Saturday, August 27, 2011

Victorian Husbands and Wives

See the entire set at Retronaut compliments of Lisby.

I feel inspired to write a story for each couple, don't you?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Grace Snyder's No Time on My Hands

Grace McCance Snyder's autobiography, No Time on My Hands, written with her daughter, Nellie Snyder Yost, is the account of her pioneer life from 1885--when Grace is three years old and her family moves to Nebraska from settled Missouri--until 1962, a full 20 years before Grace Snyder died at the age of 100. I have read all of Laura Wilder's books of life on the prairie and other fictional and non-fictional accounts of pioneering women, but No Time on My Hands makes these accounts even more vivid and awe-inspiring because of the great detail that Grace shares about the work that she and her mother and sisters did at their sod homestead on the plains of Nebraska.

The book's title comes from Grace's paternal grandmother, Mrs. McCance, who was heard to say that "if there's one thing more'n another I simply can't abide, it's time on my hands." The elderly Mrs. McCance, as Grace's mother and Grace herself, were in a state of perpetual motion tending to the work on their farms and ranches. Grace and her grandmother thrived on work of all kinds; Grace's mother, of more fragile health, had long bouts of illness and a perpetual cough and her thin body seemed nearly crushed by the weight of her daily burdens. Nevertheless, she too lived to raise all of her children and see her great-grandchildren thrive.

The McCance Family. Grace's parents, Mr. and Mrs. McCance are standing together on the right. The six McCance children (there were eventually nine) are seated, with Grace third from the left. Grace's older sister Florry (second from left seated) died in childbirth.

As I read this 541-page book, I jotted down the different activities that these women routinely performed. Given that many of these tasks must be repeated daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly and also that calamities--primarily caused by extreme weather--posed constant disruptions to any routine, it is difficult to imagine how a woman would plan such a whirlwind of work as that performed in a well-managed homestead. Here is my list:

Creating and tending a vegetable garden (be prepared for heartbreak caused by hail or loose animals pummeling the garden to pulp)
Gathering cow chips for fuel
Berry gathering
Making jam
Drying corn Grinding corn for cornmeal
Churning butter
Curing meat
Making cheese
Preparing meals
Washing up the dishes and pots and pans after meals
Making yeast (boiling cornmeal and hop leaves to a thick mush and drying it in hard cakes, out of doors under cheesecloth in the summer and in the oven in winter) Baking bread
Making desserts with fruit and baking custards
Putting up (canning) fruits and vegetables for the winter and spring

Washing clothes
Making starch (smearing potato starch on a large piece of canvas and letting it dry, then peeling it off, and storing for use)
Hanging and gathering in clothes
Mending clothes--(a major activity, for example: During broomcorn harvesting, "each day the sharp stalks ripped their jacket sleeves to ravlings, and every evening Mama basted the backs of old overall legs to the sleeves, replacing the shredded patches she'd sewed on the night before.")
Making clothes--without patterns
Making quilts--Grace became a nationally known quilter--more on that later

Keeping a sod house clean (no mean feat)
Home decorating (curtains, etc.)

Breastfeeding babies
Watching young children
Homeschooling children

Feeding hens and chickens, goats, and cows, all of which contribute to putting food on the table
Milking the cows and/or goats

Killing snakes--one day a rattler got into the house and was sitting on the same blanket Grace's baby brother was on. Grace's mother killed the snake and then sought and found the den where it had come from and killed all 22 rattlesnakes therein.

Nursing the sick (Grace describes being at the bedside of a seriously ill person for days on end and also night and day)
Tending to and healing wounded or sick animals
Laying out the dead
Helping afflicted families

Even with this workload, Grace's mother found time to make delectable picnic food when the family went to town for the annual Fourth of July celebration, which, next to Christmas, was the biggest holiday. "Under the seats we carried a bag of grain for the mules and a tubful of picnic lunch--including

one of Mama's five-layer cakes, three white and two yellow, with custard filling between the layers and whipped cream, shredded coconut, and black walnut meats on the tops and sides.

