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A DOMESTIC PROBLEM
_Work and Culture in the Household_
MRS. A. M. DIAZ
AUTHOR OF "THE SCHOOLMASTER'S TRUNK," ETC.
TAKING A VIEW OF THE SITUATION.
ONE CAUSE OF THE SITUATION. - A PART OF "WOMAN'S MISSION" CONSIDERED.
CULTURE PROVED TO BE A NEED OF THE CHILD-TRAINER.
THE OTHER PART OF "WOMAN'S MISSION."
OTHER CAUSES CONSIDERED.
REASONS FOR A CHANGE.
A WAY OUT.
SUGGESTIONS FOR LECTURE TOPICS
WAYS OF IMMEDIATE ESCAPE
MEANS OF ESCAPE ALREADY IN OPERATION
A DOMESTIC PROBLEM
_WORK AND CULTURE IN THE HOUSEHOLD_.
TAKING A VIEW OF THE SITUATION.
Our problem is this: How may woman enjoy the delights of culture, and
at the same time fulfil her duties to family and household? Perhaps it
is not assuming too much to say, that, in making known the existence
of such a problem, we have already taken the first step toward its
solution, just as a ship's crew in distress take the first step toward
relief by making a signal which calls attention to their needs.
The next step - after having, as we may say, set our flag at
half-mast - is one which, if all we hear be true, should come easily to
women in council, namely, talking. And talking we must have, even if,
as in the social game called "Throwing Light," much of it is done at a
venture. In that interesting little game, after a few hints have been
given concerning "the word," different members of the company begin at
once to talk about it, and think about it, and suggest and hazard
descriptive remarks, according to the idea each has formed of it; that
is, they try, though in the dark, to "throw light." As the interest
increases, the excitement becomes intense. Many of the ideas expressed
are absurdly wide of the mark, yet even these help to show what the
answer is not; and often, by their coming in contact, a light is
struck which helps amazingly. And so, in regard to our problem, we
have the hints; then why not begin at once to think about it, and talk
about it, and suggest, and guess, and throw light with all our might?
No matter if we even get excited, say absurd things, say utterly
preposterous things, make blunders. Blunders are to be expected. Let
them fly right and left; by hitting together right smartly they may
strike out sparks which shall help us find our way.
We all have heard of the frank country girl who said to her bashful
lover, "Do say something, if it isn't quite so bright!" This,
doubtless, is what every thoughtful woman, if she expressed the
sincere desire of her heart regarding our perplexing question, would
say to all other women; and it is to comply with that wish, partly
expressed to me, that I have gathered up from chance observation,
chance reading, and hearsay, some ideas bearing on the subject.
Suppose we begin by looking about us, and making clear to our minds
just what this state of things is, which, because it hinders culture,
many deem so unsatisfactory. After that, we will consider its causes,
reasons for changing it, and the way or ways out of it.
A few, a very few, of our women are able to live and move and have
their being literally regardless of expense. These can buy of skilled
assistants and competent supervisors, whole lifetimes of leisure; with
these, therefore, our problem has no concern. The larger class, the
immense majority, either do their work themselves, or attend
personally to its being done by others; "others" signifying that
inefficient, untrustworthy, unstable horde who come fresh from their
training in peat-bog and meadow, to cook our dinners, take care of our
china dishes, and adjust the nice little internal arrangements of our
Observing closely the lives of the immense majority, I think we shall
see, that, in conducting their household affairs, the object they have
in view is one and the same. I think we shall see that they all
strive, some by their own labors wholly, the rest by covering over and
piecing out the shortcomings of "help," to present a smooth, agreeable
surface to husbands and company. This smooth, agreeable surface may be
compared to a piece of mosaic work composed of many parts. Of the
almost infinite number of those parts, and of the time, skill, and
labor required to adjust them, it hath not entered, it cannot enter,
into the heart of man to conceive.
