“ MY dear Chris,” said my wife, “ isn’t it time to be writing the next ‘ House and Home Paper'? ”
I was lydng back in my study-chair, with my heels luxuriously propped on an ottoman, reading for the two-hundredth time Hawthorne’s “ Mosses from an Old Manse,” or his “Twice-Told Tales,” I forget which, —I only know that these books constitute my cloud-land, where I love to sail away in dreamy quietude, forgetting the war, the price of coal and flour, the rates of exchange, and the rise and fall of gold. What do all these things matter, as seen from those enchanted gardens in Padua where the weird Rappaccini tends his enchanted plants, and his gorgeous daughter fills us with the light and magic of her presence, and saddens us with the shadowy allegoric mystery of her preternatural destiny ? But my wife represents the positive forces of time, place, and number in our family, and, having also a chronological head, she knows the day of the month, and therefore gently reminded me that by inevitable dates the time drew near for preparing my — which is it now, May or June number ?
“ Well, my dear, you are right,” I said, as by an exertion I came head-uppermost, and laid down the fascinating volume. “ Let me see, what was I to write about?”
“ Why, you remember you were to answer that letter from the lady who does her own work.”
“ Enough ! ” said I, seizing the pen with alacrity; “you have hit the exact phrase : —
“ 'The lady who does her own work? ”
America is the only country where such a title is possible, — the only country where there is a class of women who may be described as ladies who do their own work. By a lady we mean a woman of education, cultivation, and refinement, of liberal tastes and ideas, who, without any very material additions or changes, would be recognized as a lady in any circle of the Old World or the New.
What I have said is, that the existence of such a class is a fact peculiar to American society, a clear, plain result of the new principles involved in the doctrine of universal equality.
When the colonists first came to this country, of however mixed ingredients their ranks might have been composed, and however imbued with the spirit ot feudal and aristocratic ideas, the discipline of the wilderness soon brought them to a democratic level; the gentleman felled the wood for his log-cabin side by side with the ploughman, and thews and sinews rose in the market, “ A man was deemed honorable in proportion as he lifted his hand upon the high trees of the forest.” So in the interior domestic circle. Mistress and maid, living in a log-cabin together, became companions, and sometimes the maid, as the more accomplished and stronger, took precedence of the mistress. It became natural and unavoidable that children should begin to work as early as they were capable of it. The result was a generation of intelligent people brought up to labor from necessity, but turning on the problem of labor the acuteness of a disciplined brain. The mistress, outdone in sinews and muscles by her maid, kept her superiority by skill and contrivance. If she could not lift a pail of water, she could invent methods which made lifting the pail unnecessary, — if she could not take a hundred steps without weariness, she could make twenty answer the purpose of a hundred.
Slavery, it is true, was to some extent introduced into New England, but it never suited the genius of the people, never struck deep root, or spread so as to choke the good seed of self-helpfulness. Many were opposed to it from conscientious principle, — many from far-sighted thrift, and from a love of thoroughness and well-doing which despised the rude, unskilled work of barbarians. People, having once felt the thorough neatness and beauty of execution which came of free, educated, and thoughtful labor, could not tolerate the clumsiness of slavery. Thus it came to pass that for many years the rural population of New England, as a general rule, did their own work, both out doors and in. If there were a black man or black woman or bound girl, they were emphatically only the helps, following humbly the steps of master and mistress, and used by them as instruments of lightening certain portions of their toil. The master and mistress with their children were the head workers.
Great merriment has been excited in the Old Country, because years ago the first English travellers found that the class of persons by them denominated servants were in America denominated help or helpers. But the term was the very best exponent of the state of society. There were few servants, in the European sense of the word ; there was a society of educated workers, where all were practically equal, and where, if there was a deficiency in one family and an excess in another, a helper, not a servant, was hired. Mrs. Browne, who has six sons and no daughters, enters into agreement with Mrs. Jones, who has six daughters and no sons. She borrows a daughter, and pays her good wages to help in her domestic toil, and sends a son to help the labors of Mr. Jones. These two young people go into the families in which they are to be employed in all respects as equals and companions, and so the work of the community is equalized. Hence arose, and for many years continued, a state ot society more nearly solving than any other ever did the problem of combining the highest culture of the mind with the highest culture of the muscles and the physical faculties.
