Chapped hands and a sore back were the consequences from "wash day" when so much was done by hand many years ago. Other chores such as an ironing day, sewing day, cleaning day and so on was the typical schedule of most women as part of their homemaking routine. Women had it down to a science and worked hard in a way that is different than today. Great physical labor was required and, as seen in prior columns, a working knowledge of such things as using many parts of an animal for cooking, including calf and hog brains, was common. A look into by-gone years tells us what some of these homemaking chores were like. The goal of course, was to have a cheerful, charming, and cozy house, with the main responsibility for this falling on the wife.
Good housekeepers seemed to keep to a plan with an effort to get things done in an orderly manner that did not upset the household. The nearly 120-year-old "Every-Day Cook-Book" by Miss Neil, quaintly stated by today's standards, that cleaning should be conducted with "little disturbance to the domestic arrangement," and that indeed, anything else was a "nuisance, particularly to the males of the household. Nothing can be (next to a miserable dinner) more exasperating to a tired man, than to come home and find the house topsy-turvy."
A husband's comfort took priority, and while looking one's best was recommended as part of the routine, so should the home. Miss Neil said that doing so, "certainly raises his opinion of his wife's executive ability to find everything freshened and brightened, without his having been annoyed by the odor of soapsuds."
A 1912 illustration of a housewife.
One place for the wife to start cleaning was the cellar. Cellars, for the most part, were damp with dirt floors and used for storing food. It was thought that some sicknesses in the family could be traced to the cellar because it opened up the kitchen and brought up bad air full of decaying vegetables and rotten wood. The job at hand was to carry these things away, sweep down the cobwebs, and whitewash the walls and ceiling with a broom. Miss Neil said this would sweeten the air throughout the house and save the family from sickness and doctors.
Rooms were cleaned one by one, and a thorough cleaning meant removing furniture and carpets to dust with a damp broom beginning with the ceiling. Whitewashing was sometimes necessary, so opening the windows or lighting a fire helped it dry. In the days without vacuums and carpet padding, layers of newspapers or thick brown paper were put down on the floor before carpets were replaced in the rooms.
Curiously, headaches were a common problem for the homemaker and directly related to cleaning. Even 120 years ago, it was recommended to get fresh air and exercise because women living indoors were in a place where the "best air is never good and the worst is poison."
No different than today, an eye for beauty in the home surroundings was important. Sunlit rooms were prized for the emotional and health benefits. The "Every-Day Cook-Book" noted that the light of the sun in the home could not be "too highly esteemed and that perfect health is nearly as much dependent on pure sunlight as it is on pure air." Rooms needed to be arranged to let in as much light as possible. Color was also important with warm and cool shades; a room without sun should have bright and joyous colors. Plants, books and needlework could lend to the cheer, with everything in its place.
The author of the book, however, did not claim that everything had to be perfect all the time. She said that some things left out suggested that people were in the midst of living in the space and that a focus on being too neat was not cheerful. Of course, disorder and negligence made comfort and cheer impossible. Some old, but good advice for today also included what we call clutter. Pictures and other ornamental articles were to be chosen in good taste, with fewer being better than more. Too much was "tawdry-looking" and merely took up space. A home should not be crowded and look like a cheap bazaar. Use housecleaning to get rid of these types of items and remember that "an empty wall looks better than one hung with daubs."
We may not need to whitewash our walls anymore as part of our housecleaning routines or have to wash clothes by hand, but some of the goals from 120 years ago remain the same. A home needs to be a source of enjoyment for its inhabitants and the physical environment is one of the critical components that make this possible. Stated in an old-fashioned way, in one's home "you may gauge the refinement and cultivation of a family."
Next week we'll see the recommendations for happy and responsible children.
Make it a good week and find a way to make your home more cheerful and inviting for your family, Mary and Rosamond