In my childhood, even before my education had been begun, I was allowed to take part in the elaborate ritual which, in those days, marked the making of a fruitcake at Christmas time. Although I was blind, deaf, and speechless, the thrill of the occasion communicated itself to me. There were all sorts of pungent and fragrant ingredients to collect and prepare — orange and lemon peel, citron, nuts (which had to be cracked), apples, currants, raisins (which had to be seeded), and a host of other things. The family encouraged me to assist in these preparations, for they discovered that this was one means of keeping me, at least temporarily, out of mischief; and I, for my part, was just as eager to help, because I was always permitted to claim my wages in raisins.
All in all, this concoction of a fruitcake was a long and complicated task. If there had been some oversight in the preliminary planning and an important ingredient was missing, someone had to make a trip to town to fetch it. While the mixing process was being carefully attended to, a roaring fire was built in the stove. At last, when everything was ready and the fire was giving off just the right degree of heat, the great pan was placed reverently in the oven. The climax of the ritual was now at hand. The temperature had to be maintained for several hours with the utmost precision, and everybody had to walk about on tiptoe lest some unguarded step shake the floor and cause the precious batter, swelling with the heat, to fall. In the end, if all went well, we were rewarded with a very miracle of a fruitcake, without which Christmas would not have been Christmas.
To-day this ritual, so delightful to children, so exacting to the mothers who superintended it, is fast becoming a lost art. The modern housewife has only to go to her compact kitchen cabinet to assemble the ready-prepared ingredients, even to shelled nuts. If one should be lacking, she telephones to the corner grocery. The cake almost bakes itself in an automatically regulated gas stove, while the lady of the house goes about her other duties. Or perhaps she achieves her fruitcake by buying it in a tin container at her grocer’s. Whether she bakes it or buys it, her labor in either case is simple and quick compared to what it was even a few years ago.
The same thing may be said of almost every other phase of household work. Our grandmothers had to perform a tremendous amount of dreary drudgery in managing their homes. They were kept busy from morning till night, for those were the days when a woman’s work was never done. Since then, however, the machine age has come upon us, transforming the home no less surely than the factory. The housewife of to-day finds that many heavy responsibilities which she would have had to assume in any other age, such as the baking of bread and the weaving of cloth) have been lifted from her, and scores of other tasks which still remain in her province have been so simplified that they can now be performed with a great saving of time and effort. Electricity and gas and innumerable mechanical devices have reduced household labor to a fraction of its former burden. In consequence, the modern woman enjoys a degree of leisure which her grandmother could hardly have dared to dream of.
Whether women are using their newfound leisure to its full advantage is a debatable question, and one which I shall not attempt to discuss here. The point that I want to emphasize is that they have it — and they have it because of these countless machines and clever contrivances which have been invented to save them time and labor.
This, of course, is a very familiar observation, and I claim no credit for originality in mentioning it. But recently, as I was turning over in my mind the tragic muddle of present economic conditions, it suddenly occurred to me that this commonplace is not nearly as hackneyed as it may seem. Few of us seem to have grasped the significance of this new leisureliness which has come to grace our households. As a matter of plain fact, what women have done with labor-saving machinery in the home is exactly the reverse of what men have done with it in their factories and offices. The captain of industry seizes upon improved tools as means to increase production, and now he finds the channels of trade clogged with more goods than can be sold; his wife uses them to produce leisure, of which she can never have too much.
The average woman is not very familiar with the complexities of economics, but it seems to me that she has ordered her household economy upon a more solid basis than that upon which men have arranged the affairs of their larger world. In industry, the amazing increase in the use of labor-saving machinery has brought about overproduction, unemployment, and widespread suffering. Either women are wiser, or they have a sounder instinct for economics. At any rate, they use labor-saving devices for the heretical purpose of saving labor, and in doing so they have, I think, demonstrated in their homes a practical object lesson in economics which their husbands would do well to master. While theorists are still searching for the causes of the depression, and politicians remain at loggerheads in their effort to conjure up remedies, I am tempted to think that the perplexed businessman might discover a possible solution of his troubles if he would just spend a few days in his wife’s kitchen.
Let us see what would happen if he did.
Mr. Jones, let us say, is a modern captain of industry. Mrs. Jones is an intelligent woman who knows more than the average about economics, and has the knack of seeing things through to their essentials. She had often discussed business problems with her husband, and had endeavored without success to win him to her point of view. At last she decided to try an experiment. She persuaded her husband that he owed it to humanity to demonstrate the correctness of his ideas by applying them to the home — the one field which men had not yet touched with their organizing genius. Mr. Jones accepted the challenge and agreed to serve for a term as cook, maid, and household manager. He promised to see what improvements he could effect by directing all domestic activities in precisely the same way that he conducted his own business.
Mr. Jones had grown up on a farm. The chores that fell to his lot as a boy made him familiar with the drudgery of household work in former days. Although he was vaguely aware that the home had kept pace with the mechanical age, he did not know what a startling revolution had taken place in the economy of the household until he surveyed his wife’s model kitchen, with its gas range, its dishwashing machine, its electric mixer, and its various other labor-saving appliances. He investigated the interior of the compact kitchen cabinet, containing all sorts of prepared foods. He was particularly impressed by the special cake flour and the shelled nuts.
‘Ah, the wonders of science and modern efficiency!’ he said to himself. ‘I remember the fine nut cakes my mother used to make. What a job it was in those days! But now, with all these prepared ingredients, with the electric mixer and the automatically regulated gas range, I ought to be able to make ten cakes in less time and with less trouble than my mother required to make one in her primitive household.’
So, true to the ideas which had made him a captain of industry, Mr. Jones proceeded to transform potential power into actuality. When the family assembled at the dinner table that evening, the new household manager could hardly restrain his enthusiasm. Laughingly, he said to his wife: ‘See now, Mary, what I have done. Ten cakes. Ten! When you were running the house we had only one, or two at most. Ah, the logical, orderly, efficient brain of a man is needed even in the kitchen, that sacred province of woman. In one day I have revolutionized the business of cooking, and have put it on a sound basis.’