Then were to be seen families of daughters, handsome, strong females, rising each day to their in-door work with cheerful alertness, — one to sweep the room, another to make the fire, while a third prepared the breakfast for the father and brothers who were going out to manly labor; and they chatted meanwhile of books, studies, embroidery, discussed the last new poem, or some historical topic started by graver reading, or perhaps a rural ball that was to come off the next week. They spun with the book tied to the distaff; they wove; they did all manner of fine needle - work ; they made lace, painted flowers, and, in short, in the boundless consciousness of activity, invention, and perfect health, set themselves to any work they had ever read or thought of. A bride in those days was married with sheets and table - cloths of her own weaving, with counterpanes and toiletcovers wrought in divers embroidery by her own and her sisters’ hands. The amount of fancy-work done in our days by girls who have nothing else to do will not equal what was done by these, who performed besides, among them, the whole work of the family.
For many years these habits of life characterized the majority of our rural towus. They still exist among a class respectable in numbers and position, though perhaps not as happy in perfect self-satisfaction and a conviction of the dignity and desirableness of its lot as in former days. Human nature is above all things —lazy. Every one confesses in the abstract that exertion which brings out all the powers of body and mind is the best thing for us all; but practically most people do all they can to get rid of it, and as a general rule nobody does much more than circumstances drive him to do. Even I would not write this article, were not the publication-day hard on my heels. I should read Hawthorne and Emerson and Holmes, and dream in my arm-chair, and project in the clouds those lovely unwritten stories that curl and veer and change like mist-wreaths in the sun. So, also, however dignified, however invigorating, however really desirable are habits of life involving daily physical toil, there is a constant evil demon at every one’s elbow, seducing him to evade it, or to bear its weight with sullen, discontented murmurs.
I will venture to say that there are at least, to speak very moderately, a hundred houses where these humble lines will be read and discussed, where there are no servants except the ladies of the household. I will venture to say, also, that these households, many of them, are not inferior in the air of cultivation and refined elegance to many which are conducted by the ministration of domestics. I will venture to assert, furthermore, that these same ladies who live thus find quite as much time for reading, letter-writing, drawing, embroidery, and fancy - work, as the women of families otherwise arranged. I am quite certain that they would be found on an average to be in the enjoyment of better health, and more of that sense of capability and vitality which gives one confidence in one’s ability to look into life and meet it with cheerful courage, than three-quarters of the women who keep Servants, — and that on the whole their domestic establishment is regulated more exactly to their mind, their food prepared and served more to their taste. And yet, with all this, I will not venture to assert that they are satisfied with this way of living, and that they would not change it forthwith, if they could. They have a secret feeling all the while that, they are being abused, that they are working harder than they ought to, and that women who live in their houses like boarders, who have only to speak and it is done, are the truly enviable ones. One after another of their associates, as opportunity offers and means increase, desert the ranks, and commit their domestic affairs to the hands of hired servants. Selfrespect takes the alarm. Is it altogether genteel to live as we do ? To be sure, we are accustomed to it; we have it all systematized and arranged ; the work of our own hands suits us better than any we can hire; in fact, when we do hire, we are discontented and uncomfortable, — for who will do for us what we will do for ourselves ? But when we have company ! there’s the rub, to get out all our best things and put them back,— to cook the meals and wash the dishes ingloriously, — and to make all appear as if we did n’t do it, and had servants like other people.
