The Fireless Cooker, 1909

The fireless cooker. It was invented in the 1800s but reached the height of its popularity in the early 1900s. I came across the concept awhile ago and it had me curious. Basically, it’s the original slow cooker, a non-electric way to cook meals while conserving fuel.

There are many different versions of this cooker, also known as a haybox. The simplest homemade cookers were made using boxes with hay or sawdust as the insulation and eventually were manufactured and become more sophisticated, but kept to the same general idea. The basic concept is very simple. Food is brought to boiling, then the pot is insulated and the residual heat finishes cooking the dish.

Besides being a fuel-saving appliance, the fireless cooker keeps a kitchen from getting too hot, perfect for summer cooking. It also contains the cooking odors that can turn you off. after awhile. And if that isn’t enough, a fireless cooker solves the “servant problem” and free up the cook or housewife’s time. According to a book written in 1909 on the fireless cooking, “When cooking no longer ties one to the kitchen, is no longer a labour that monopolizes one’s time, dishevels one’s person, and exasperates the temper, the cook may go. We shall save her wages, her food, her room, and her waste, and have more to spend in ways that bring a more satisfactory return.” Really, what can’t this handy dandy little gadget do?!?

I think it’s still a useful cooking method. I have an electric pressure cooker that I use all the time, but if I’m not in a hurry, why not save the electricity or gas and use a (mostly) fuel-free method?

 

I’ve used this method several times to cook beans. After I soak them overnight and bring them to a boil, I tuck wool blankets and heavy quilts around the pot. Hours later, the pot will still be hot to the touch. It can take anywhere from 8-12 hours to cook the beans, but you don’t have to worry that the water will boil away and burn the beans or that they’ll overcook. It’s really handy if you leave the house for the day or want to cook overnight.

getting tucked in!
soft, cooked beans

I’ve also used the method for cooking beets so the skins slip off easily. Instead of boiling them for half an hour and making the kitchen hotter and steaming up the windows, I bring them to a boil before I go to bed at night. In the morning they are perfectly soft and no longer too hot to handle.

You may not need to conserve fuel or use alternative cooking methods, but it never hurts to have another skill if an emergency ever happens.

Good Luck to Cora Belle!, by Elinore Rupert Stewart, 1915

Cora Belle, a half child, half grown woman was so unconsciously brave, so pathetically buoyant, asking little of Life and receiving so little. She lived with her grandparents, two useless old people who drank up each other’s quack medicines and frightfully neglected their poor little granddaughter. She was stout, square-built little figure with long flaxen braids, a pair of beautiful brown eyes, and the longest and whitest lashes you ever saw, a straight nose, a short upper lip, a broad full forehead–the whole face, neither pretty nor ugly, plentifully sown with the brownest freckles.

The child did all the housework for her rheumatic and ignorant grandparents and took care of the livestock. From the big sheep men that passed their way, she begged the “dogie” lambs which they were glad to give away, and by tender care she preserved their lives. Soon she had a flock of forty in good condition and preserved from attacks by the wolves. The next step in her progress was that she began to help cook for the sheep-shearer’s men in order that her sheep might be sheared along with theirs. The one to whom she appealed was kindly disposed and he hauled her wool to town, bringing back to her the magnificent sum of sixty dollars, all of which she soon had the hard luck to see paid out for more quack medicines. And Cora Belle went on wearing the poor gingham skirt that was so unskillfully cut that it sagged in the back almost to the ground. No wonder that this unselfish, hapless little girl touched the heart of the capable young woman homesteader so that she made a party all for her, giving her a few simple presents, some underclothes made of flour bags that she had carefully preserved, a skirt of outing flannel and a white sunbonnet built from a precious bit of lawn and trimmed with an embroidered edging.

Cora Belle came to the party driving her lanky old mare, Sheba, hitched up with the strong little donkey, Balaam, who balked every three miles and had to be waited for. The grandparents were in behind all wrapped in quilts, and they were as astonished as modest Cora Belle herself to find that it could enter anybody’s head to appreciate and honor that small child. Now–good luck to all the Cora Belles! And may everyone of them find such a friend as this girl had found!

