The High Art Of Housekeeping
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
This is an age of practical education. Men everywhere are seeking the shortest possible route through some kind of training into active life. The educational world is infested with "practical courses" of training that fit men in fifteen minutes to become merchant-princes and money-kings. There- are many of these short-hand processes, of course, that are simply humbugs ; yet there is a modicum of truth in the principle of special training for particular work. A professional training is of the highest value. A business course for business men meets a. great need in. a preparation for active work. And the world is coming to see that woman needs a special or professional education for her work in the household. Some of thé ' most momentous interests of society are intrusted to her care—the comfort of the household, the preparation of food for the family, the care and training of children, nursing the sick, and a thousand ministrations that need knowledge, skill, good judgment, and practical tact. A woman needs, therefore, a special training for domestic life just as a man needs a special training for professional or business life. It is not proposed to take this necessary branch of training into the schools. The study of the art of housekeeping should be pursued as a trade is learned, in the home itself. Girls from their early years should be' diligently schooled in those industries which they must carry on in their own homes in later life. We know that the notion has grown prevalent that womanliness and good house-keeping do not necessarily go together. And we know that ignorance, incompetence, and indolence have ruined many a home.' We know that foolish mothers seek in all possible ways to have their daughters shine socially, and care nothing about their being accomplished in the domestic circle. The ability to keep a house in order, to make their rooms pleasant and wholesome, to be able to prepare food that shall be palatable, and to do the other necessary duties of the household, are no longer regarded as womanly accomplishments. The notion is fast gaining ground that a fine girl must master the art of making a good "catch," and marry herself into wealth, indolence, and pauperism. For she who is supported in indolence without adding anything to the wealth-producing power of the house, is an indigent and a pauper, or perhaps a mistress and slave. The notion that our girls are to be reared to womanhood without mastering the art of successful housekeeping is worthy of every good man's ridicule and contempt. What if a young woman is to marry a man of wealth, and live in a residence where she would not be called upon to do the work of the household with her own hands ; what if she is to grace the parlors of luxury and grace the table of a millionaire. Does that absolve her from the responsibility of knowing how to keep house, and of knowing how to direct a servant to do the work of a house ? Can she be certain that there will never be any need for her daughter to know how to do these things ? Can she be certain that this policy of laziness is to be perpetuated in her family for generation after generation ? Society requires of a man, a certain amount of preparatory training when he enters a profession where the great issues of life are at stake ; but society has grown lenient to our wives and sisters, in requiring nothing in a profession where the highest interests of mankind are at stake. Talk of woman's rights in a society like ours where every wife and daughter that is above mediocrity assume the right to be lazy and incompetent to perform the simplest duties of her position. We hold it to be necessary for a man to master his business before he can hope to be successful in that business, and it is fair to say that men, as a class, do master the business which they follow, and we think that it should be equally as binding upon a woman to master the details and processes of the proper care of a house. We see no reason in the nature of things, and no reason in common sense, why a woman endowed with the fine powers and accomplishments of womanhood should not be a self-supporting, capable person, who need not depend upon a marriage for a livelihood. We see no reason in common sense why a woman should not be thoroughly able to make the clothes for the family, to prepare its food, and take intelligent care of husband and children in sickness or health. Is it a degrading sphere? Nothing but the thought of a courtesan or of a fashionable fool, or of a woman disgruntled by incompetence, could have been the natural mother of that notion. If it be degrading for a husband to earn the money that is used in the household, in the office, in his trade, at the bar, or sick-bed, then it may be disgraceful for the wife of that man to stain her lily fingers with the dust of toil. If it be disgraceful for a man to triumph over difficulties, to work hard and long for a start in life, to labor through the years, for a home and competence, then it may be disgraceful for the wife of that man to be industrious, frugal and sensible in the home which his toil has provided and hers may beautify and glorify. There can surely be no disgrace attaching to a noble work, nobly done. There can be no disgrace in a woman carrying the lighter end of the heavy burden of life. There may be disgrace in her refusing to do so. There may be disgrace in indolence and genteel pauperism, but in courageous toil there can be none.
I hate a loafer, be he dressed in pants or petticoat, whether he sit upon a dry goods box under a shady awning, or whether she sit on a divan in the drawing-room. Neither of them are of any use in a world like this. I would rather be anything than a loafer.
