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Domestic Problems: Work and Culture in the Household By Abby Morton Diaz Characters: 13193

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

Our problem is this: How may woman enjoy the delights of culture, and at the same time fulfil her duties to family and household? Perhaps it is not assuming too much to say, that, in making known the existence of such a problem, we have already taken the first step toward its solution, just as a ship's crew in distress take the first step toward relief by making a signal which calls attention to their needs.

The next step-after having, as we may say, set our flag at half-mast-is one which, if all we hear be true, should come easily to women in council, namely, talking. And talking we must have, even if, as in the social game called "Throwing Light," much of it is done at a venture. In that interesting little game, after a few hints have been given concerning "the word," different members of the company begin at once to talk about it, and think about it, and suggest and hazard descriptive remarks, according to the idea each has formed of it; that is, they try, though in the dark, to "throw light." As the interest increases, the excitement becomes intense. Many of the ideas expressed are absurdly wide of the mark, yet even these help to show what the answer is not; and often, by their coming in contact, a light is struck which helps amazingly. And so, in regard to our problem, we have the hints; then why not begin at once to think about it, and talk about it, and suggest, and guess, and throw light with all our might? No matter if we even get excited, say absurd things, say utterly preposterous things, make blunders. Blunders are to be expected. Let them fly right and left; by hitting together right smartly they may strike out sparks which shall help us find our way.

We all have heard of the frank country girl who said to her bashful lover, "Do say something, if it isn't quite so bright!" This, doubtless, is what every thoughtful woman, if she expressed the sincere desire of her heart regarding our perplexing question, would say to all other women; and it is to comply with that wish, partly expressed to me, that I have gathered up from chance observation, chance reading, and hearsay, some ideas bearing on the subject. Suppose we begin by looking about us, and making clear to our minds just what this state of things is, which, because it hinders culture, many deem so unsatisfactory. After that, we will consider its causes, reasons for changing it, and the way or ways out of it.

A few, a very few, of our women are able to live and move and have their being literally regardless of expense. These can buy of skilled assistants and competent supervisors, whole lifetimes of leisure; with these, therefore, our problem has no concern. The larger class, the immense majority, either do their work themselves, or attend personally to its being done by others; "others" signifying that inefficient, untrustworthy, unstable horde who come fresh from their training in peat-bog and meadow, to cook our dinners, take care of our china dishes, and adjust the nice little internal arrangements of our dwellings.

Observing closely the lives of the immense majority, I think we shall see, that, in conducting their household affairs, the object they have in view is one and the same. I think we shall see that they all strive, some by their own labors wholly, the rest by covering over and piecing out the shortcomings of "help," to present a smooth, agreeable surface to husbands and company. This smooth, agreeable surface may be compared to a piece of mosaic work composed of many parts. Of the almost infinite number of those parts, and of the time, skill, and labor required to adjust them, it hath not entered, it cannot enter, into the heart of man to conceive.

I wonder how long it would take to name, just merely to name, all the duties which fall upon the woman who, to use a common phrase, and a true one, carries on the family. Suppose we try to count them, one by one. Doing this will help to give us that clear view of the present state of things which it is our present object to obtain; though the idea reminds me of what the children used to say when I was a child, "If you count the stars you'll drop down dead,"-a saying founded, probably, on the vastness of the undertaking compared with human endurance. It certainly cannot be called trivial to enumerate the duties to which woman consecrates so large a portion of her life, especially when we remember that into each and all of these duties she has to carry her mind. Where woman's mind must go, woman's mind or man's mind, should not scorn to follow. So let us make the attempt; and we need not stand upon the order of our counting, but begin anywhere.

Setting tables; clearing them off; keeping lamps or gas-fixtures in order; polishing stoves, knives, silverware, tinware, faucets, knobs, &c.; washing and wiping dishes; taking care of food left at meals; sweeping, including the grand Friday sweep, the limited daily sweep, and the oft-recurring dustpan sweep; cleaning paint; washing looking-glasses, windows, window-curtains; canning and preserving fruit; making sauces and jellies, and "catchups" and pickles; making and baking bread, cake, pies, puddings; cooking meats and vegetables; keeping in nice order beds, bedding, and bedchambers; arranging furniture, dusting, and "picking up;" setting forth, at their due times and in due order, the three meals; washing the clothes; ironing, including doing up shirts and other "starched things;" taking care of the baby, night and day; washing and dressing children, and regulating their behavior, and making or getting made, their clothing, and seeing that the same is in good repair, in good taste, spotless from dirt, and suited both to the weather and the occasion; doing for herself what her own personal needs require; arranging flowers; entertaining company; nursing the sick; "letting down" and "letting out" to suit the growing ones; patching, darning, knitting, crocheting, braiding, quilting,-but let us remember the warning of the old saying, and forbear in time.

This, however, is only a general enumeration. This is counting the stars by constellations. Examining closely these items: we shall find them made up each of a number of smaller items, and each of these again of items still smaller. What seem homogeneous are heterogeneous; what seem simple are complex. Make a loaf of bread. That has a simple sound, yet the process is complex. First, hops, potatoes, flour, sugar, water, salt, in right proportions for the yeast. The yeast for raising the yeast must be in just the right condition, and added wh

en the mixture is of just the right temperature. In "mixing up" bread, the temperature of the atmosphere must be considered, the temperature of the water, the situation of the dough. The dough must rise quickly, must rise just enough and no more, must be baked in an oven just hot enough and no hotter, and must be "tended" while baking.

