The Science of Housekeeping—How to Simplify and Lighten Household Labor
Probably any convention of American housekeepers assembled haphazard from over the land would concur in pronouncing servants to be the greatest plague of their lives. Wasteful, destructive, and inefficient, the voice of their employers is everywhere lifted against them. They come and go, one after another, until the mistress in despair, endures Bridget because she fears Chloe may be worse—or puts up with Chloe because she dares not change, lest to engage Bridget would be only to leap from the frying pan into the fire. And when a girl comes who knows how her work should be done and can do it—a cook whose dinners are irreproachable, a laundress whose ruffles and shirt bosoms bespeak her an artist, a nurse or seamstress, who needs not every day to be re-told her duties—very possibly she rules the household. Her mistress cannot do without her, and so the servant presumes on her value to exact all sorts of privileges, until she holds her employer in veritable bondage. Especially is this apt to be the case with the cook. In fact it has come to be an accepted thing that all good cooks must have bad tempers, and that skill in the culinary art is to cover a multitude of faults. Now, very much of this trouble arises from the ignorance of the housekeeper. The woman who can, if need be, do her own work, who is able to cook dinner, or at least how to instruct any bright girl how to do it, need never be the slave of an ill-tempered, unprincipled servant. Nor will she be haunted by the consciousness of leaks in the kitchen which she is unable to stop. She will know how far groceries and provisions should go; how long the supplies which she purchases could last even hearty appetites, and though she may allow a wide margin, her servants will be forced to keep within fixed limits. Undoubtedly it would be better for most American women in all respects if they kept fewer servants and did more of their own housework. When there is only one woman in the family and there are small children, this is frequently impossible, but when the daughters are of larger growth it is mistaken kindness to let them sit with folded hands while servants do all the work of the house. Human nature—the pack-horse on which are laid so many failings—is more or less lazy, and there are few people who like work for its own sake. Yet bed-making, dusting, and sweeping are excellent gymnastic exercises, and few girls would be the worse for an hour or two of them every day. In most families of moderate means it would pay to discharge the second girl and divide her weekly wages among the daughters of the house, letting them do the chamber work, while the cost of her keep would pay for the washerwoman at least one day in the week.
Unfortunately the idea is abroad in the land that housework is degrading, and that the number of servants kept in a family is a measure of gentility. Mrs. B., who keeps one girl, envies her neighbor across the way who has six servants, including coachman and waiter, while that neighbor, counting the cost of the provisions consumed down stairs, or just having received warning from the four girls who have quarreled with the coachman, thinks wearily that happiness means a small house and one servant. The thought is a passing one; she would not change if she could, but at all events for the moment she thinks so, and her life is not one of unmixed care. It is often objected to the principle which call for the instruction of our girls in domestic matters that they themselves are too busy with their books on the one hand, while on the other the multifarious duties of their mother leave her no time to instruct them. In the first place, as we have already said, chamber work will answer as calisthenics, and in the second the mother can safely turn her twelve and ten-year-old daughters into the dining room or kitchen on Saturday with cookery book and groceries and let them experiment for themselves. There are few girls who do not enjoy playing at cooking, and the gift of a miniature cooking stove for the nursery, after the children are old enough to be trusted with it, is an excellent text-book for such lessons. The little girls will need but a small amount of teaching, and what they may spoil will be paid for both in pleasure and profit. The day has gone by in which Martha Washington and Dolly Madison washed their own breakfast dishes; when this was held to be one of the first duties of housekeeping. Fragile china and dainty silver was not trusted to servants then, and it was used without misgivings. Now it is knocked about by careless Irish girls, and housekeepers mourn that it is useless to buy handsome china—it is sure to be broken. To one old custom, however, many families hold, and the care of the parlor devolves on the young ladies of the house. And the wealthier the family the more need of this; costly bric-a-brac cannot be left to the cruel tender mercies of servants.
DIVISION OF LABOR IN THE HOUSEHOLD.
The practical working of the plan we advocate is illustrated in one of the comfortable houses we know of, where only one servant is kept, and the young ladies of the house divide the work. Each one has her own duties—there is no clashing—the work is always done, never doing, and early in the forenoon, when the average young lady is dawdling over a late breakfast they are free for social or other duties and amusement. On Mondays one of them relieves the girl in the kitchen, and the wash is all done and put away before night. There is never any trouble with servants in that household, and when one gives warning, the domestic machine does not break down; the young ladies are equal to the emergency.
Unfortunately among too many people there is an impression that to sit in idleness and hold one’s hands is the height of gentility. Men may work, but women must, in theory at least, be shielded from everything like labor. The sooner the nation is disabused of this idea, the better it will be. Parents can leave their children no better legacy than the habit of self-helpfulness. The man who, with only a college education as a basis, should seek the position of foreman in a printing office, he would be laughed at for his pains; he who, with no practical knowledge of bookkeeping, wanted to fill the position of bookkeeper in a commercial or banking house would be considered idiotic, and so on through all business for men; yet day after day girls without the least knowledge of housekeeping take upon themselves the direction of some man’s home, with only the vaguest idea of the accruing responsibilities. English people traveling in this country, and American women in England, give it as their opinion that English girls of the higher classes are far better trained as housekeepers and nurses than are American girls of much more moderate means. Victoria herself places high value on all housewifely accomplishments, and one of the favorite toys of the royal children at Balmoral is said to have been a tiny cottage fitted up with every convenience for the housekeeping, in which the little princesses swept and dusted, baked and broiled, and entertained their royal parents at lunches of their own preparing.
State Register 24 February 1878: p. 4
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: “Yet bed-making, dusting, and sweeping are excellent gymnastic exercises.” Mrs Daffodil can attest to the superb muscle tone of most of the chambermaids of her acquaintance. Yet, somehow, they are usually ungrateful to their mistresses for the opportunity to develop a physique such as those ladies pay “personal trainers” to attain.
The author speaks lightly of discharging the “second girl” and giving her wages to the daughters of the household, yet does not consider how many discharged “second girls,” will not find another situation and will fall into a life of Shame and Vice. It is this plague of Thoughtless Mistresses who bear a part of the blame for the Servant Question.
Mrs Daffodil has written before about the pressures of domestic efficiency in How She Found the Time.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.