I wonder how long it would take to name, just merely to name, all the
duties which fall upon the woman who, to use a common phrase, and a
true one, carries on the family. Suppose we try to count them, one by
one. Doing this will help to give us that clear view of the present
state of things which it is our present object to obtain; though the
idea reminds me of what the children used to say when I was a child,
"If you count the stars you'll drop down dead," - a saying founded,
probably, on the vastness of the undertaking compared with human
endurance. It certainly cannot be called trivial to enumerate the
duties to which woman consecrates so large a portion of her life,
especially when we remember that into each and all of these duties she
has to carry her mind. Where woman's mind must go, woman's mind or
man's mind, should not scorn to follow. So let us make the attempt;
and we need not stand upon the order of our counting, but begin
Setting tables; clearing them off; keeping lamps or gas-fixtures in
order; polishing stoves, knives, silverware, tinware, faucets, knobs,
&c.; washing and wiping dishes; taking care of food left at meals;
sweeping, including the grand Friday sweep, the limited daily sweep,
and the oft-recurring dustpan sweep; cleaning paint; washing
looking-glasses, windows, window-curtains; canning and preserving
fruit; making sauces and jellies, and "catchups" and pickles; making
and baking bread, cake, pies, puddings; cooking meats and vegetables;
keeping in nice order beds, bedding, and bedchambers; arranging
furniture, dusting, and "picking up;" setting forth, at their due
times and in due order, the three meals; washing the clothes; ironing,
including doing up shirts and other "starched things;" taking care of
the baby, night and day; washing and dressing children, and regulating
their behavior, and making or getting made, their clothing, and seeing
that the same is in good repair, in good taste, spotless from dirt,
and suited both to the weather and the occasion; doing for herself
what her own personal needs require; arranging flowers; entertaining
company; nursing the sick; "letting down" and "letting out" to suit
the growing ones; patching, darning, knitting, crocheting, braiding,
quilting, - but let us remember the warning of the old saying, and
forbear in time.
This, however, is only a general enumeration. This is counting the
stars by constellations. Examining closely these items: we shall find
them made up each of a number of smaller items, and each of these
again of items still smaller. What seem homogeneous are heterogeneous;
what seem simple are complex. Make a loaf of bread. That has a simple
sound, yet the process is complex. First, hops, potatoes, flour,
sugar, water, salt, in right proportions for the yeast. The yeast for
raising the yeast must be in just the right condition, and added when
the mixture is of just the right temperature. In "mixing up" bread,
the temperature of the atmosphere must be considered, the temperature
of the water, the situation of the dough. The dough must rise quickly,
must rise just enough and no more, must be baked in an oven just hot
enough and no hotter, and must be "tended" while baking.
Try clearing off tables. Remove food from platters, care for the
remnants, see that nothing is wasted, scrape well every plate, arrange
in piles, carry out, wash in soap and water, rinse in clear water,
polish with dry cloth, set away in their places, - three times a day.
Taking care of the baby frequently implies carrying the child on one
arm while working with the other, and this often after nights made
sleepless by its "worrying." "I've done many a baking with a child on
my hip," said a farmer's wife in my hearing.
But try now the humblest of household duties, one that passes for just
nothing at all; try dusting. "Take a cloth, and brush the dust
off," - stated in this general way, how easy a process it seems! The
particular interpretation, is that you move, wipe, and replace every
article in the room, from the piano down to the tiniest ornament; that
you "take a cloth," and go over every inch of accessible surface,
including panelling, mop-boards, window frames and sashes,
looking-glass-frames, picture-frames and cords, gas or lamp fixtures;
reaching up, tiptoeing, climbing, stooping, kneeling, taking care that
not even in the remotest corner shall appear one inch of undusted
surface which any slippered individual, leaning back in his arm-chair,
can spy out.
These are only a few examples; but a little observation and an
exceedingly little experience will show the curious inquirer that
there is scarcely one of the apparently simple household operations
which cannot be resolved and re-resolved into minute component parts.
