at the size of this? I’ve got some news for you, Maggie. No baby of mine will ever be able to fit into such a teeny thing.”
“Elijah Smith, I guarantee you that when our little one arrives it will be baby-size.”
At that moment, a loud crack echoed outside. It was followed by a long volley of rifle fire. Maggie flinched.
Eli squatted beside her. “It’s all right, sweetheart. It’s just some of the neighbors.” With a wink, he added, “Neighbors full of whiskey and armed with loaded weapons.”
“Somehow, my love, drunken men with guns is not a comforting idea.”
The men all guffawed.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Nate joked. “They’re just getting a little practice in.”
“They’re going to need it,” Edgar declared. “Pick up your rifles, men! Answer the call of your country!”
Patrick snapped to attention and saluted. “I’m ready to give my life for dear old New Jersey!”
“Fools,” Emily grunted. “You’re a bunch of doggone fools.”
Eli sighed, “Guess this just is a time for fools. The Union’s going to hell in a hand bucket.”
“Eli!” Maggie hissed.
He was instantly contrite. “Sorry.”
Nate elbowed Mr. Carson. “Looks to me like someone’s already henpecked.”
The men guffawed once again and Mr. Carson replied, “Not to worry. A turn in the army will take care of that. It will make him a man again.”
“All right!” Emily threw down her knitting and stood up. “You can just stop this nonsense right now. Your jokes aren’t funny and neither is all this talk of war. If there’s fighting, some of you will join our state’s militia and just might not come back. I don’t want to hear any more of this foolishness!”
Nate’s expression softened. “Em, honey, I wish I could make it go away. Just like I wish I could make slavery go away. But I can’t.”
She placed her hands protectively over her stomach. “Well, then, God help us. The world’s gone mad.”
The main plot of Saint Maggie is not about the ever-growing possibility of a civil war, but there is no way my characters are able to avoid the elephant sitting the corner. This is particularly true since Eli is a newspaperman, owning and printing the Gazette, a penny-weekly paper. It is also unavoidable because Nate and Emily (who are black) and Maggie and Eli (who are white) share the position of station master on an Underground Railroad stop. Finally, they live in a small town in New Jersey that has a telegraph and a railroad depot. They do not live in an isolated location. And so, like most nineteenth century Americans, Maggie’s family are voracious consumers of newspapers and periodicals, the main forms of media.
To incorporate the coming of the American Civil War into my story, I employed several techniques. First, having Maggie write a journal and Eli publish a newspaper allowed me to offer up their take on the news of the day. I also included brief historical information, usually at the start of a new chapter or a scene. Finally, I made use of conversation among the characters.
]In the scene above, I offer the information that the presidential campaign had been nasty. Then the characters take over. Their conversation reveals a shared opinion that there is little hope for a peaceful resolution between North and South. The members of Maggie’s household are abolitionist, yet each character reacts differently to the possibility of war. Jeremiah (a Methodist minister) and Eli (who was raised Quaker) are saddened by it. Maggie and Emily exhibit their fear for the babies they carry, for their husbands, and for what war might mean to their town. Mr. Carson is rather matter-of-fact. However, Patrick and Edgar, the younger men, seem eager to fight. Emily ends the discussion by reminding the men of the impact a war may have on them. After that, her husband, Nate, reminds her that there is not anything they can do to stop the approaching conflict.
I like weaving the greater historical events into my historical fiction. Even if the main plot focuses on a local incident, bringing in the larger story enlarges the texture and context of the novel.