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Domestic Work for Women by Amelia Edith Huddleston Barr

From, Maids Wives and Bachelors

To that class of women who toil not, neither spin, and who, like contented ravens, are fed they know not how nor whence, it is superfluous to speak of domestic service; for their housekeeping consists in “giving orders,” and their marketing is represented by tradesmen's wagons and buff-colored pass-books. Yet I am far from inferring that, because they can financially afford to be idle, they have a right to be so. They surely owe to the world some free gift of labor, else it would be hard to see why they came into it. Not for ornaments certainly, since Parian marble and painted canvas would be both more economical and satisfactory; not for housewives, for their houses are in the hands of servants; not for mothers, for they universally grumble at the advent and responsibility of children.

But to the large majority of women, domestic service ought to be a high moral question, especially to those who are the wives of men striving to keep up on limited incomes the reality and the appearance of a prosperous home; all the more necessary, perhaps, because the appearance is the condition on which the reality is possible.

Too often a false notion that usefulness and elegance are incompatible, that it is “unladylike” to be in their kitchens, or come in contact with the baker and butcher, makes them abrogate the highest honors of wifehood. Or perhaps they have the misfortune to be the children of those tender parents who are permitted without loss of reputation to educate their daughters for drawing-room ornaments in their youth, and yet do nothing to insure them against a middle age of struggle and privation, and an old age of misery.

To such I would speak candidly—not without thought—not without practical knowledge of what I say—not without strong hopes that I may influence many warm, thoughtless hearts, who only need to be once alive to a responsibility in order to feel straitened and burdened until they assume and fulfil it.

Is it fair, then, is it just, kind, or honorable, that the husband day after day should be bound to the wheel of a monotonous occupation, and the wife fritter away the results in frivolity or suffer them to be wasted in extravagant and yet unsatisfactory housekeeping? Supposing the magnificent affection of the husband makes him willing to coin his life into dollars, in order that the wife may live and dress and visit according to her ideal, ought she to accept an offering that has in it so strong an odor of human sacrifice?

Even if it be necessary to keep up a certain style, it is still in the wife's power to make the husband's service for this end a reasonable one. Personal supervision of the marketing will save twenty per cent, and I am afraid to say how much might be saved from actual waste in the kitchen by the same means; and this is but the beginning.

Yet saving is only one item in the wife's lawful domestic service; if her husband is to be a permanently successful man, she must take care of his digestion. It may seem derogatory to thought, enterprise, and virtue to assert that eating has anything to do with them. I cannot help the condition; I only know that it exists, and that she is but a poor wife who ignores the fact.

The days when men stuck to their “roast and boiled” as firmly as to their creed are, of necessity, disappearing. The fervid life we are all leading demands food that can be assimilated with the least possible detriment to, or expenditure of, the vital powers. “Thoughts that burn” are no poetic fancy; the planning, the calculating that a business man performs during the day literally burns up the material of conscious life. It is the wife's duty to replenish the fires of intellect and energy by fuel that the enfeebled vitality can convert most easily into the elements necessary to repair the waste.

The idea that it is derogatory for cultivated brains and white hands to investigate the stock-jar and the stew-pan is a very mistaken one. The daintiest lady I ever knew, the wife of a merchant who is one of our princes, sees personally every day to the preparation of her husband's dinner and its artistic and appetizing arrangement on the table. I have not the smallest doubt that the nourishing soups, the delicately prepared meats, the delicious desserts, are the secret of many a clear-headed business transaction, household investments that make possible the far-famed commercial ones. This mysterious relationship between what we eat and what we do was dimly perceived by Dr. Johnson when he said that “a man who did not care for his dinner would care for nothing else.”

Artistic cooking derogatory! Why, it is a science, an art, as sure to follow a high state of civilization as the fine arts do. No persons of fine feelings can be indifferent to what they eat, any more than to what they wear, or what their household surroundings are. A man may be compelled by circumstances to swallow half-cooked bloody beef and boiled paste dumplings, and yet it may be as repugnant to him as it would be to wear a scarlet belcher neckerchief, a brass watch-chain, and a cotton-velvet coat. Yet his wife may be ignorant or indifferent; he is too much occupied with other matters to “make a fuss about it,” and so he shuts his eyes, opens his mouth, and takes whatever his cook pleases to send him. I do not like to be uncharitable, but somehow I can't help thinking that a wife who permits this kind of thing is unworthy of her wedding ring.