Hands of a Farmwoman, photo by Russell Lee, 1936. "Grandma's hands were thin and brown and spotted, their soft, paper-dry skin crisscrossed with high, dark veins, and the fingers twisted and knotty, but she would look at them with grim satisfaction--anyone could see she'd never had any time on her hands."

Jessamyn West: "It's Making Something Beautiful"

In the Old House by Childe Hassam, 1914

Jessamyn West, the 20th-century author of The Friendly Persuasion and many other novels, snapped at a young feminist interviewer when asked if wanting to keep her home neat was an obstacle to writing because she was a woman. The interview, published in the book Women Writers of the West Coast (1983), took place on November 12, 1980. The exchange on order in the home went like this:

[Interviewer] Chapman said, "But you've written that, being a woman, you sometimes feel a certain sense of guilt that gets in the way of your writing. For instance, you wrote, 'I wish I could unlearn the need to straighten the house before writing.'..."

West countered: "Where is anything contradictory about wanting to sit down in the midst of something that is pleasing to the eye? Answer that, please!"

Chapman asked: "What about the fact that you didn't tell anyone you wanted to write until you were 26? You said you thought you were somewhat mad initially for having an urge to write, and I wonder if those feelings of responsibility for the house and the fear of admitting you wanted to be a writer are both tied to your being a woman."

West replied, "I don't tie them to either one. I had a sister, and I think a writer would be lucky if she could be born this way, who didn't give a damn if things are in a wild clutter. She wouldn't have been bothered if there were a pair of shoes on the mantle, but as it happens, I am not that way. I wouldn't feel happy writing until I took the shoes off the mantle and put them down where I thought they belonged. That is just a piece of my temperament. I don't understand the house not being orderly, because that's like painting a picture. It's making something beautiful. That is what I feel about straightening a house."

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Village Life in America by Caroline Cowles Richards

Caroline Cowles Richards in 1860

Village Life in America is a name given to a diary written by one Caroline Cowles Richards, later Mrs. Edmund Clarke, from 1852, when Caroline was 10 years old, to 1872, when she is married and has a family. The writer lived in Canandaigua, New York, in the finger lakes region, with her maternal grandparents, Mrs. and Mrs. Thomas Beals, and her sister Anna, younger by four years. Caroline's mother had died, and their father had sent the girls to be raised by the Beals, as he pursued his career, remarried, and had a new family. He wrote to the girls often. Even with these paltry facts, we can note that the nuclear family was not so stable as we might think in yesteryear, as it was often torn asunder by death, and children may be sent to live with relatives rather than stay with a single parent. This is just one example of the richness of comparisons and insights into mid-19th-entury housekeeping, social mores, attitudes, child-rearing, and religious belief and practice that are to be gained from this slim and charming book.

The diary takes us through the Civil War. With a Puritan grandmother, Caroline had been well taught of the necessity to end slavery. She describes in detail the patriotic fervor that gripped the village upon the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, which reached a fever pitch in the early days of the war; of the town's deep sadness at the loss of so many of its menfolk and sons; and its intense joy at the war's end followed only 10 days later by its shock and grief at the assassination of Lincoln.

As a historical record the diary is priceless. As a record of the coming to age of a young girl, it will leave voyeurs disappointed. Youthful perplexities are not subjects for discussion; Caroline says that she wanted to write down only the good things. Nevertheless, we are privileged to learn about daily life in the Beals household, as if we were walking through a museum of their house except they are still there and interacting right before our eyes.

First Congregational Church of Canandaigua, the center of social life for the Beals household, where they attended church, Sunday School, lectures, and meetings regularly each week.