An Enjoyable Vacation at Home; Miss Gladys Harpold, 1914

Miss Gladys Harpold of Assumption, Illinois, won first prize for her story on the subject, “My Most Profitable and Enjoyable Vacation.” She was about fifteen years old when she wrote her story and married the following year. Gladys became the mother five children and died at the age of 90 while residing in California. 

School was over, and now I was to learn something not learned at school, and that was to cook. I was going to learn under whom I thought the best cook in the world, my mother. I was quick to learn how to prepare something for eating, but pies and bread were my failures. After many failures I did learn to make pies, but it seemed as if the art of bread-making would never be learned by me.

Learning to cook led me to want to manage the household also. I wanted mother to visit an aunt and let me keep house, but she decided that she had better stay at home the week I tried to manage everything. Later, I tried it by myself for a week, and father said that I did fine. He and I had coaxed mother to take a little visit. While she was gone grandma taught me to make the longed-for bread. Mother had only been home a few days when I received a letter from my aunt asking me to spend the remainder of my vacation with her. I accepted with pleasure and when I returned three weeks later I was ready to go back to school with the pleasure of knowing that I had learned to cook and keep house, and thinking that I had never had a better or enjoyed a vacation more than that one.

 

 

The Housewife’s Weekly Schedule

It’s been a tradition among housewives to keep a general work schedule for the home. Chances are good that you’ve read about the classic housekeeping schedule that went like this:

Monday-washing (laundry)

Tuesday-ironing

Wednesday-mending

Thursday-marketing/churning/brewing

Friday-cleaning

Saturday-baking

Sunday-rest

It’s incredible to think of how many women used that same basic housework schedule for centuries, even into the last few decades.  Rumor has it the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock on a Monday and after consulting Ye Olde Housework Charte, the women did the laundry. What a relief they didn’t arrive on a Tuesday. They’d have had to spend the day ironing their stinky clothes before grocery shopping on Thursday. It wouldn’t have made a good impression on the new neighbors.

As much as I enjoy history and incorporating long-ago traditions into my modern life, even I don’t hesitate to admit that this schedule is woefully out of date. I can wash a week’s worth of family laundry, hang it all on the outdoor clothesline, fold, and put it away, all within half a day. And I’d be hard-pressed (haha!) to spend more than 30 minutes a month ironing, much less one day a week.

Like any system, a housework schedule has to work for the individual housewife to be useful at all. No system works for everybody. So, inspired by 400+ years of well-scheduled housewives, I came up with my own weekly plan. Of course I have to do some cooking and cleaning every day, but I try to give extra emphasis to one category per day. These are my 5 weekly categories:

Kitchen-batch cooking, baking, and occasional jobs like yogurt, kombucha, etc.

Cleaning-re-organizing, deep-cleaning, decluttering

Office/Errand-paperwork, bills, filing, grocery shopping, library, post office, etc.

Soap-making inventory, packaging, managing online stuff (my tiny business, which gives me my “pin money”)

Free/Flex-visits, outings, home projects, overflow work

I originally assigned one category every day, like the traditional schedule. I gave that up by the second week, when I was invited to go on a shopping “date” with someone the same day I’d scheduled for cleaning. Having a variable schedule works well for me: it gives structure to my week without forcing me to be rigid about it. At the beginning of each week I have a basic idea of how I plan to schedule my week, but I can change it on short notice. On days when I have an appointment scheduled, I try to pile on the rest of my errands for the week while I’m out, or I may reschedule my cleaning day if I learn company will be visiting.

And there will always be those times, like every September (ahem), when I abandon my schedule entirely because every day is either a kitchen day as I finish harvesting my garden or a flex day as we finish up projects and fit in fun stuff during the last few summer-ish weeks. It’s easy to resume the schedule when things slow down a bit, even mid-week. By that time, I’m always glad to be back on a steadier rhythm.

Do you have a weekly housekeeping plan? How do you manage your schedule?