“Fair Linen”

This is the final article in May of the School for Housewives 1909 series published on May 30, 1909, and is an article on laundry and use of linen and table cloths. It is Marion Harland’s opinion that a simple clean cloth is better than a “fine” dirty one.

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

“Fair Linen”

ECCLESIASTICAL manuals enjoin that tables and chalices be “covered with a fair cloth.” I am using the word in a housewifely sense; that is, that the “cloth” should be free from spot or blemish and shining clean. It is not, of necessity, “fine linen,” such as takes before it, in the mind of the Bible reader, the “purple,” descriptive of Dives’ ungodly pomp.

I heard a true story the other day of a colored preacher’s version of the celebrated parable. According to him, the rich man “fared presumptuously every day.”

I have use for this malapropism here and now. The housemother who insists that her fair linen must also be fine must have a deep purse and keep it well filled, or she may be said to “fare presumptuously” in the century of advanced and sustained prices. Muslin and linen of medium quality, glossy from the smoothing iron and folded evenly when not on duty, are “fairer” than cloths of a finer mesh that are badly laundered and laid carelessly on the shelf. This is especially true with tablecloths that are awkwardly dealt with. I have in my mind’s eye a certain household, often seen in my youth, where the tablecloths were always wrinkled and tumbled.

“Miss Leslie says we must not use the word ‘mussed,’” observed a neat neighbor, quoting from her cook book, “but nothing else will describe Sarah’s tablecloths.”

A Careless Footman.

I wondered, in my inexperience, why this was true, until I bethought myself to watch the footman as he cleared the table after meals. He seized the damask cloth (always fine) in the middle, shook the crumbs out of door or window and “humped” it upon a chair or sideboard until he was ready to double it up loosely and tuck it into a drawer, where lay a dozen others, some smooth and clean, and beside them those condemned to the washtub. I formed the opinion then which I maintain up to this present writing, namely, that there is but one right way of removing a cloth from the table.

Imprimis, it should never be shaken out of the door or window. The crumbs should be removed with a folded napkin. A “scraper” of metal, be it sterling or plated, abrades the surface in time. The crumb brush, however soft, is seldom perfectly clean. In taking up the crumbs it sheds dust. The folded napkin neither scratches nor smirches. The crumbs removed, the damask must be folded in the original creases left by the iron and put away where it has room to lie out straight. Some canny housewives have a separate drawer for the cloth in use, and lay a heavy board upon it when therein bestowed. If I dwell somewhat at length upon this essential to “fair linen,” it is for economy’s sake as well as because a smooth cloth is more pleasing to the eye than one that is tumbled—“mussed,” as my old friend put it.

Glazed like Paper.

Table linen which has been treated to a bath of raw starch water and, while yet damp, ironed until the surface has the glaze of calendered writing paper, keeps clean twice as long as that which is tumbled and shaken rudely, and looks well to the last day. From another notable housemother I learned that a chance grease spot may be masked in the latter hour of active service by rubbing chalk into it before folding. By the next time of using, particularly if the application be made overnight, the alkali has eaten up the grease. The chalking makes the laundress’ task easier, also.

Napkins must not be “Starched,” in the technical sense of the term, although they take a finer gloss if dipped into the thinnest of starch water, rolled up hard, beaten lustily with the fist to insure evenness of distribution, then ironed until the requisite degree of polish is produced. They look “fairer” and will resist dirt far better than limp napkins. For be it remembered at each stage of laundering and using, that dust is dirt and that dust is everywhere. It flies off from the glossy linen; it adheres to the rough-dry.

The like rules obtain in the management of muslin sheets and pillowslips. It is a luxury to sleep in linen or in cambric sheets. A linen pillowcase is almost a necessity to healthful slumbers on summer nights. It is a “must-be” to the fevered invalid. Yet there are tens of thousands of well conducted homes in this country where the linen sheet is practically unknown and in which a few linen pillowslips are kept religiously for the sick-room. The next best thing to the cool deliciousness of the flaxen web is a cotton sheet, so smooth that it feels (almost) as good as linen and is as comely to behold.

