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Housekeeping in the 19th century


“A really good housekeeper is almost always unhappy. While she does so much for the comfort of others, she nearly ruins her own health and life. It is because she cannot be easy and comfortable when there is the least disorder or dirt to be seen.” The Household, January 1884

In my new release, Cassidy’s War, a widow and her grown children live under one roof and she and the female children do most of the household work. While housework is drugery now, imagine what it must have been like before the age of washing machines, dryers, vacuum cleaners and other new cleaning aids coming on the market each day.

Advice abounded in the popular literature of the period on how to keep a proper house. It seemed to be important that one’s home be kept clean, neat and pious, filled with warmth and inviting smells. Only then could a woman achieve her “highest calling”.

Housework was glorified, even though the actual tasks involved proved to be tedious and distressing. But women were told these tasks were ”important works assigned to them by Nature and God”. A good housekeeper was urged to use proponents of ‘scientific housekeeping’ in order to run the house efficiently. Women must set up weekly schedules.

This weekly schedule of pure drudge included laundry on Monday, ironing and mending on Tuesday, baking on Wednesdy and Saturday, along with daily chores of tidying in the kitchen and parlor, and a thorough cleaning of the house on Thursday and Saturday. In addition to this, women also were responsible for “childcare, three meals a day, hauling water and keeping the fire burning in the stove”. This chore could take up at least one full hour each day. Women also made family garments, preserved fruits on a seasonal basis, as well as vegetables and meat.

Women who lived on farms were also responsible for the farm garden, livestock and poultry. If she didn’t have to work in the fields during harvest, she often provided room and board for the hired helpers.

Even though women’s lives were full of stress and drudgery in the 19th century, women were able to accept the challenge of keeping house with humor and pride.

For more on housekeeping in the 19h century, visit these sites:

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  1. I know my grandma cooked from sunrise to sunset and got all the other chores done on their farm in Nebraska. I don’t know how she survived it all, especially when grandpa kept inviting neighbors and work hands in for another meal. She sure was a good cook—

  2. Susan, I got tired reading your post. Thank heavens, I didn’t live back then. No wonder women often died young. In my family tree, it’s not uncommon for men to have had three wives before they died themselves. If childbirth didn’t get them, drudgery and disease did. That’s why I love reading about the 1800’s, but am so glad I didn’t live then! Excellent post, though.

  3. Jan Province says:

    I recently toured a Louisiana antebellum mansion. Part of the bed’s headboard was an oversize rolling pin. The mattress was stuffed with the moss that hangs from trees, and the rolling pin was used to smooth down the lumps. The rope webbing beneath the mattress had to be tightened, too, because ropes stretch and beds sag. And dishes: on the rare occasions that I wash dishes by hand, I give my stainless steel sink a quick wipe, and I walk away. 19th century sinks were made of iron, or zinc, or wood. These required maintenance. Before great-grandma did the laundry by hand, she probably made soap. She used the same soap to wash the floor. And her hair.

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