Thursday, August 13, 2009

Hearth and Home, part 1

[Here’s the latest installment from the Women’s Art is Women’s Work series. Hearth & Home, which is one of Eberle’s essays will appear here in two parts, so please check in next Thursday for the conclusion.]

It can be tempting to imagine nineteenth century women as living for the most part contentedly in their designated fema
le sphere, all unaware that this thing we now call feminism would come to dawn at a later time—but such an image is far from the truth of the matter. In addition to widespread and passionate reform movements organized and supported by women, writers of the time provided multi-faceted views of the meaning of domesticity, femininity, and housework. Sometimes the domestic realm is described as deeply satisfying and a source of empowerment for women, and at other times the more disturbing aspects of the domestic scene come into the foreground. In Moods (1865) Louisa May Alcott described, with a definite edge, a domestic landscape created by women:

The babies were borne away to simmer between blankets until called for. The women unpacked baskets, brooded over teapots, and kept up an harmonious clack as the table was spread with pyramids of cake, regiments of pies, quagmires of jelly, snow-banks of bread, and gold mines of butter; every possible article of food, from baked beans to wedding cake, finding a place on that sacrificial altar.

Often a word, as Emma
Roberts phrased it in 1830, “though spoke in jest, seems half in earnest,” and Louisa’s irreverent reference to the table of food as a sacrificial altar carries some truth—from Louisa’s life experience as well as a theme in her writing about women and housework. In Transcendental Wild Oats, she also wrote of sacrifices on the “domestic altar” in reference to her mother, with a tone of bitterness and loss. The imagery that surrounds the sacrificial altar in Moods, however, is curiously rich—simultaneously evoking an arsenal, a natural landscape, and the stored treasure of “gold mines.”

Many of women writers lived in households with enough servants to perform the daily household tasks; this was not the case for the unsettled and financially struggling Alcott family. Louisa would have seen
and participated in the nearly endless round of daily, weekly, and seasonal tasks that were required to keep a household running. She cast the performance of these household duties in heroic terms in Hospital Sketches and Camp and Fireside Stories (1869):

Di corked her inkstand, locked her bookcase, and went at housework as if it wer
e a five-barred gate; of course she missed the leap, but scrambled bravely through, and appeared much sobered by the exercise…. Reality turned Romance out of doors; for, unlike her favorite heroines in satin and tears, or helmet and shield, Di met her fate in a big checked apron and dust-cap wonderful to see; yet she wielded her broom as stoutly as "Moll Flanders" shouldered her gun, and marched to her daily martyrdom in the kitchen with as heroic a heart as the "Maid of Orleans" took to her stake.

Housekeeping in a n
ineteenth century American household without a staff of servants was a formidable task. In order to cook, clean, and wash clothes, women needed constant supplies of fuel and water. Some urban houses had private cisterns or piped water, but in the majority of American households water had to be fetched in buckets from a well throughout the day. Consider the following:

In winter, always s
et the handle of your pump as high as possible, before you go to bed. Except in very rigid weather, this keeps the handle from freezing. When there is reason to apprehend extreme cold, do not forget to throw a rug or horse-blanket over your pump; a frozen pump is a comfortless preparation for a winter's breakfast.
Lydia M. Child, The American Frugal Housewife (1832)

The unceasing nature of housewor
k has been described in countless forms—whatever else a woman might be doing at any given moment, the work of the house would be simultaneously on her mind and in her hands. Louisa created a particularly vivid expression of the connection between women’s words and women’s work in Work, A Story of Experience (1873) where speech itself is “interlarded” with domestic detail:

…when she replied, Aunt Betsey curiously interlarded her speech with audible directions to herself from the receipt-book before her. "I ain't no right to keep you, dear, ef you choose to take (a pinch of salt). I 'm sorry you ain't happy, and think you might be ef you 'd only (beat six eggs, yolks and whites together). But ef you can't, and feel that you need (two cups of sugar), only speak to Uncle, and ef he says (a squeeze of fresh lemon), go, my dear, and take my blessin' with you (not forgettin' to cover with a piece of paper).”

The household fuel supply had to be continuously monitored and kept stocked. In a single day, forty to fifty pounds of fuel would be used for cooking and for heating water in a nineteenth century household in the United States. Even if a man were employed to s
plit wood or haul coal, the housewife spent time constantly during the day tending the cook stove. The relationship women had with fuels and fire in the nineteenth century was an intimate one, through daily tending or dreamy gazing:

Jo was alone in the twilight, lying on the old sofa, looking at the fire, and thinking. It was her favorite way of spending the hour of dusk…
Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (1868)

How lovely!" whispered Beatrice, selecting half a dozen cones from the heap of kindling… she watched admiringly the play of the flames, and remembered one of Mr. Chappelleford's whimsical theories, to the effect that every wood, in process of combustion, produces a flame shaped like the leaf of its own tree, and she tried to distinguish the pointed needles of the pine, the sinuated leaves of the oak, and the five-fingered palms of the buttonwood, in the rustling river of flame that now poured up the chimney.
Jane Goodwin Austin, The Shadow of Moloch Mountain (1870)

© Eberle Umbach 2007-2009

Pix from Top
Louisa May Alcott's childhood home, Orchard House, Concord, Massachusetts
Bronson Alcott farmhouse at Fruitlands (the setting for Alcott's Transcendental Wild Oats)
Louisa May Alcott
Lydia Maria Child
2 volume 1870 edition of
Little Women

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  1. I thought I recognized this house from the thumbnail pic on my blogroll! I was deep into all things Alcott last year while reading Susan Cheever's American Boomsbury.

    Nice post, John (and Eberle)!

  2. Thanks Eberle for opening a window to writings I was not familiar with. Your series remains something I look forward to each week. In some ways it is almost like those weekly part works that all those great Victorian writers were involved with.

  3. Hi Willow & Alan:

    Willow: That sounds like an interesting book. Thanks to you from both of us.

    Alan: Thanks-- I know Eberle was flattered about the "weekly part works!"


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