There, after all, is the rub. A want of hardy self-belief and self-respect,—an unwillingness to face with dignity the actual facts and necessities of our situation in life, — this, after all, is the worst and most dangerous feature of the case. It is the same sort of pride which makes Smilax think he must hire a waiter in white gloves, and get up a circuitous dinner-party on English principles, to entertain a friend from England. Because the friend in England lives in such and such a style, he must make believe for a day that he lives so too, when in fact it is a whirlwind in his domestic establishment equal to a removal or a fire, and threatens the total extinction of Mrs. Smilax. Now there are two principles of hospitality that people are very apt to overlook. One is, that their guests like to be made at home, and treated with confidence ; and another is, that people are always interested in the details of a way of life that is new to them. The Englishman comes to America as weary of his old, easy, family-coach life as you can be of yours ; he wants to see something new under the snu, — something American; and forthwith we all bestir ourselves to give him something as near as we can fancy exactly like what he is already tired of. So city-people come to the country, not to sit in the best parlor, and to see the nearest imitation of city-life, but to lie on the hay-mow, to swing in the barn, to form intimacy with the pigs, chickens, and ducks, and to eat baked potatoes exactly on the critical moment when they are done, from the oven of the cooking-stove, — and we remark, en passant, that nobody has ever truly eaten a baked potato, unless he has seized it at that precise and fortunate moment.
I fancy you now, my friends, whom I have in my eye. You are three happy women together. You are all so well that you know not how it feels to he sick. You are used to early rising, and would not lie in bed, if you could. Long years of practice have made you familiar with the shortest, neatest, most expeditious method of doing every household office, so that really for the greater part of the time in your house there seems to a looker-on to be nothing to do. You rise in the morning and despatch your husband, father, and brothers to the farm or woodlot ; you go sociably about chatting with each other, while you skim the milk, make the butter, turn the cheeses. The forenoon is long ; it’s ten to one that all the so-called morning work is over, and you have leisure for an hour’s sewing or reading before it is time to start the dinnerpreparations. By two o’clock your housework is done, and you have the long afternoon for books, needle-work, or drawing, — for perhaps there is among you one with a gift at her pencil. Perhaps one of you reads aloud while the others sew, and you manage in that way to keep up with a great deal of reading. I see on your book-shelves Prescott, Macaulay, Irving, besides the lighter fry of poems and novels, and, if I mistake not, the friendly covers of the “ Atlantic.” When you have company, you invite Mrs. Smith or Brown or Jones to tea; you have no trouble ; they come early, with their knitting or sewing; your particular crony sits with you by your polished stove while you watch the baking of those light biscuits and tea-rusks for which you are so famous, and Mrs. Somebody - else chats with your sister, who is spreading the table with your best china in the best room. When tea is over, there is plenty of volunteering to help you wash your pretty India teacups, and get them back into the cupboard. There is no special fatigue or exertion in all this, though you have taken down the best things and put them back, because you have done all without anxiety or effort, among those who would do precisely the same, if you were their visitors.
But now comes down pretty Mrs. Simmons and her pretty daughter to spend a week with you, and forthwith you are troubled. Your youngest, Fanny, visited them in New York last fall, and tells you of their cook and chambermaid, and the servant in white gloves that waits on table. You say in your soul, “ What shall we do ? they never can be contented to live as we do; how shall we manage ? ” And now you long for servants.
This is the very time that you should know that Mrs. Simmons is tired to death of her fine establishment, and weighed down with the task of keeping the peace among her servants. She is a quiet soul, dearly loving her ease, and hating strife ; and yet last week she had five quarrels to settle between her invaluable cook and the other members of her staff, because invaluable cook, on the strength of knowing how to get up state-dinners and to manage all sorts of mysteries which her mistress knows nothing about, asserts the usual right of spoiled favorites to insult all her neighbors with impunity, and rule with a rod of iron over the whole house. Anything that is not in the least like her own home and ways of living will be a blessed relief and change to Mrs. Simmons. Your clean, quiet house, your delicate cookery, your cheerful morning tasks, if you will let her follow you about, and sit and talk with you while you are at your work, will all seem a pleasant contrast to her own life. Of course, if it came to the case of offering to change lots in life, she would not do it ; but very likely she thinks she would, and sighs over and pities herself, and thinks sentimentally how fortunate you are, how snugly and securely you live, and wishes she were as untrammelled and independent as you. And she is more than half right; for, with her helpless habits, her utter ignorance of the simplest facts concerning the reciprocal relations of milk, eggs, butter, saleratus, soda, and yeast, she is completely the victim and slave of the person she pretends to rule.