Within the pages of the book we find a social fabric quite different from that of life today. The community revolves around its churches, and the household relies on written Scripture for the raising of children. Particularly, Grandmother Beals cites a verse or two from the Bible, it seems, at any point that she admonishes or reprimands her two granddaughters. For example, Caroline wrote in 1854:

I almost forgot that it was Sunday this morning and talked and laughed just as I do week days. Grandmother told me to write down this verse before I went to church so I would remember it: "Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God, and be more ready to hear than to offer the sacrifice of fools." I will remember it now, sure. My feet are all right any way with my new patten leather shoes on but I shall have to look out for my head… Grandmother always comes upstairs to get the candle and tuck us in before she goes to bed herself, and some nights we are sound asleep and do not hear her, but last night we only pretended to be asleep. She kneeled down by the bed and prayed aloud for us, that we might be good children and that she might have strength given to her from on high to guide us in the straight and narrow path which leads to .life eternal. Those were her very words. After she had gone downstairs we sat up in bed and talked about it and promised each other to be good, and crossed our hearts and "hoped to die" if we broke our promise. Then Anna was afraid we would die, but I told her I didn't believe we would be as good as that, so we kissed each other and went to sleep.

Grandmother Beals is especially fascinating because she is of Puritan stock and was born in the 18th century (1784). She tells the story of how as a little girl, "down in Connecticut in 1794, she was on her way to school one morning and she saw an Indian coming and was so afraid, but did not dare run for fear he would chase her. So she thought of the word sago, which means 'good morning,' and when she got up close to him she dropped a curtsy and said 'Sago,' and he just went right along and never touched her at all. She says she hopes we will always be polite to every one, even to strangers."

Grandmother Beals is a "good neighbor"--delivering food to families under duress, treating her two hired girls (who live in the household) well, and extending herself to African Americans. In one case, she invites to dinner a former slave woman, and Caroline is surprised to see that the grandmother has her eat in the dining room with the family.

Grandmother Beals was dearly loved and respected by her granddaughters:
I asked Grandmother to-day to write a verse for me to keep always and she wrote a good one: "To be happy and live long the three grand essentials are: Be busy, love somebody and have high aims." I think, from all I have noticed about her, that she has had this for her motto all her life and I don't think Anna and I can do very much better than to try and follow it too. Grandfather tells us sometimes, when she is not in the room, that the best thing we can do is to be just as near like Grandmother as we can possibly be.

Despite the determination of both grandparents to stay on the "straight and narrow path" to heaven, there is plenty of wit and humor in the Beals household. Anna is a jokester, but unless her jokes are sacriligious, she never seems to get in trouble for it. Here is an entry from 1858 that gives an idea of the ruefulness with which the family members thought of each other:

Frankie Richardson asked me to go with her to teach a class in the colored Sunday School on Chapel Street this afternoon. I asked Grandmother if I could go and she said she never noticed that I was particularly interested in the colored race and she said she thought I only wanted an excuse to get out for a walk Sunday afternoon. However, she said I could go just this once. When we got up as far as the Academy, Mr. Noah T. Clarke's brother [and Caroline's future husband], who is one of the teachers, came out and Frank said he led the singing at the Sunday School and she said she would give me an introduction to him, so he walked up with us and home again. Grandmother said that when she saw him opening the gate for me, she understood my zeal in missionary work. "The dear little lady," as we often call her, has always been noted for her keen discernment and wonderful sagacity and loses none of it as she advances in years. Some one asked Anna the other day if her Grandmother retained all her faculties and Anna said, "Yes, indeed, to an alarming degree."
I would love to post the entire diary, but no need, because you can read it right here. I recommend this fascinating book for all, but especially for girls aged 10 to old age.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Hymns by Firelight

Family Life on the Frontier by Caleb Bingham, c. 1845

Hymns by Firelight

Now the sweet cloudy voices rise and fall,
Blurring the soft damp air with melody,
And one sits shadowy with the white shawl
Drawn to her throat and folded over her knee,
Repeating gently the cadence of the hymn,
And the thick ash mantles the dim coals
And the dew gathers on smooth leaf and stem.

Where they are sitting the firelight gleams
On their familiar faces, touching with charm
Or fantasy all the lines and seams
That the mind may have made, but the heart dreams,
Comforted, cradled, and warm,
In these old words, cradle of many souls,
And the white ash gathers, heavy upon the coals.