We have already said that one reason why farm life and the industrial trades are distasteful to young men is because they have not yet been raised to the dignity of a profession. We there took occasion to say that when farm-houses became the abodes of intelligence and an attractive social life, the boys would no longer leave the farms for the towns and cities. And the chief reason why house-keeping has grown distasteful is because some of the hangers-on of society have chosen to call it a menial occupation. And that word menial has more power in this land than any other word except million. One of the saddest sights of these days is the word menial, at war with the word million. A menial occupation to care for the mighty interest of a household and its family ! A menial occupation to dress the vines and fruit-trees of a domestic Eden ! A menial occupation to keep forever bright the tarnished doors of the earthly side of Paradise ! A menial occupation to be a high-minded woman, to do the honest duties of the grandest position beneath the sun of heaven ! A menial occupation to do with cheerful heart, with courageous will, with angelic devotion, those humble duties for which nature and your God have fitted you, to perform ! A menial occupation ! May the thunders of Sinai, may the deeper thunders of the Sermon on the Mount, blast the notion, riven with lightning !
God be praised that there are noble women in this land, whose acts, whose noble works in life, belie this picture ! God be praised that there are mothers still in Israel ! That there are wives still, that there are sisters still, who can watch from the banks of the Nile the trembling ark in which Moses is cradled. Who can watch it with a jealous care, as it goes careening among the rushes to the feet of a princess; who even then can watch over a brother's life through many a year and dance at last with timbrel and song on the farther shore of his successful march through the waters of the sea ! God be praised that Ruth, and Esther, and Mary, and a thousand other angelic ones have lived to bless this planet! God be praised' that the high prerogative is still dignified in many a humble home, in city, in town, and among the rural landscapes of this American land ! God be praised that new fields of effort are opening by which the girls can have an honest livelihood ! The brightest prospect before us is that the womanhood of modern times is knocking with jeweled fingers on the iron gates of toil. They will be opened, of course they will. One of the best indications for the comfort and prosperity of the coming generations is that the girls are more and more coming to see and to think that they can earn a livelihood. We do not ask that the young women of our land shall put themselves to menial tasks alone. We do not ask that they shall neglect high learning, graceful accomplishments, and those exquisite charms of manner and life which belong distinctively to woman. We simply ask that she shall be schooled to habits of industry ; that there shall be developed in her life a thorough self-control and self-reliance. We simply ask that she shall fit herself by the knowledge of something useful to earn her own living, if, by the freaks of fortune, she should ever be called upon to do so. We ° have no patience and no respect for that notion which shuts girls out from active participation in the work of life. We have been taught by every pen that was ever moved to utterance that the prosperity of a community depends upon the industry and thrift of that community. And the industry and thrift that is binding upon the man, is binding upon the woman, too. And it is time to hang this ghost of female weakness, incompetence and indolence on the gibbet of Haman. It is time for woman to cease being the inmate of a harem and take up with cheerful hope the duties of a Christian wife.
" Many hundreds of girls at the present time are being ruined simply for the want of something to do. This is by no means entirely their own fault. They have not been put to anything by their friends, and they have not sufficient energy and determination to make a beginning for themselves, and so their lives are Wasted. They work hard enough when they are at school, but when they leave it they have no particular object in life. They dawdle through the mornings, dress themselves up and go out in the afternoons, and either visit or go to some place of amusement in the evening, and so get through the months and years.
" Of course, their characters suffer. They grow selfish and small and narrow-minded. They delight in gossip, care for nothing but show and admiration, and look upon marriage as the crowning object of life. Sensible people of both sexes despise them, good people mourn over them. They are said to do nothing, but really they do incalculable harm. They degrade the name of woman, which ought to be a refining and elevating influence, and make it a by-word and a scorn.
" It is said that in olden times men toiled and wearied to find a famous stone that should transform every meaner metal that it touched into gold. As we look around and see how many girls are wasting their lives for want of a worthy purpose, we must feel eager to search as diligently as our fathers did for the philosopher's stone, for a talisman that shall secure for us that which is more precious than gold—exalted character in our girls. Earnest work for others is such a talisman. It has power to convert the thoughtless, foolish trifler into the earnest, reliable woman.
"When once a girl comes to feel that others are dependent upon her for happiness or comfort, that she is doing good work no one else can do so well, she begins instantly to respect herself, and to act as if she did. Her powers grow with the use of them, her nature expands, that which is small and frivolous becomes uninteresting to her, while that which is useful and real takes its right place.
" The most serious part of the business is that the wrong position is so quickly taken and so difficult to escape from when once it has become a habit. I do not suppose any girl ever deliberately made up her mind that she would waste her life. The greatest idler that ever existed began by not thinking much about the matter. If we could read her sad history we should find that she gently glided into idle habits. She began by not having anything particular to do, went on to be interested only in that which amused her and gave her pleasure for the moment, and ended by being self-indulgent, self-seeking, idle, and incapable of doing good, earnest work.
"Whatever else comes, therefore, let us make up our minds what we are about,' and so we shall not be in danger of sliding into uselessness."—PHILLIS BROWNE.