Thursday, August 20, 2009

Hearth & Home, part 2

[Here's the conclusion on Eberle's Hearth & Home essay; hope you enjoy it.]

The “servant problem” was notorious in nineteenth century America—housewives had more trouble finding help than their counterparts in England partly because there was more alternative work available. The history of slavery in this country also created a different set of values about what work white servants considered beneath them and refused to do in order to separate themselves from a lower class of service. Racism affected household dynamics among servants as well as householders—Louisa commented that servants sometimes refused to work in a household with a staff of mixed color. Unless a household could afford to hire servants to cook, serve, wash clothes, clean and do chores, the burden of all house
hold tasks fell on the housewife and her daughters.

Gro Svendsen, a
Norwegian immigrant, wrote her parents about American housework in l862: “We are told that the women of America have much leisure time but I haven't yet met any woman who thought so! Here the mistress of the house must do all the work that the cook, the maid and the housekeeper would do in an upper class family at home. Moreover, she must do her work as well as these three together do it in Norway.”

Harriet Beecher Stowe in House and Home Papers (1865) describes what happens when household servants did not perform their duties properly:

Sour bread had appeared on the table, — bitter, acrid coffee had shocked and astonished the palate, — lint had been observed on tumblers, and the spoons had
sometimes dingy streaks on the brightness of their first bridal polish, — beds were detected made shockingly awry.

In a household with two servants, one would probably do the “heavy” work, and the other would help with a number of domestic tasks requiring a truly impressive range of skills— and Harriet emphasized that the housewife must understand these things thoroughly herself in order to instruct any servants she may have. Even leaving aside for the moment any outdoor work, a servant would need an understanding of yeast in order to make bread, she would need a wide knowledge of cooking as well as preserving fruits and vegetables in season, butchering if not slaughtering animals, and helping to prepare herbal remedies. She would also need to be initiated into the secrets of household cleaning in an era before the dazzling array of cleansers we now know appeared on the scene. Cleaning was more complicated in the nineteenth century than we might suppose:

The best way to clean steel forks is to fill a small barrel with fine gravel, brick-dust, or sand mixed with a little hay or moss; make it moderately damp, press it well down, and let it always be kept damp. By running the prongs of the
steel forks a few times into this, all the stains on them will be removed. Then have a small stick, shaped like a knife, with leather round it, to polish between the prongs, having first carefully brushed off the dust from them as soon as they are taken out of the tub.
Household Cyclopedia of General Information (1881)

Louisa acc
epted a position of domestic service when she was nineteen, and the dehumanizing aspects of that experience and the inappropriate power it put into the hands male employers, made a profound impression on her. In How I Went Out to Service (1874), she emphasized that housework was physically difficult, but far worse than the labor itself was the psychological submissiveness to the male that is assumed along with it. When she could endure this oppression no longer, she heroically made a “declaration of independence” from the scrubbing mat:

At first I innocently accepted the fraternal invitations to visit the study, feeling that when my day’s work was done I earned a right to rest and read. But I soon found that this was not the idea. I was not to read; but to be read to. I was not to enjoy the
flowers, pictures, fire, and books; but to keep them in order for my lord to enjoy. I was also to be a passive bucket, into which he was to pour all manner of philosophic, metaphysical, and sentimental rubbish. I was to serve his needs, soothe his sufferings, and sympathize with all his sorrows -- be a galley slave, in fact…. So he came and read poems while I washed dishes, discussed his pet problems all meal-times, and put reproachful notes under my door, in which were comically mingled complaints of neglect and orders for dinner.

I bore it as long as I could, and then freed my mind in a declaration of independence, delivered in the kitchen, where he found me scrubbing the hearth. It was not an impressive attitude for an orator, nor was the occupation one a girl would choose when receiving calls; but I have always felt grateful for the intense discomfort of that moment, since it gave me the courage to rebel outright. Stranded on a small island of mat, in a sea of soapsuds, I brandished a scrubbing brush, as I indignantly informed him that I came to be a companion to his sister, not to him, and I should keep that post or none. This I followed up by reproaching him with the delusive reports he had given me of the place and its duties, and assuring him that I should not stay long unless matters mended….