Janet Lewis

Monday, August 1, 2011

Against a Darkening Sky: Life in the 1930s

Janet Lewis

Janet Lewis wrote Against a Darkening Sky in the early 1940s (published 1945) about the life of women with families in Encino, a suburb of San Francisco, based on her own experiences and those of her friends during the 1930s Great Depression. Ms. Lewis, whose real name was Mrs. Yvor Winters, lived in this area with her family and, as did her neighbors, grew vegetables, raised goats and chickens, and undoubtedly had to tighten the family's belt in the 1930s downturn. Credit cards were not even on the horizon during that prolonged recession.

The novel is not thickly plotted but chronicles on the life of the Perrault family, particularly the mother Mary Perrault, who came to first Canada and then California from Scotland, and her young adult daughter Melanie. Mary is married to a French Hugenot immigrant Aristide Perrault, who has a job with the water company but also breeds rabbits as a sideline source of money and food. The Perraults raise vegetables for their own consumption, keep a cow for milk, and eat the fruit of their orchard, producing as much of their own food as possible.

Near Kennebunkport by Abbott Fuller Graves, 1900

Mrs. Perrault is a busy woman, working from early in the morning til into the mid-evening before sleep, baking bread, cakes, and pies; preparing meals; gardening; canning vegetables and fruit; keeping their four-room house clean; washing and mending clothes; and watching over her children: Melanie and three younger boys. She is also active in her community, chairman of the PTA and involved with her neighbors. There are no luxuries; there is no telephone. The Perraults never eat out, but there is always room for guests at their table.

The book begins on Friday afternoon in the early summer, as Mrs. Perrault receives a visit from her oldest friend, Mrs. Alice Hardy. Both women are in their early 50s and enjoy a short stroll to the garden and chit chat about their children and neighbors. "It was a day so like a long procession of tranquil days that nothing could have warned them that it might be the last. And yet years afterward Mary Perrault was able to look back into that afternoon, as into a scene framed and set aside, and remember trivial words and gestures, trivial things observed, which assumed thereafter a dignity and a permanence beyond the words and gestures of any other afternoon."

From this point forward, although the Perraults do not lose employment, their home, or their two acres, the times become increasingly difficult. At all points, Mrs. Perrault exhibits remarkable patience, courage, and care for those around her, which encompasses her neighbors. Indeed, the families Lewis describes, particularly the women, work together to stay on top of what is happening in households and to bring succour when needed. Services and food are exchanged, as money becomes scarcer. Women, as does Mary Perrault, seek outside, part-time employment, to keep things afloat.

Unlike Hollywood, Janet Lewis is not a sentimentalist, and her portrait of her own friends and neighbors--Against a Darkening Sky being the novel closest to her heart--likely can be relied upon as an accurate portrayal of times for a certain strata of working families during the Depression. Those who have watched movies of the late 1930s and early 1940s such as The Human Comedy (1943, based on the novel by William Saroyan), The Clock (1945), It's a Wonderful Life (1946), and Four Daughters (there are more), will recognize the courageous spirit of Americans and their habitual willingness to sacrifice for others. Lewis' novel seems to indicate that the films are less of an exaggeration than we would be comfortable to think.

Mary Perrault and her neighbors are not, however, members of the "greatest generation" but were born in the 1890s and first decade of the 20th century--before World War I draped a pall of pessimism over Europe and the United States. Indeed, upon attending the memorial of a hapless neighbor at a funeral home where a minister delivers a eulogy about someone he never knew, Mary Perrault begins to think that

"there was hardly anything abut a funeral such as this which she did not dislike, small items which summed up a discreet commercialism. Yet, it was not entirely the fault of the morticians.... The fault lay in the lack of faith, the lonely and independent lives--every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost--the shifting communities whose constant change made it impossible for anyone to live as she had lived as a girl, in a community as in the center of a family.... It was the loss of faith that grieved her the most. About her own children, growing up in this world, could they have, as she now had, security of faith without a literal belief in the things which she had been taught as a girl? All the honey of that old discipline was now hers, distilled in many precious and life-giving phrases, but how could she convey to Melanie what these phrases now meant to her?"

Sunday by Edward Hopper, 1926

Lewis leaves no doubt that for her, Mary Perrault is a civilizer, whose dedication to family and charity to neighbors pushes back what Mary Perrault herself calls the "moral wilderness." Against a Darkening Sky--a good book for our times.