Two correspondents have written to us of the saving of the housemother’s time and of the superior healthfulness of rough-dry sheets. One represents that the pressure of the iron, forcing the flattened threads closely together, prevents ventilation and retains the insensible perspiration that should not be left to clog the pores. Without entering into a controversy that would leave each disputant the more strongly attached to her own dogma, I may remark that is avails little for the exudations to filter through the sheet if they be then and there arrested by blanket and counterpane.

Almost Like a Dream.

Haven’t I told once here of the fond desire of my childish dreams to be a queen, and only because I was sure that she slept every night in clean linen sheets, a change for every day in the year? The fancy was recalled to me by reading, after the death of the late Queen of England, that she indulged in the luxury I had coveted, and that she was fastidious with regard to the absolute smoothness of the sheets. Two maids—so ran the tale—spent two hours daily in clipping the threads that fastened the sheet to the mattress the day before, and in stitching the fresh lower sheet in place. Not a wrinkle must mar the fair expanse of fine linen. I give the modern edition of the crumpled roseleaf story for what it may be worth. It is the more credible because every one of u would have her bed changed nightly if she could afford it. Apart from the first outlay for material, there would be the laundry bills-a bagatelle to queen and multi-millionaire, but a mountain-high impediment to the fulfilment of our desire.

With the approach of warm weather the craving for fair bed and body linen grows upon us. We read with thought that approximates pain the injunctions of the theorists who write practical housewifely articles for a woman’s page and for “Clever Cookery” and “Dorothea’s Domestic Diary” upon the danger and disgrace of changing body linen but twice per week, and bed linen but once. “My clothes abhor me!” complained poor, tortured Job. We reverse the order and hate our clothes when we lay them off at the close of the longest days upon the calendar. Sunday and Thursday mornings are the happiest days of the seven.

To Economize.

Let us reason together on this point. I know, for I, too, have heard them discourse. How it stings the self-respect of the woman who must consider laundry bills, or overrun her income continually, to hearken to the dainty, disdainful prattle of women who “cannot conceive how one can reconcile it to one’s sense of decency, not to mention health, to wear a change of underclothes more than one day at a time after June 1!” One of them habitually refers to underwear as “internal garments” in my hearing, and evidently prides herself upon the delicate and ingenious phrase.

And, indeed, why should not we imitate their custom while we ridicule their speech? Upon removing body linen at night, hang each article separately where the air will visit it freely all of that night and for 24 hours thereafter. Keep two sets on hand and in alternate use. If they hang in an airy place during the off day they will be sweet and, to all intent and purposes, clean when you put them on.

Strip the bed upon rising and hang the sheets in the wind. Take off the pillowslips, and when the pillows have been aired for an hour or more, cover then with cases kept for the day, and on which you never sleep. Let the night set air with the sheets. Turn, beat, and throw the mattress across the foot rail of the bed, where the air can get at all sides of it, and let it remain thus for several hours.

By following these precautions against stuffiness you will be as neat of body, if not as complacent of spirit, as the penny-a-liners who dictate and the ultra-fastidious few who assume to practice what the former preach.

With all my heart I love “fair linen!” But I love yet more fairness and consistency I will not preach to the woman of moderate means and six children of the insanitary “indecency” of not enduring each of the half dozen in clean clothes “from the skin out” every day in the week. I am stupid at mathematics, but I have the multiplication table tolerably well in hand, and it requires no ready reckoner to make up the laundry list of that household, allowing three “internal garments” per diem (exclusive of seven pairs of stocking a week) for each child. And the parents must not be a whit less “decent” than their offspring!

Take a paper and pencil and work out the sum for yourself, and let me know by return mail in how many households in your town or village such a “Wash” would be tolerated. Don’t’ forget to add seven pairs of sheets for each bed, pillowcases to match, and that no “self-respectable mistress of a family ever allows the same napkin to appear twice on her table without being washed.”

Nonsense, is it? Then why give ear or thought to it?

Make your linen “fair in the beginning, change it as often as you can afford to review it and keep it well aired between times.

My old colored “mammy” was oracular, and never unwise. One of her familiar sayings was: “If yo’ ken’t do as well as you wan’ to do, why jes’ do de bes’ you ken!”

Marion Harland

Meals for a Week
The Housemothers’ Exchange

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