“Do you mean to say you prefer to scrub the hearth to sitting in my charming room while I read Hegel to you?” he demanded, glaring down upon me.

“Infinitely,” I responded promptly, and emphasized my words by beginning to scrub with a zeal that made the bricks white with foam.

After this scene of foaming at the mouth as well as the floor, she is punished her for h
er rejection of her employer by having all the heavy work of the household loaded on her. It was winter at the time, and the tasks she described included splitting kindling, sifting ashes, bringing water from the wall, and digging paths through the snow. It was the job of blacking boots, though, that finally made her baulk. To black boots they had to be cleaned, first with a wooden knife to remove loose dirt, carefully, so as not to damage the leather, then dried—but not too near the fire or else the leather would crack. Then they were further cleaned with a hard brush. Blacking was put on in successive layers and buffed with a shining brush, which had to be done while the blacking was still wet—too much blacking put on at a time would prevent a good shine.

In Work: A Story of Experience (1873), Christy, another of Louisa’s heroines in domestic service, also baulked at being asked to clean the boots of the master of the house. A conversation about this with the cook, Hepsey, led to a relationship between the two.

“ It isn't the work; it 's the degradation; and I won't submit to it.” Christie looked fiercely determined; but Hepsey shook her head, saying quietly as she went on garnishing a dish:

“Dere 's more 'gradin' works dan dat, chile, and dem dat 's bin 'bliged to do um finds dis sort bery easy. You 's paid for it, honey; and if you does it willin, it won't hurt you more dan washin' de marster's dishes, or sweepin' his rooms.”

As Christie listened to Hepsey’s story of living in slavery, her attitudes began to change, including her attitudes toward her wealthy employers. Louisa expressed the idea that workers, partly due to their ability to observe, have a moral right to judge what were commonly termed their “betters.” At first Christie felt she learned things from the upper class visitors to her employers, but as her friendship with Hepsey developed, she commented about these privileged beings:

Good heavens! why don't they do or say something new and interesting, and not keep twaddling on about art, and music, and poetry, and cosmos? The papers are full of appeals for help for the poor, reforms of all sorts, and splendid work that others are doing; but these people seem to think it isn't genteel enough to be spoken of here. I suppose it as all very elegant to go on like a set of trained canaries…

Louisa’s rather radical philosophy that workers held a unique right of social judgment stood in definite contradiction with social theories that justified placing workers or slaves in a socially disempowered position based on the “natural fitness” of certain groups for servility. Similar theories were also used by those who wanted to deprive women of basic social rights. In addition to questions of legal status and suffrage, serious concerns about the burden of housework and the deficiencies and dangers of household conditions were being expressed by women on many levels in nineteenth century America. Reform movements saw women thronging to address issues from the right of married women to own property to designing more comfortable clothes for women to wear. Poets of the time took on the question of housework as well:

Bright and big was the honey-moon,
But clouded by worldly care too soon.

For housework led her its weary round

Her feet were tethered, her hands were bound…

In her husband's house she came to be
A servant in all but salary…
Season by season, year by year,
Did she follow the round of “woman's sphere,”

Nor vexed her husband’s days or nights,
By any mention of woman's rights,

Till she did at last
too sorely tried
Her life's one selfish deedshe died.
Elizabeth Akers Allen, Madge Miller (1886)

Pix from Top:
A 1906 illustration of maid & mistress of the home
Gro Svendsen
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Cover page from the Household Cyclopedia of General Information
Louisa May Alcott at 20 - the period when she was in domestic service

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  1. Thank you. What a wonderful, informative essay.

    "I was also to be a passive bucket, into which he was to pour all manner of philosophic, metaphysical, and sentimental rubbish".

    Good Lord that line! And I love that term "passive bucket" it's just perfect,You are just to listen,no sharing!...Better to be a passive dixie cup, if need be.

    Peace - Rene

  2. This has been a first rate little series. I, for one, want more.

  3. Hi Rene & Alan:

    Rene: Glad you enjoyed this; Eberle & Audrey have presented a number of fine essays in the Women's Art is Women's Work series. & yes, that line is appalling & all too often true.

    Alan: Hearth & Home is just one essay in the larger series, so yes, there will be more! Thanks.


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