Only imagine some of the frequent scenes and rehearsals in her family. After many trials, she at last engages a seamstress who promises to prove a perfect treasure, — neat, dapper, nimble, skilful, and spirited. The very soul of Mrs Simmons rejoices in heaven. Illusive bliss! The new-comer proves to be no favorite with Madam Cook, and the domestic fates evolve the catastrophe, as follows. First, low murmur of distant thunder in the kitchen; then a day or two of sulky silence, in which the atmosphere seems heavy with an approaching storm. At last comes the climax. The parlor-door flies open during breakfast. Enter seamstress, in tears, followed by Mrs. Cook with a face swollen and red with wrath, who tersely introduces the subject-matter of the drama in a voice trembling with rage.
“ Would you be plased, Ma’am, to suit yersilf with another cook ? Me week will be up next Tuesday, and I want to be going.”
“ Why, Bridget, what’s the matter ? ”
“ Matter enough, Ma’am! I niver could live with them Cork girls in a house, nor I won’t; them as likes the Cork girls is welcome for all me ; but it’s not for the likes of me to live with them, and she been in the kitchen a-upsettin’ of me gravies with her flat-irons and things.”
Here bursts in the seamstress with a whirlwind of denial, and the altercation wages fast and furious, and poor, little, delicate Mrs. Simmons stands like a kitten in a thunder-storm in the midst of a regular Irish row.
Cook, of course, is sure of her victory. She knows that a great dinner is to come off Wednesday, and that her mistress has not the smallest idea how to manage it, and that, therefore, whatever happens, she must be conciliated.
Swelling with secret indignation at the tyrant, poor Mrs. Simmons dismisses her seamstress with longing looks. She suited her mistress exactly, but she did n’t suit cook !
Now, if Mrs. Simmons had been brought up in early life with the experience that you have, she would be mistress in her own house. She would quietly say to Madam Cook, “If my family - arrangements do not suit you, you can leave. I can see to the dinner myself.” And she could do it. Her well-trained muscles would not break down under a little extra work ; her skill, adroitness, and perfect familiarity with everything that is to be done would enable her at once to make cooks of any bright girls of good capacity who might still be in her establishment; and, above all, she would feel herself mistress in her own house. This is what would come of an experience in doing her own work as you do. She who can at once put her own trained hand to the machine in any spot where a hand is needed never comes to be the slave of a coarse, vulgar Irishwoman .
So, also, in forming a judgment of what is to be expected of servants in a given time, and what ought to be expected of a given amount of provisions, poor Mrs. Simmons is absolutely at sea. It even for one six months in her life she had been a practical cook, and had really had the charge of the larder, she would not now be haunted, as she constantly is, by an indefinite apprehension of an immense wastefulness, perhaps of the disappearance of provisions through secret channels of relationship and favoritism. She certainly could not be made to believe in the absolute necessity of so many pounds of sugar, quarts of milk, and dozens of eggs, not to mention spices and wine, as are daily required for the accomplishment of Madam Cook’s purposes, But though now she does suspect and apprehend, she cannot speak with certainty. She cannot say, “I have made these things. I know exactly what they require. I have done this and that myself, and know it can be done, and done well, in a certain time.” It is said that women who have been accustomed to doing their own work become hard mistresses. They are certainly more sure of the ground they stand on,—they are less open to imposition, —they can speak and act in their own houses more as those “having authority,” and therefore are less afraid to exact what is justly their due, and less willing to endure impertinence and unfaithfulness. Their general error lies in expecting that any servant ever will do as well for them as they will do for themselves, and that an untrained, undisciplined human being ever can do house-work, or any other work, with the neatness and perfection that a person of trained intelligence can. It has been remarked in our armies that the men of cultivation, though bred in delicate and refined spheres, can bear up under the hardships of camp-life better and longer than rough laborers. The reason is, that an educated mind knows how to use and save its body, to work it and spare it, as an uneducated mind cannot; and so the college-bred youth brings himself safely through fatigues which kill the unrefiective laborer. Cultivated, intelligent women, who are brought up to do the work of their own families, are labor-saving institutions. They make the head save the wear of the muscles. By forethought, contrivance, system, and arrangement, they lessen the amount to be done, and do it with less expense of time and strength than others. The old NewEngland motto, Get your work done up in the forenoon, applied to an amount of work which would keep a common Irish servant toiling from daylight to sunset.
