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.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder