housekeeping, housewifery

The Modern Housewife and her Many Maidservants

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Jennifer of Elefantz recently wrote a great blog post in which she pointed out the many handmaidens around us that we overlook. She’s so right! We do have servants everywhere in our homes, helping to make our lives easier. We’re so used to them we tend not to notice them.

In our nearsighted way, it’s easy to think that it must have been easy to keep house in the old days with a household staff to help. We imagine life consisted of sending menus to the cook every morning and watching maids work like busy bees dusting and washing everything in sight, leaving the woman of the house to entertain company on the veranda. In reality, every task was more tedious and time-consuming than it is today and it was difficult to maintain a household without help, even in ancient times. My wardrobe would be significantly smaller if I had to make every item of clothing I owned by hand. I’d wear each outfit until it was truly dirty if I knew I had to hand wash it in a tub of water in the middle of winter. What’s the appeal in a large home if it comes with large carpets that have to be pulled out and beaten a couple of times every year? Or one that has to be scrubbed completely on hands and knees?

I mentioned this concept in a post some time ago, which identified inventions that made housewives of the 1930s thankful, some of which are basic tools we couldn’t imagine doing without, like a water heater.

Last week I came across another list of “labor savers” compiled by a housewife, this time, from 1919. It highlights more conveniences that I’ve always taken for granted and haven’t seen them as the servants they are. Here are just a few things that she lists…

  • A cherry pitter
  • As the previous list also mentions, a long handled dust pan (She mentions it helps a lady crippled with rheumatism do her housework without having to bend over)
  • Five-cent brushes “Try a brush for washing overalls instead of rubbing them on a washboard.” (Duly noted for the next time I wash overalls. No more washboard for me.)
  • vacuum cleaner “Too much cannot be said in favor of these cleaners. No amount of “elbow grease” can remove dirt to compare with the vacuum cleaner. Its invention is one of the best things ever done for the housewife.”
  • the kitchen cabinet “The woman who uses one has a place for everything and has everything in its place.”
  • a wire basket for deep frying
  • egg beater, rubber window drier, measuring cup, funnel, corkscrew, can opener

I have to concur on her praise for the vacuum cleaner. My house is almost all hard flooring and only recently did I get a vacuum after hand sweeping for many years. Mylanta. What a dream. I still like a broom for edges and corners, but overall, it does a better job of cleaning my floors and it’s lightweight, easy to clean, makes quick work….I use it daily and don’t know why I didn’t think to get one sooner. (I got this one, by the way, recommended to me by my mom and sister.)

Me, before I discovered vacuums and long-handled dustpans

On a side note– I’ve read numerous articles about the difficulties involved in employing cooks and maids in the early 1900s in America. Clever women, those hired helpers, often referred to as “Bridgettes.” They knew they were heavily relied upon by their employers and often used it to their advantage. In many instances, this created a cycle of resentment and poor treatment on both sides. A maid who felt overworked, underappreciated, or had any complaint could walk off the job without notice yet still receive a letter of recommendation. Any employer who refused to write a positive reference was blacklisted and wouldn’t find anyone willing to work for her again. “The servant problem” was a real thing. Given that perspective, hiring and keeping a maid seems rather complicated. I’ll take an appliance any day, however wonky and impersonal it may happen to be.

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