Friday, May 18, 2007

Never Done

My "book-of-the-month" choice for May, 2007 was Susan Strasser's book, Never Done: A History of American Housework. Ms. Strasser has written a well-researched history that is both interesting and fun to read. This book chronicles the daily lives and work of most American women from colonial times through the late 20th century. It gives a great view of the incredible amount of work that - until recently- was necessary to keep the home in order. It also offers an unblinking, honest look at how domestic life has improved and what has been given up as a result of these improvements.

Strasser writes:
"Modern women, who can wash their laundry in automatic machines and pick up their dinners and their children on the way home from their jobs, must consider the implications of the lost satisfactions of old-fashioned housework and find ways to re-create some of those satisfactions in their daily lives both as workers and as consumers. At the same time, they must avoid romanticizing the past."

"Tainted water supplies, rancid food, soot and skin burns from open fires, and full chamber pots offer a more accurate picture of daily life for most people before the twentieth century than the less frequent pleasures of the quilting bee."

I enjoyed each chapter of this book, and learned so much. My favorite chapters, though, were "Daily Bread" - about food and cooking; "Fetch a Pail of Water" - about water-needs of every family, and the eventual blessing of indoor plumbing; "Blue Monday" - about laundry; "A Stitch in Time" - about clothing; and "Selling Mrs. Consumer" - about industry creating consumers out of women who used to be producers (that was a fascinating chapter, and an idea I'd never truly considered at any great length).

Here are a few snippets from those chapters:
From "Daily Bread" - "Few manufactured products relieved the housewives' tasks once they had brought the food home. All year round, food arrived in the kitchen unprepared. Shoppers returned from the market with live chickens that had to be killed, or dead ones that had to be plucked; their work at home matched that of the farmer or the poor urban chicken keeper. Even purchased fish had scales; even purchased hams had to be soaked or blanched. Roasting and grinding green coffee, grinding and sifting whole spices, cutting and pounding lump or loaf sugar, sifting heavy flour that might be full of impurities, soaking oatmeal overnight, shelling nuts, grinding cocoa shells, seeding raisins, making and nurturing yeast, drying herbs: tasks like these accompanied nearly every ingredient of every recipe, whether it came from the garden or the market."

That chapter made me see that I take for granted how quick and easy meal preparation is for me. Last night the children said they wanted something sweet, I turned to Sarah and said, "How about making us some Snickerdoodle cookies?" Less than 20 minutes later we were enjoying warm, fresh-baked cookies, thanks to pre-packaged flour, sugar, cream of tartar, cinnamon, eggs, shortening, a Kitchen Aid mixer, our electric oven, and - of course - Sarah.

From "Fetch a Pail of Water" - "Without indoor plumbing, most women hauled every drop of water they used for cooking, dishwashing, bathing themselves and their families, laundry, and housecleaning; after using it, they hauled it back outside the house, though not necessarily going as far as they had come from the well, the spring, the creek, or the urban hydrant or pump. Heavy work even in the spring or fall, it became unbearable in summer's heat, and in winter women had to crack ice and thaw pumps to get to their frigid water supplies, and empty more chamber pots."

Oh, how I love my indoor plumbing and hot and cold running water!

From "Blue Monday" - " Without running water, gas or electricity, even the most simplified hand-laundry process consumed staggering amounts of time and labor. One wash, one boiling, and one rinse used about fifty gallons of water - or four hundred pounds - which had to be moved from pump or well or faucet to stove and tub, in buckets and wash boilers that might weigh as much as forty or fifty pounds."

There's more, but I'll spare you. Suffice it to say, this family would have fewer clothes, and those would be dirtier longer if I had to wash without indoor water and an automatic washer. I enjoy using my clothesline for drying, but we still use the dryer, too. Steve's grandmother and aunt used to use a wringer washer (electric) and I remember how even that took so much time, and someone had to stay there at the washer to empty the tub and to feed the clothes through the wringer.

From "A Stitch in Time" - "Throughout the colonial period and the first years of the new nation, women made most of the nation's cloth in their homes. They cultivated fields of flax and raised sheep. In the laborious prespinning processes, they used tools and methods dating back to Biblical times, shearing their sheep, carding their wool, harvesting, soaking, pounding, and combing their flax, producing long parallel fibers that could be spun. On spinning wheels made and sold by local or itinerant craftsmen, they drew out the fibers, twisting them together into a continuous thread and winding it onto bobbins; they warped their looms (more expensive and less common than spinning wheels) and wove the yarn into homespun wool, linen, or the combination linsey-woolsey. Coarse and unbleached, or finely spun, carefully dyed, and closely woven, these fabrics covered their beds and (cut and sewed by hand) kept their bodies warm."

I enjoy spinning. I enjoy carding wool and making rolags for spinning. But it takes an awfully large amount of fleece for me to make even 200 yards of yarn - which is about enough for one pair of socks. I can only imagine how much fleece and how much spinning would be needed to knit a sweater (about 1200 yards of yarn) or a blanket. (And finding the time when one also had to prepare food for meals, haul water, wash and iron clothes, and keep the fire going and the babies safe... ?)

From "Selling Mrs. Consumer" - "Advertisers came to see women as their audience; home economists taught women how to shop and how to plan for shopping; new, interrelated products like washing machines and soap powders appeared on the market, each encouraging the use of another; mail-order houses, department stores, supermarkets, and chain stores, emphasizing impersonal relationships between buyer and seller and dominated by large corporations, replaced small shops, country stores, and public markets. By the time of the Great Depression, which delayed the full expression of the new trends, consumption was established as the new task of the private sphere, now completely dominated by the public."

This chapter was an eye-opener for me, and I learned a lot!

Informative, a pleasure to read, with many source notes that in themselves make a great reading list, this book was a four star (out of four) choice for me.

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