Monday, March 3, 2008

More Work for Mother 2 -- Keeping House in Colonial America

The kitchen at Mount Vernon, which is in a building separated from the main house. Being the kitchen of a wealthy man (Mt. Vernon was an industrial complex of 13 square miles), it is not indicative of that of an ordinary man and wife, but it does show the hearth and the iron pots. At the turn of the 18th century, two iron pots cost the equivalent of a bed.

Thanks so much for the thoughtful comments on the first post on More Work for Mother.

The book More Work for Mother: The Ironies Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwaveby Ruth Cowan Schwartz surveys housekeeping from the time of colonial America through the postwar years of the 20th century. The period of colonial America deals with the time before industrialization reshaped the household and it is generally supposed that in this time, the home was primarily a place of production rather than a place of consumption--this is a common phrase dealing with the difference between the pre-industrialized and post-industrialization home. I will post reports on each phase in history that she surveys, beginning here with colonial period, which is the baseline from which she measures change thereafter. Please keep in mind that I a reporting on More Work for Mother. I will put my comments in brackets.

Wisely, Schwartz examines a particular activity--getting the dinner on the table in a middle-class home or farm home--in colonial America and examines the labor and relations behind it. She reports on the diet of prosperous Dutch households in Albany, New York, in 1750, which she says, with differences in vegetables, etc., was generally the custom.
Breakfast--tea, bread and butter, radishes, perhaps some thinly cut cheese
Noon meal (dinner)--meat stew with turnips and cabbage
Evening meal--corn porridge with milk, left-over meat and vegetables

Colonial cookbooks reflect recipes for the rich. This was otherwise the standard fare, with vegetables and fruits when in season. The one-pot soup or stew, or casserole was the rule.

The most important point that Schwartz makes in her discussion of this period is that providing the family meal was an activity that required a division of labor between both sexes. To wit: Although the lady of the house did the cooking, the preparation of much of the food and implements relied on the man in the house. In addition, certain implements, most of those involving metal, must be bought on the market, which involves trading for goods produced by the household, usually the man. The division of labor went something like this:

The woman cooks; the man whittles many of the wooden implements she uses (spoon, etc.)
The woman churned the butter; often the man took care of the cows that gave the milk
The woman baked bread with wheat produced by the man
The woman turned flax into the linen; the man produced the flax
The woman scrubbed the floor with lye; the man produced the lye
The woman took care of infants; the man made the cradle and produced the hay used for a mattress

This division of labor kept a man and a woman together or joined them in a household in some way. Schwartz writes:
"If an 18th-century woman had attempted housekeeping without the assistance of a man (or of a good deal of cash with which to purchase the services of men), she would most likely have had markedly to lower her standard of living, to undertake tasks for which she had little training, and to work herself into a state of utter exhaustion--all of which conditions would have seriously endangered her health and probably her life. A similar fate would have befallen a man under the same circumstances had he tried to farm without the help of a woman. Small wonder that most people married and, once widowed, married again. Under the technological and economic conditions that prevailed before industrialization, survival at even a minimally comfortable standard of living required that each household contain adults (or at least grown children) of both sexes, and that each household have some minimal ability to participate in the market economy, at the very least so as to be able to acquire and maintain its tools."

[Compare this with the centrifugal forces that pull husbands and wives apart today.]

In addition to this division of labor, labor was also supplied by hired help. "I have read dozens of diaries and hundreds of letters written by people who lived in this country between 1660 and 1860, and have yet to encounter a single instance of a household that did not, at some point in its lifespan, employ 'hired' (that is, paid a wage) or 'boarded' (that is, living and working under the same roof as though they were members of family) help." This help--which may be quite temporary--acted to fill in the gaps in the division of labor between men and women in the household. [These people may also have been indentured servants and slaves, although Schwartz does not discuss this.]

Next: The Flour Revolution

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I read this book several years ago, and really got a lot out of it. In fact, it helped me, a mother of five with a sailor husband, to think about making my life a bit simpler. I took the one-pot meal concept to heart, and made it my business to keep the surfaces in my home free of clutter and easy to clean. That is why I find bare floors to be superior to carpeted ones, and prefer simple bedding as opposed to those big frou-frou comforter sets. A very valuable book and very eye-opening.