A lady living in one of our obscure New-England towns, where there were no servants to be hired, at last by sending to a distant city succeeded in procuring a raw Irish maid-of-all-work, a creature of immense bone and muscle, but of heavy, unawakened brain. In one fortnight she established such a reign of Chaos and old Night in the kitchen and through the house, that her mistress, a delicate woman, incumbered with the care of young children, began seriously to think that she made more work each day than she performed, and dismissed her. What was now to be done ? Fortunately, the daughter of a neighboring farmer was going to be married in six months, and wanted a little ready money for her trousseau. The lady Was informed that Miss So-and-so would come to her, not as a servant, but as hired “ help.” She was fain to accept any help with gladness. Forthwith came into the familycircle a tall, well-dressed young person, grave, unobtrusive, self-respecting, yet not in the least presuming, who sat at the family-table and observed all its decorums with the modest self possession of a lady. The new - comer took a survey of the labors of a family of ten members, including four or five young children, and, looking, seemed at once to throw them into system, matured her plans, arranged her hours of washing, ironing, baking, cleaning, rose early, moved deftly, and in a single day the slatternly and littered kitchen assumed that neat, orderly appearance that so often strikes one in NewEngland farm-houses. The work seemed to be all gone. Everything was nicely washed, brightened, put in place, and stayed in place; the floors, when cleaned. remained clean ; the work was always done, and not doing; and every afternoon the young lady sat neatly dressed in her own apartment, either quietly writing letters to her betrothed, or sewing on her bridal outfit. Such is the result of employing those who have been brought up to do their own work. That tall, fine-looking girl, for aught we know, may yet be mistress of a fine house on Fifth Avenue; and if she is, she will, we fear, prove rather an exacting mistress to Irish Biddy and Bridget; but she will never be threatened by her cook and chambermaid, after the first one or two have tried the experiment.
Having written thus far on my article, I laid it aside till evening, when, as usual, I was saluted by the inquiry, “ Has papa been writing anything to-day ? ” and then followed loud petitions to hear it; and so I read as far, reader, as you have.
“ Well, papa,” said Jennie, “ what are you meaning to make out there ? Do you really think it would be best for us all to try to go back to that old style of living you describe ? After all, you have shown only the dark side of an establishment with servants, and the bright side of the other way of living. Mamma does not have such trouble with her servants; matters have always gone smoothly in our family; and if we are not such wonderful girls as those you describe, yet we may make pretty good housekeepers on the modern system, after all.”
“ You don’t know all the troubles your mamma has had in your day,” said my wife. “ I have often, in the course of my family - history, seen the day when I have heartily wished for the strength and ability to manage my household matters as my grandmother of notable memory managed hers. But I fear that those remarkable women of the olden times are Nike the ancient painted glass, — the art of making them is lost; my mother was less than her mother, and I am less than my mother.” “ And Marianne and I come out entirely at the little end of the horn,” said Jennie, laughing; “ yet I wash the breakfast-cups and dust the parlors, and have always fancied myself a notable housekeeper.”
