Ways and Ways of Doing Things

This is the first article in March of the School for Housewives 1909 series published on March 7, 1909, and is an article on how much easier life gets for the maid if she employs a business-like mindset to her work.

Transcribed from the Sunday edition of the The Buffalo Sunday Morning News.

Ways and Ways of Doing Things

“SHE is quiet and methodical.”

This was but one clause in the eminently satisfactory certificate given to Serena by her former employer.

One delightful Milesian used to call it “a stiff ticket.” I have never been sure that she was far wrong.

The aforesaid employer was “declining housekeeping”—which I believe to be a purely American phrase—and going to a hotel to live. There were but herself and husband “in family,” and where was the sense of keeping up a regular household for two old people?

This, likewise, I remark, is a sentiment and expression of American coinage.

But as to Serena, who had applied for the vacant place of waitress and chambermaid in my house. She was warranted willing, honest, neat and obliging. She had lived for 14 months in these capacities with the writer of the “stiff ticket,” who would not give her up now save for the declination I have named. Yet my yes returned once and again to the five words I have quoted on this page.

“Quiet and methodical.” No other employer with whom I have ever had similar dealings had used the phrase. It impressed me the more favorably that memory instantly conjured up the vision of the last incumbent of the office for which Serena had offered herself. Martha had not been noisy, it is true, but—methodical? At the idea I smiled broadly, and raising my eyes from the certificate, I saw the flicker of a responsive, yet a respectful gleam cross the face of my companion. She could not have divined the source of my amusement, but she saw that I smiled in a friendly fashion and reflected the light. I have bethought myself sometimes that that brief sympathetic flicker was a key to Serena’s innermost self. Nothing escapes the eyes that never stare inquisitively, and action follows perception.

A Willing Soul.

I engaged her on the spot. She has been an inmate of my house now for five years, and in all that time I have not had occasion to reprove her once for negligence or for any fault of manner of speech.

When, one morning last week, she forgot to put the salt on the breakfast table, a chuckle of delight ran around the board.

“The first time we ever caught her napping!” ejaculated a grinning lad.

And another, as the maid hastened to repair the omission: “Why, Martha, in all the two years she was with us, never set the table once without forgetting something. Don’t you recollect the morning we counted 10 articles she had to put in place after we sat down to breakfast?”

The tale was literally true, and she had believed, like a willing and honest soul (for she was that!) that the table was properly laid. From the time she left her bed with the sun and sought it long after the god of day had withdrawn his face from our side of the world, the girl was in a hurry. She swept with quick swirls of the broom that would have left a stream of mare’s tails in her wake had she been the old woman that brushed cobwebs from the sky; she scrubbed hard, irregularly and painfully, overlooking a corner here and there in her anxiety “to get through with the job.” That was a frequent sating with her. Every task was a “job,” and her eyes were always fixed upon another just ahead of her. Details were as nothing in her sight. “Consequentimentally”—as Mrs. Plornish says in “Little Dorritt”—Martha had what the boys called “the best forgettery” upon record in our domestic archives. It was absolutely phenomenal. And strange to say—for the girl, as I have said, meant to do right abashed her. She rectified them without a blush or murmur of apology. They were all in the day’s work.

Why did I keep her for two years? Partly because she was neat in person, quick of apprehension, willing, industrious and honest; partly because, as I shall show presently, her “ways” were so much like those of an immense number of other women. “Method, system and businesslike” are words which have no place in their working vocabulary. When at last Martha became the wife of a mechanic and departed to another city to miskeep a house of her own, we were sorry to part with her personality.

And, up to the last, her desire to preform her duties properly was so apparent that we were lenient in judgement.

Serena talks little in our hearing at any time. When about her work she never speaks except to answer questions. She does not “take life hard.” On the contrary, she is uniformly cheerful, and the children love to be with her. The secret of her success as a housemaid may be condense into one sentence: She knows what she means to do, and she thinks of nothing else while she has the task in hand. For the time she is a well-regulated machine, warranted to keep in order and to turn out certain results. Each hour has its appointed duty, and she drives steadily on until the next hour brings the next duty. The observant eyes have a cool brain behind them.

To sum up the case, she runs her housework as a man runs his business. I should not dare assert it were this a fancy sketch.

The world is likely to be turned upside down by the frenzied efforts of “pioneers” in the mission of raising women citizens to the level of men. Without trenching upon the field of controversy, may I say a few direct, plain words to my fellow housemothers with regard to what we have actually in hand and not what may or may not be?

Business Methods in the Home.

To begin with an unpalatable truth: As housekeepers we are, as a rule, unbusinesslike. When men say this we retort that a house cannot be run like a store or shop or office. Sometimes the husbands believe us. Oftener they are silenced, not convinced. The boldest and most compassionate of them dare not attempt to point out the flaws in his souse’s system of daily toil. I would better say “her lack of system.” When I have hinted at the possibility of performing the multifarious tasks incumbent upon wife, mother and caterer, according to rule and measure, I am assured that it is impracticable. I would not attempt to say how many thousand times that hateful adage.
“Man’s work is from sun to sun,
But woman’s work is never done,”
has been flung at me in the course of arguments upon the vexed subject.

There is no stranger feature in the whole question than that factory girls and clerk after they are married never think of applying to domestic labors the habits of punctuality and precision they learned in their former spheres. Yet the woman who brings energy, will and ingenuity to bear in the resolve to regulate her household by fixed laws, assigning to each hour its task and finishing each before the next is brought forward, finds to her amazement that she secure for herself what the rhyme I quote intimates can never be hers, to wit, leisure.

To illustrate, by a return to the true story of my maids, Martha never had “a moment to herself,” as she put it. Serena secures an hour in each afternoon for a bath and dressing for the evening, and has five evening per week on an average in her quiet room for her own sewing and reading.

I know—no one better!—how many and vexatious and inevitable are the interruptions which are hindrances in the “just one day” of the housemother’s life. Our husbands, sons and brothers have the same in number, if not exactly in kind. These are “circumstances” which we are to expect and to conquer. In planning what is to be done today allow for these. As your husband would say, “leave a margin,” or perhaps he will phrase it, “Set it down to profit and loss.” But hold fast to your schedule—when you have made it.

Did you ever talk to the manager of a successful hotel? Or ask to be conducted through the kitchen of the same establishment? You will learn much that will set you thinking, if you will do these things. I did. There is no reason why your house may not be “run” with the like regard for order and punctuality on a miniature scale. I have the pleasure of visiting homes where the experiment has been made, and successfully. Would it not be wise for each “progressive woman” to introduce “business methods” into her own home before essaying to lend a hand in making national, State and township laws? It may be capital practice for what lies before the sex in the future of the country. It should be easier to manage Bridget, Dinah and Thekla than to manipulate their masculine counterparts in primary meetings and at the polls. Lift the reproach of “unbusinesslike ways” from women. Put it out of the power of satirists to ask:

“If thou hast run with footmen and they have wearied thee, then how canst thou contend with horses? And if in the land of peace wherein thou trustedst, they wearied thee, then what wilt thou do in the swelling of Jordan?”

Marion Harland

Family Meals for a Week
The Housemothers’ Exchange

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s