Thus dusting, which seems at first to consist of simply a few brushes
with a cloth or bunch of feathers, when analyzed once, is found to
imply the careful wiping of every article in the room, and of all the
woodwork; analyzed again, it implies following the marks of the
cabinet-maker's tools in every bit of carving and grooving; analyzed
again, introducing a pointed stick under the cloth in turning corners.
In fact, the investigator of household duties must do as does a
distinguished scientist in analyzing matter, - "continue the process of
dividing as long as the parts can be discerned," and then "prolong the
vision backward across the boundary of experimental evidence." And, if
brave enough to attempt to count them, he must bear in mind that what
appear to be blank intervals, or blurred, nebulous spaces, are, in
reality, filled in with innumerable little duties which, through the
glass of observation, may be discerned quite plainly. Let him also
bear in mind, that these household duties must be done over and over,
and over and over, and as well, each time, as if done to last forever;
and, above all, that they every one require mind.
Many a common saying proves this last point. "Put your mind on your
work." "Your mind must be where your work is." "She's a good hand to
take hold, but she hasn't any calculation." "She doesn't know how to
forecast her work." "She doesn't know how to forelay." "Nancy's
gittin' past carryin' her mind inter her work. Wal, I remember when I
begun to git past carryin' my mind inter my work," said an old woman
of ninety, speaking of her sixty-years-old daughter. The old couplet,
"Man works from rise till set of sun,
But woman's work is never done," -
tells the truth. "Woman's work," as now arranged, is so varied, so
all-embracing, that it cannot be "done." For every odd moment some
duty lies in wait. And it is generally the case, that these multi-form
duties press for performance, crowds of them at once. "So many things
to be done right off, that I don't know which to take hold of first."
"'Tis just as much as I can do to keep my head above water." "Oh,
dear! I can't see through!" "My work drives me." "I never know what
'tis not to feel hurried." "The things I can't get done tire me more
than the things I do." Such remarks have a meaning.
And those who keep "a girl" have almost equal difficulty in always
presenting the smooth, agreeable surface just now spoken of. With the
greater ability to hire help comes usually the desire to live in more
expensive houses, and to furnish the same with more costly furniture.
Every article added is a care added, and the nicer the article the
nicer the care required. More, also, is demanded of these in the way
of appearance, style, and social civilities; and the wear and tear of
superintending "a girl" should by no means be forgotten. At any rate,
the complaint, "no time to read," is frequent among women, and is not
confined to any one class.
We see, then, that in the present state of things it is impossible for
woman - that is, the family woman, the house-mother - to enjoy the
delights of culture. External activities, especially the two
insatiable, all-devouring ones which know neither end nor
beginning, - housework and sewing-work, - these demand her time, her
energies, in short, demand herself, - the whole of her. Yes, the whole,
and more too; there is not enough of her to go round. There might
possibly be enough, and even something left to spend on culture, were
she in sound physical condition; but, alas! a healthy woman is
scarcely to be found. This point, namely, the prevailing invalidism of
woman, will come up for consideration by and by, when we inquire into
the causes of the present state of things. It is none too early,
however, to make a note of what some physicians say in regard to it.
"Half of all who are born," says one medical writer, "die under twenty
years of age; while four-fifths of all who reach that age, and die
before another score, owe their death to causes which were originated
in their teens. This is a fact of startling import to fathers and
mothers, and shows a fearful responsibility." Another medical writer
says, "Beside the loss of so many children (nearly twenty-five per
cent), society suffers seriously from those who survive, their health
being irremediably injured while they are still infants.... Ignorance
and injudicious nursery management lie at the root of this evil."
We must be sure not to forget that this prevailing invalidism of
women, which is one hinderance to their obtaining culture, can be
traced directly back to the ignorance of mothers, for this point has
an important bearing on the solution of our problem.
ONE CAUSE OF THE SITUATION. - A PART OF "WOMAN'S MISSION" CONSIDERED.
