Women's Chores in Maggie's Era, Part 1
Sorry I missed blogging on Monday. It was a complicated day with a lot of running around. I also have been fighting off a virus - which had its way with me today (it's Tuesday as I write this). I spent the morning lying on the couch and watching episodes of "Alaskan Bush People," mainly because it was too much work to change the channel. Also it's kind of interesting watching people "rough it" and live like our ancestors - even if they are on TV and followed around by cameras and a producer - and probably are earning a whole lot more than I do, and more than Maggie could ever imagine.
With that in mind, here is part 1 a repost of a 19 January 2018 blog about housekeeping in the Maggie series. I'll post part 2 on Friday, to ensure that I have time to get over this bug.
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 her husband 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 aid with laundry and cleaning. Not only is her problem solved, but she also finds a life-long friend in Emily.
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 does provide her with services that 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. Maggie also keeps a garden, chickens for fresh eggs and meat, and a cow for fresh milk.
Cooking involved 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. My sister owns a cookbook in which my great-grandmother wrote her recipes. Oven temperatures were “low,” “moderate,” or “high.” A cook determined whether a dish was done by sense of smell, sight, or touch.
We'll save cleaning and laundry for Friday.
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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder