Slighting as a Housewifely Art

This is the fourth article in January of the School for Housewives 1910 series published on January 23, 1910, and talks about the need to put aside chores for health and well-being.

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

Slighting as a Housewifely Art

“YOU are opening a wide door!” warned a friend to whom I mentioned the title of this talk.

She has hung up in a conspicuous place in her kitchen an illuminated sign that, as the French put it, “jumps at the eyes” of every one who enters the door:

“What is worth doing at all is worth doing well.”

I sat down right in front of the motto and reasoned out the case with her then and there, for I, too, have m motto. It is tacked up in my sitting room, where the day’s work is laid out every morning as soon as breakfast is over. The wise saying was borrowed from “Leslie Goldthwaite’s Summer,” a girl’s boo so much better worth reading than nine out of 10 of the volumes I see nowadays in the hands of my young friends that one would expect a new edition to be brought out monthly. But my motto! I have quoted it before in the Exchange. Today I would fasten it, like a nail in a sure place, in the mind and conscience of every anxious-eyed, overwrought housemother who sees this page:

“Something must be crowded out!”

Postponing as an Art.

“Dear! had you need in the place of the Creator, you would not have been content to make the world in six days. You would have summoned angels, principalities and powers, and exhorted them to hurry up the job so as to get it out of the way and all cleaned up by Wednesday night.”

It was not uttered flippantly, however it may sound in the telling. It sank deep into my heart, and it has stood me in good stead hundreds of times, when zeal threatened to get the better of patience. A good head and a sane judgment are required to separate essentials from duties of secondary import; to decide what should be done now and what may be crowded out and postponed to a more convenient season.

The longing to “get thing out of the way and clean up, ready for the next job,” is, with many an American housemother, an obsession. Now and then it waxes into frenzy. One of the saddest sights I ever beheld was a woman in an insane asylum who was rubbing the panes of her window all say long. She fell to work upon the task as soon as it was light enough to see the glass in the morning and kept it up until she was led away to bed at night, protesting, tearfully, that it “had to be done that day!” She wore out an apron a week in the rubbing.

Anxiety is a Disease.

I grant to you, overcareful and distracted Martha, as I conceded to my friend with the illuminated motto before me, that what is laid in our hands should be done well. The question is not how we shall perform the task, but whether or not it is wise and just to do it this hour or this day. In other words, what may be crowded out of the work of that day or hour without serious derangement of the comfort and well-being of myself and those to whom my well-being is of moment?

To illustrate: My estimable neighbor, Mrs. Notable, who will never see her portrait here, since she never gets time to read so much as a newspaper from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, takes care of her own parlors. So do thousands of other well-to-do women. This is her way of doing it: Every rug is lifted and brushed daily; every tuft in the upholstered furniture dusted with a pointed brush made for the purpose; every article of bric-a-brac is wiped carefully; the mirrors are polished and the inside of the windows rubbed bright. The picture frames and the tops of the doors and window sashes and frames are wiped off with a dampened cloth; ditto the chandeliers. In brief, not an inch of space in the handsome rooms is unvisited by the duster and cloth. The work occupies from an hour and a half to two hours of the forenoon. Her china closets are set in order weekly, and this although she is scrupulously exact in replacing every cup, plat and dish in its own corner whenever it has been used. Once a month she washes them all and scrubs the shelves. When a thin place or a hole appears in her stocking or in one belonging to husband or child she makes it a point of conscience to see that it is mended that very day. Not a book that ought to be snugly reposing upon the shelf behind glass doors is left lying upon library table. The daily newspaper is rubbish when Mr. Notable and the grown son have read it. So are letters that have been opened and perused. The waste-basket receives them, and they are seen no more within the precincts inhabited by “the family.” A spot on the tablecloth would deprive her of appetite for the meal thus disgraced. A chipped plate is a grievance demanding a vigorous exercise of Christian patience.

It should go without saying that she has the best-kept house in the neighborhood. It is impeccable from roof to foundation. I was once led by the shining cleanliness of the premises to say something of the admiration inspired by such perfect housewifery to her daughter. To my consternation the girl, a wan, shadowy young thing, burst into tears.

“Yes! We have the cleanest house in the city, but we pay for it! Life is not worth living as we live it!”

Yes—and this I said to my friends with the motto staring me in the face—Mrs. Notable carries out to the best of her lights the principle that what is worth doing at all is worth doing well. Her mistake is that she lacks a sense of proportion; she has not a right estimate of values.

Said a wise and tender mother to me: “Frank litters up his room with things that are rubbish to me. It offends my taste and my eye to see and put up with the masks and foils and gloves and racquets and photographs and ‘specimens’ of all sorts he collects. But I took myself to task for my impatience in time to keep from driving him from home by overstrictness. I went into a deliberate calculation of comparative values and concluded that the boy is worth more than the room.”

In other words, she crowded out selfish likings which she had rated as principles for the boy’s happiness.

To return to Ms. Notable. Her house would look as well to the general eye and be more comfortable to husband and children if she contented herself with dusting the polished wood of the furniture and brushing up scraps from the rugs on three days of the week, reserving the thorough visitation of the apartment for, say, Wednesday, Saturday and Monday. Nobody is going to climb to the tops of the window, and door frames to espy the dust collect there during a couple of days. Were she to “slight” her china closets to the extent of overhauling them once a month instead of weekly, the china would suffer no wrong; and she would have time to read the Exchange, or, what is more important, grant to her overwrought, “distracted” body and mind the rest and relaxation without which no mortal can perform his or her part aright in a world where one’s own fancies and prejudices are the last thing to be considered in reckoning up daily duties.

I know a blessed woman who makes a frolic of the weekly darning of her own stocking and John’s and the boys’ socks. Another of like fancies brings her mending basket once in a while, and the two take afternoon tea from the work table. I dropped in upon them last week while they were thus engaged. One reported thirty pairs of hose as her “weekly dole,” the other thirty-five.

“My mother-in-law says it is bad management to lay so many aside for one mending,” said the visitor. “She could not sleep if she knew there was a bit of mending undone in the house.”

And the darners groaned in unison. “Poor woman!”

The hostess added that she “kept her darning often for Friday night work, when the boys have no lessons to study.

“One of them reads aloud while I work. And that is the confession hour, when I hear of all the scrapes and the jolly times they have had that week.”

All of use housemothers are prone to make a fetich of duty. Few of us rise above the propensity deprecated as a feminine foible by the clergyman I have quoted, namely, to make a clean sweep of work on hand and make way for the next assignment. There are scraps of diverse kinds in the refrigerator that ought to be put into the stockpot and be cooked. The slices and heel-ends of laves in the bread-pan should be heated and crushed into crumbs. Then you promised John to make a “famer’s rice pudding” for him soon, and the promise weighs upon you; it out to be fulfilled today. Yet here is all the ironing, hindered this eek by rainy weather on washing day, and the cook, who does the washing has a headache. You, who always supplement her on Monday and Tuesday, have your hands full. All the same, in your desire to make clean work and keep up in the march of daily duty, you cannot ignore the claims of stockpot, breadbox and John’s pudding.

Dear child—for am I not the mother of a big family? — be merciful to John’s wife and the children’s mother, and study the fine art of slighting. The scrapes will keep until tomorrow, and the heels of bread and the crusts will not mould and John will not recollect the pudding when he sees your eyes bright and movements alert, instead of meeting a fagged-out drudge whose frazzled nerves and spiritless air are a silent reproach to him for not lifting her above the necessity of domestic slavery.

Marion Harland

OTHER ARTICLES ALSO PUBLISHED…
Family Meals for a Week
The Housemothers’ Exchange
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