Try clearing off tables. Remove food from platters, care for the remnants, see that nothing is wasted, scrape well every plate, arrange in piles, carry out, wash in soap and water, rinse in clear water, polish with dry cloth, set away in their places,-three times a day.

Taking care of the baby frequently implies carrying the child on one arm while working with the other, and this often after nights made sleepless by its "worrying." "I've done many a baking with a child on my hip," said a farmer's wife in my hearing.

But try now the humblest of household duties, one that passes for just nothing at all; try dusting. "Take a cloth, and brush the dust off,"-stated in this general way, how easy a process it seems! The particular interpretation, is that you move, wipe, and replace every article in the room, from the piano down to the tiniest ornament; that you "take a cloth," and go over every inch of accessible surface, including panelling, mop-boards, window frames and sashes, looking-glass-frames, picture-frames and cords, gas or lamp fixtures; reaching up, tiptoeing, climbing, stooping, kneeling, taking care that not even in the remotest corner shall appear one inch of undusted surface which any slippered individual, leaning back in his arm-chair, can spy out.

These are only a few examples; but a little observation and an exceedingly little experience will show the curious inquirer that there is scarcely one of the apparently simple household operations which cannot be resolved and re-resolved into minute component parts. Thus dusting, which seems at first to consist of simply a few brushes with a cloth or bunch of feathers, when analyzed once, is found to imply the careful wiping of every article in the room, and of all the woodwork; analyzed again, it implies following the marks of the cabinet-maker's tools in every bit of carving and grooving; analyzed again, introducing a pointed stick under the cloth in turning corners. In fact, the investigator of household duties must do as does a distinguished scientist in analyzing matter,-"continue the process of dividing as long as the parts can be discerned," and then "prolong the vision backward across the boundary of experimental evidence." And, if brave enough to attempt to count them, he must bear in mind that what appear to be blank intervals, or blurred, nebulous spaces, are, in reality, filled in with innumerable little duties which, through the glass of observation, may be discerned quite plainly. Let him also bear in mind, that these household duties must be done over and over, and over and over, and as well, each time, as if done to last forever; and, above all, that they every one require mind.

Many a common saying proves this last point. "Put your mind on your work." "Your mind must be where your work is." "She's a good hand to take hold, but she hasn't any calculation." "She doesn't know how to forecast her work." "She doesn't know how to forelay." "Nancy's gittin' past carryin' her mind inter her work. Wal, I remember when I begun to git past carryin' my mind inter my work," said an old woman of ninety, speaking of her sixty-years-old daughter. The old couplet,

"Man works from rise till set of sun,

But woman's work is never done,"-

tells the truth. "Woman's work," as now arranged, is so varied, so all-embracing, that it cannot be "done." For every odd moment some duty lies in wait. And it is generally the case, that these multi-form duties press for performance, crowds of them at once. "So many things to be done right off, that I don't know which to take hold of first." "'Tis just as much as I can do to keep my head above water." "Oh, dear! I can't see through!" "My work drives me." "I never know what 'tis not to feel hurried." "The things I can't get done tire me more than the things I do." Such remarks have a meaning.

And those who keep "a girl" have almost equal difficulty in always presenting the smooth, agreeable surface just now spoken of. With the greater ability to hire help comes usually the desire to live in more expensive houses, and to furnish the same with more costly furniture. Every article added is a care added, and the nicer the article the nicer the care required. More, also, is demanded of these in the way of appearance, style, and social civilities; and the wear and tear of superintending "a girl" should by no means be forgotten. At any rate, the complaint, "no time to read," is frequent among women, and is not confined to any one class.

We see, then, that in the present state of things it is impossible for woman-that is, the family woman, the house-mother-to enjoy the delights of culture. External activities, especially the two insatiable, all-devouring ones which know neither end nor beginning,-housework and sewing-work,-these demand her time, her energies, in short, demand herself,-the whole of her. Yes, the whole, and more too; there is not enough of her to go round. There might possibly be enough, and even something left to spend on culture, were she in sound physical condition; but, alas! a healthy woman is scarcely to be found. This point, namely, the prevailing invalidism of woman, will come up for consideration by and by, when we inquire into the causes of the present state of things. It is none too early, however, to make a note of what some physicians say in regard to it. "Half of all who are born," says one medical writer, "die under twenty years of age; while four-fifths of all who reach that age, and die before another score, owe their death to causes which were originated in their teens. This is a fact of startling import to fathers and mothers, and shows a fearful responsibility." Another medical writer says, "Beside the loss of so many children (nearly twenty-five per cent), society suffers seriously from those who survive, their health being irremediably injured while they are still infants…. Ignorance and injudicious nursery management lie at the root of this evil."

We must be sure not to forget that this prevailing invalidism of women, which is one hinderance to their obtaining culture, can be traced directly back to the ignorance of mothers, for this point has an important bearing on the solution of our problem.

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