The question, How may work and culture be combined? was recently
submitted, in my hearing, to a highly intelligent lady. She answered
with a sigh, "It can't be done. I've tried it; but, as things are now,
it can't be done." By "as things are now" she meant, with the
established ideas regarding dress, food, appearance, style, and the
objects for which woman should spend her time and herself. Suppose we
investigate the causes of the present state of things, which, as being
a hinderance to culture, is to us so unsatisfactory. A little
reflection will enable us to discover several. Chief among them all, I
think, is one which may require close inspection before it is
recognized to be such. It seems to me that the great underlying
cause - the cause of all the other causes - is the want of insight, the
unenlightemnent, which prevails concerning, not what woman's mission
is, but the ways and means by which she is to accomplish it. Let us
Those who claim the right of defining it never can say often enough
that the true, mission of woman is to train up her children rightly,
and to make home happy; and no doubt we all agree with them. But have
we, or have they, a full sense of what woman requires to fit her even
for the first of these duties? Suppose a philosopher in disguise on a
tour of observation from some distant isle or planet should favor us
with a visit. He finds himself, we will say, on a spot not a hundred
miles from New York or Boston or Chicago. Among the objects which
attract his attention are the little children drawn along in their
"Are these beautiful creatures of any value?" he asks of a bystander.
"Certainly. They are the hope of the country. They will grow up into
men and women who will take our places."
"I suppose there is no danger of their growing up any other than the
right kind of men and women, such as your country needs?"
"On the contrary, there is every danger. Evil influences surround them
from their birth. These beautiful creatures have in them the
possibilities of becoming mean, base, corrupt, treacherous, deceitful,
cruel, false, revengeful; of becoming, in fact, unworthy and repulsive
in many ways. Why, all our criminals, our drunkards, liars, thieves,
burglars, murderers, were once innocent little children like these!"
"And whether these will become like those, or not, depends on chance?"
"Oh, no! It depends largely on training, especially on early training.
Children are like wax to receive impressions, like marble to retain
"Are they constituted pretty nearly alike, so that the treatment which
is best for one is best for all?"
"By no means. Even those in the same family are often extremely
unlike. They have different temperaments, dispositions, propensities.
Some require urging, others checking. Some do better with praise,
others without; the same of blame. It requires thought and discernment
to know what words to speak, how many to speak, and when to speak
them. In fact, a child's nature is a piece of delicate, complex
machinery, and each one requires a separate study; for, as its springs
of action are concealed, the operator is liable at any time to touch
the wrong one."
"And mistakes here will affect a child through its whole lifetime?"
"They will affect it through all eternity." "But who among you dare
make these early impressions which are to be so enduring? Who are the
operators on these delicate and complex pieces of mental machinery?"
"Oh! the mothers always have the care of the children. This is their
mission, - the chief duty of their lives."
"But how judicious, how comprehensive, must be the course of education
which will fit a person for such an office!"
"Do you think so? Hem! Well, it is not generally considered that a
woman who is going to marry and settle down to family life needs much
"You mean, doubtless, that she only receives the special instruction
which her vocation requires."
"Yes. If woman's special vocation is the training of children, of
course she is educated specially with a view to that vocation."
"Well, I never heard of such a kind of education. But here is one of
our young mothers: she can tell you all about it."
We will suppose, now, that our philosopher is left with the young
mother, who names over what she learned at the "institute."
"And the training of children - moral, intellectual, and physical - was
no doubt made a prominent subject of consideration."
"Training of children? Oh, no! That would have been a curious kind of
"Where, then, were you prepared for the duties of your mission?"
"What mission do you mean?"
"Your mission of child-training."
"I had no preparation."
"No preparation? But are you acquainted with the different
temperaments a child may have, and the different combinations of them?
Are you competent to the direction and culture of the intellectual and
moral nature? Have you skill to touch the hidden springs of action?
Have you, thus uninstructed, the power, the knowledge, the wisdom,
requisite for guiding that mighty force, a child's soul?"