“ It. is just as I told you,” I said. “Human nature is always the same. Nobody ever is or does more than circumstances force him to be and do. Those remarkable women of old were made by circumstances. There were, comparatively speaking, no servants to be had, and so children were trained to habits of industry and mechanical adroitness from the cradle, and every household process was reduced to the very minimum of labor. Every step required in a process was counted, every movement calculated ; and she who took ten steps, when one would do, lost her reputation for 'faculty.’ Certainly such an early drill was of use in developing the health and the bodily powers, as well as in giving precision to the practical mental faculties. All household economies were arranged with equal niceness in those thoughtful minds. A trained housekeeper knew just how many sticks of hickory of a certain size were required to heat her oven, and how many of each different kind of wood. She knew by a sort of intuition just what kinds of food would yield the most palatable nutriment with the least outlay of accessories in cooking. She knew to a minute the time when each article must go into and be withdrawn from her oven ; and if she could only lie in her chamber and direct, she could guide an intelligent child through the processes with mathematical certainty. It is impossible, however, that anything but early training and long experience can produce these results, and it is earnestly to be wished that the grandmothers of New England had only written down their experiences for our children; they would have been a mine of maxims and traditions, better than any other traditions of the elders which we know of.”
“One thing I know,” said Marianne,— “and that is, I wish I had been brought up so, and knew all that I should, and had all the strength and adroitness that those women had. I should not dread to begin housekeeping, as I now do. I should feel myself independent. I should feel that I knew how to direct my servants, and what it was reasonable and proper to expect of them ; and then, as you say, I should n’t be dependent on all their whims and caprices of temper. I dread those household storms, of all things.”
Silently pondering these anxieties of the young expectant housekeeper, I resumed my pen, and concluded my paper as follows.
In this country, our democratic institutions have removed the superincumbent pressure which in the Old World confines the servants to a regular orbit. They come here feeling that this is somehow a land of liberty, and with very dim and confused notions of what liberty is. They are for the most part the raw, untrained Irish peasantry, and the wonder is, that, with all the unreasoning heats and prejudices of the Celtic blood, all the necessary ignorance and rawness, there should be the measure of comfort and success there is in our domestic arrangements. But, so long as thing are so, there will be constant changes and interruptions in every domestic establishment, and constantly recurring interregnums when the mistress must put her own hand to the work, whether the hand be a trained or an untrained one. As matters now are, the young housekeeper takes life at the hardest. She has very little strength, — no experience to teach her how to save her strength. She knows nothing experimentally of the simplest processes necessary to keep her family comfortably fed and clothed; and she has a way of looking at all these things which makes them particularly hard and distasteful to her. She does not escape being obliged to do house-work at intervals, but she does it in a weak, blundering, confused way, that makes it twice as hard and disagreeable as it need be. Now what I have to say is, that, if every young woman learned to do housework and cultivated her practical faculties in early life, she would, in the first place, be much more likely to keep her servants, and, in the second place, if she lost them temporarily, would avoid all that wear and tear of the nervous system which comes from constant ill-success in those departments on which family health and temper mainly depend. This is one of the peculiarities of our American life which require a peculiar training. Why not face it sensibly ?
The second thing I have to say is, that our land is now full of motorpathic institutions to which women are sent at great expense to have hired operators stretch and exercise their inactive muscles. They lie for hours to have their feet twigged, their arms flexed, and all the different muscles of the body worked for them, because they are so flaccid and torpid that the powers of life do not go on. Would it not be quite as cheerful and less expensive a process, if young girls from early life developed the muscles in sweeping, dusting, ironing, rubbing furniture, and all the multiplied domestic processes which our grandmothers knew of? A woman who did all these, and diversified the intervals with spinning on the great and little wheel, never came to need the gymnastics of Dio Lewis or of the Swedish motorpathist, which really are a necessity now. Does it not seem poor economy to pay servants for letting our muscles grow feeble, and then to pay operators to exercise them for us ? I will venture to say that our grandmothers in a week went over every movement that any gymnast has invented, and went over them to some productive purpose too.
Lastly, my paper will not have been in vain, if those ladies who have learned and practise the invaluable accomplishment of doing their own work will know their own happiness and dignity, and properly value their great acquisition, even though it may have been forced upon them by circumstances.