“Trees” and “Knees” – 1930’s and 1960’s

Are you familiar with the poem Trees, by Joyce Kilmer?  “I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree…”?  It’s a classic poem teachers have long assigned to their students for memorization.

In case you didn’t know that the poem had been set to music, here is an unforgettable version, whose haunting melody will do just that.  Haunt you.  You’ll never be able to hum it in key ever again.

The reason I’m bringing this up is that I recently discovered an alternate version of that revered poem in the May, 1968 issue of Women’s Household magazine.  This poem seems fitting as we head into the summer season, when knees (and just about everything else) are on full display.

I think that I shall never see

A thing as ugly as a knee,

Above whose gnarled and knotted crest

The mini-hemline comes to rest.

Or one that’s even worse than that

When padded with repulsive fat.

A knee that may in summer wear

Nothing at all, but be quite bare.

Behind whose flex there oft remains

A network of blue and broken veins.

Some knees continue to perplex–

How can they form the letter “X”?

While in another set one sees

A pair of true parentheses.

Small nuts write verses such as these,

But greater nuts display their knees!

-Anonymous

Making a Household Inventory, 1884

…And the first thing…you want to make a list of all the housekeeping articles in the house, and the condition they are in. Women usually keep the run of such things in their minds; but it is more businesslike, and makes matters clearer to know what you have in writing.” -1884

It’s embarrassing. It dawned on me this spring that I’d never done a thorough cleaning of our linen cupboards. Our house has more cupboards, closets, and built-in drawers than we will ever use. So when we moved here, taking the house over from relatives, I just put my linens in the front of the cupboards, never using the ones left behind in the back of the deep shelves.

Anyway, I dug everything out of the cupboards and piled them on a couple of beds so I could look through them. …I was kind of appalled. This didn’t even include any of the master bedroom bedding and the few more blankets I found later. This also doesn’t count the bedding already on the beds. Needless to say, I lost interest in the project after I saw the size of the piles and called it a day. It took me several afternoons of sorting by size, then sorting by quality, then sorting by need and want before I finally finished the job.

So why was this inventory useful? First, it allowed me to analyze and clear out the items I don’t use or need. (My donation pile was massive!) I can clearly see what I have in the cupboards and things will no longer get shoved to the back and forgotten. Second, I now have a clear idea of what I own. And when I know what I need, I’ll be more aware and able to take advantage of a sale, making me more efficient, or, as the author wrote, “more businesslike.”  

Incidentally, I thought that I needed a new mattress pad and sheets for the double bed in the guest room, but happily, I found both. Sorting through everything confirmed that I need absolutely nothing in the way of bedding, especially when it comes to pillowcases. All this time I’ve been running a haven for orphan pillowcases and I didn’t even know it.

No Dollar Signs on Women’s Work, part 2

A couple of months after Unknown’s” letter first appeared, a response was written by a woman from Ohio, who signed her letter “Well-known.” She disagreed with the perspective of “Unknown”, the beet farmer’s wife, writing, “I think Unknown and her men do not realize how far a clean, comfortable, pleasant home goes toward getting that beet check.”

Mrs. Well-known went on to say that “it is only through the economy of the homemaker that most taxes are paid, that there is money for beet seed, etc.” She asked Mrs. Unknown, “What would the beet check amount to if there were not three wholesome meals every day? How far would it go if the homemaker did not bake the bread, finish the ironing, care for the children and the chicks, and do the other things ‘too numerous to mention’?”

Nearly every year around Mother’s Day, someone writes an article trying to calculate the worth of a stay-at-home mother. If someone were to hire a woman (or several!) to do all the tasks of a typical mother and factor in the overtime hours she works, her annual salary is estimated from $75,000 all the way up to $143,000! (Suddenly, that beet check isn’t going very far…)

For another modern-day example, my husband knows how to cook but dislikes it. He mentioned earlier this week that if it weren’t for me cooking for him, his meals would consist of cold cereal, frozen pizza, takeout dinners, and even worse, a tube of saltines with a jar of peanut butter. Without me cooking our meals from scratch, grocery costs would easily be triple our current budget and I think it’s reasonable to conclude that his health would be questionable.

Mrs. Well-known included this little story in her letter:

The wife of a prominent lawyer in our city was congratulated one day by a leading physician on her husband’s success, and denied any part in it. “You do not realize, “ the doctor answered, “how far a pleasant, sympathetic environment at home goes toward making a man’s success.”

Just another example of the incalculable value of the housewife, and happy are the husband and wife who know it!

No Dollar Signs on Women’s Work, part 1

I can’t say I’ve ever heard a woman say she chose housewifery as a career for the usual reasons one goes into a particular field– having the skills required for the job, the earning potential, the incredible opportunities for advancement, or even the prestige and glamour of it all.

In these oh, so enlightened times, when we’re all told to listen to our hearts, be ourselves, and do whatever it is that fulfils us, choosing to be a housewife is most certainly not one of the options that will catapult you to Nobel prize status or into the first paragraph of the family Christmas letter.

But I recently discovered that this isn’t a new perspective when I came across a letter written to a magazine devoted to farm wives.

In 1933, the wife of a beet farmer living in Idaho (who signed her letter Unknown) wrote that she felt her husband didn’t see the value of her work as a housewife. Her letter didn’t complain about his attitude but instead, she agreed with him when she compared her work to his. She wrote that “measured by the things he does, my work is really ‘nothing.’ On him depends the food for the family, yes, I might as well say for the world. “ So what was her work, the work she considered “nothing”?

2 preschool-aged sons
100 baby chicks to raise
bread to bake
ironing to finish
dishes to wash
other things “too numerous to mention”

She raised the chickens as a little side business but noted that it brought in only a fraction of the household income. Her conclusion was to find comfort in “a ray of hope” that if nothing else, women are “the mothers of men, who in turn will raise big crops that will sell for big checks.”

It’s a sad perspective that for Mrs. Unknown, it all came back to the dollar sign. But in many ways, I don’t feel like it’s much different today. Young mothers trying to raise little humans into productive adults, not to mention working to provide a clean house, healthy meals, and all the rest hang their heads because their work doesn’t come with the status of a paycheck.

It’s curious, isn’t it, that society values work more when there is income attached to it? We can mop a floor, toss french fries in a fryer, or organize a craft project for a group of children in our own homes yet we’re still “just housewives.” But we’ve been led to believe that when we do nearly the same work away from home for a paycheck, it matters more.

Many people believe that the women’s movements of the 1900s elevated the status of women in society. It may have opened doors for women working in public careers, but in doing so, it further discredited and devalued housewives and the work they do in the home.

If you measure quality of life by money alone, yes, a housewife’s worth is minimal. But, if money is the measure of quality, well, Heaven help us all!

Maybe we haven’t come a long way after all, baby.

 

(In case you think this has been a downer of a post, stay tuned for part 2 on Monday. It gets better!)

 

This post is included in the Wise Woman Linkup.