"Alas! there is hardly a day that I do not feel my ignorance on all
"Are there no sources from which knowledge may be obtained? There must
be books written on these subjects."
"Possibly; but I have no time to read them."
"No time? - no time to prepare for your chief mission?"
"It is our mission only in print. In real life it plays an extremely
"What, then, in real life, is your mission?"
"Chiefly cooking and sewing."
"Your husband, then, does not share the common belief in regard to
woman's chief duty."
"Oh, yes! I have heard him express it many a time; though I don't
think he comprehends what a woman needs in order to do her duty by her
children. But he loves them dearly. If one should die he would be
"Is it a common thing here for children to die?"
"I am grieved to say that nearly one-fourth die in infancy."
"And those who live, - do they grow up in full health and vigor?"
"Oh, indeed they do not! Why, look at our crowded hospitals! Look at
the apothecaries' shops at almost, every corner. Look at the
advertisements of medicines. Don't you think there's meaning in these,
and a meaning in the long rows of five-story swell-front houses
occupied by physicians, and a meaning in the people themselves?
There's scarcely one of them but has some ailment."
"But is this matter of health subject to no laws?"
"The phrase, 'laws of health,' is a familiar one, but I don't know
what those laws are." "Mothers, then, are not in the habit of teaching
them to their children?"
"They are not themselves acquainted with them."
"Perhaps this astonishing ignorance has something to do with the
fearful mortality among infants. Do not husbands provide their wives
with books and other means of information on this subject?"
"Generally speaking, they do nothing of the kind."
"And does not the subject of hygienic laws, as applied to the rearing
of children, come into the courses of study laid out for young women!"
"No, indeed. Oh, how I wish it had! - and those other matters you
mentioned. I would give up every thing else I ever learned for the
sake of knowing how to bring up my children, and how to keep them in
"The presidents and professors of your educational institutions, - do
they share the common belief as to woman's mission?"
"Oh, yes! They all say that the chief business of woman is to train up
"There seems to be blindness and stupidity somewhere among these
people. From what they say of the difficulty of bringing up their
children, it must take an archangel to do it rightly; still they do
not think a woman who is married and settles down to family life needs
much education! Moreover, in educating young women, that which is
universally acknowledged to be the chief business of their lives
receives not the least attention."
If our philosopher continued his inquiries into the manners and
customs of our country, he must have felt greatly encouraged; for he
would have found that it is only in this one direction that we show
such blindness and stupidity. He would have found that in every other
occupation we demand preparation. The individual who builds our ships,
cuts our coats, manufactures our watches, superintends our machinery,
takes charge of our cattle, our trees, our flowers, must know how,
must have been especially prepared for his calling. It is only
character-moulding, only shaping the destinies of immortal beings, for
which we demand neither preparation nor a knowledge of the business.
It is only of our children that we are resigned to lose nearly
one-fourth by death, "owing to ignorance and injudicious nursery
management." Were this rate of mortality declared to exist among our
domestic animals, the community would be aroused at once.
CULTURE PROVED TO BE A NEED OF THE CHILD-TRAINER.
Perhaps some day the community may come to perceive that woman
requires for her vocation what the teacher, the preacher, the lawyer,
and the physician, require for theirs; namely, special preparation and
general culture. The first, because every vocation demands special
preparation; and the second, because, to satisfy the requirements of
young minds, she will need to draw from almost every kind of
knowledge. And we must remember here, that the advantages derived from
culture are not wholly an intellectual gain. We get from hooks and
other sources of culture not merely what informs the mind, but that
which warms the heart, quickens the sympathies, strengthens the
understanding; get clearness and breadth of vision, get refining and
ennobling influences, get wisdom in its truest and most comprehensive
sense; and all of these, the last more than all, a mother needs for
her high calling. That it is a high calling, we have high authority to
show. Dr. Channing says, "No office can compare in importance with
that of training a child." Yet the office is assumed without
Herbert Spencer asks, in view of this omission, "What is to be
expected when one of the most intricate of problems is undertaken by