Let her take a volume of F. W. Johnston's “Domestic Chemistry” in her hand, and go down into her kitchen. She will be in a far higher region of romance than Miss Braddon can take her into. She will learn that it is her province to renew her husband physically and mentally by dexterously depositing the right kind of nutriment upon the inward, invisible frame. The wonders of science shall supersede then, for her, the wonders of romance. To feed the sacred fire of life will become a noble office; she will count it as honorable, in its place, to make a fine soup or a delicate Charlotte Russe as to play a Beethoven sonata or read a German classic.

Truly, I think that it is almost a sin for a housekeeper with all her senses to be ignorant of the laws of chemistry affecting food. Yet the subject is so large and complicated that I can only indicate its importance; but I am sure that women of affection and intelligence who may now for the first time accept the thought, will follow my hints to all their manifold conclusions. One of these conclusions is so important that I cannot avoid directing special attention to it,—the moral effect of proper food.

Do not doubt that all through life high things depend on low ones; and in this matter it must be evident to every observing woman that food is often the nerve of our highest social affections. There is an acute domestic disorder which Dr. Marshall Hall used to call “the temper disease.” Need I point out to wives the wonderful sympathy between this disease and the dining-table? Do they not know that a fretful, belated, ill-cooked breakfast has the power to take all the energy out of a sensitively organized man, and make his entire day an uncomfortable failure?

On the contrary, a cheerful room, a snowy cloth, coffee “with the aroma in,” bread whose amber crust and light, white crumb is a picture, in short, a well-appointed, quiet, comfortable first meal has in it some subtle influence of strength and inspiration for work. I have seen men rise from such tables joyful—full of such gratitude and hope as I can well believe only found expression in that silent uplifting of the heart to God which is, after all, our purest prayer.

Then when at evening he returns weary, faint and hungry, a fine sonata or an exquisite painting will not much comfort him. I even doubt whether a religious service could profitably take the place of his dinner; for we know, if we will acknowledge it, that the importunate demands of the flesh do cry down the still small voice of devotion. But how different we feel after eating; then we are disposed for something higher, the mind is elevated to gracious thoughts, the brain gives reasonable counsel, the heart generous responses. And I speak with all reverence when I say that many of our darkest hours in spiritual things are not to be attributed to an angry God or a hidden Saviour, but to physical repletion or inanition. But if these wonderfully fashioned bodies be the “temple of the Holy Ghost,” how shall we expect the comforts of God in a disordered or ill-kept shrine?

Thus it is in the power of the housewife to turn the work of the kitchen into a sacrifice of gladness, and to make the offices of the table a means of grace. Certain it is that she will decide whether her husband is to be commercially successful or not; for if a man will be rich, he must ask his wife's permission to be so. And if he will be physically healthy, mentally clear, morally sweet, she must take care that his home furnish the proper food and stimulus on which these conditions depend. Nor will she go far wrong if she take as a general rule, lying at the foundation, or in close connection with them all, Sydney Smith's pleasant hyperbolic maxim, “Soup and fish explain half the emotions of life.”

We will suppose that the housewife is also the house-mother, and that she is not content with apathetically remarking that “her children are beyond her control,” and so sending them away to nurses and boarding schools; but that she really strives to encourage every virtue, draw out every latent power, and make both boys and girls worthy of the grand future to which they are heirs. Who shall say now that woman's domestic sphere is narrow, or unworthy of her highest powers? For if she accepts honestly and solemnly all her responsibilities, she takes a position that only good women or angels could fill.

Nor need house duties shut her out from all service except to those of her own household. In these very duties she may find a way to help her poorer sisters far more efficient than many of more pretentious promise. When she has become a scientific, artistic cook, let her permit some ignorant but bright and ambitious girl to spend a few hours daily by her side, and learn by precept and example the highest rules and methods of the culinary art. Girls so instructed would be real blessings to those who hired them, and would themselves start life with a real, solid gain, able at once to command respectable service and high wages.

I am quite aware that such a practical philanthropist would meet with many ungracious returns, and not a few insinuating assertions that her charity was an insidious attempt to get work “for nothing.” But a good woman would not be deterred by this; she has had but small experience of life who has not learned that it is often our very best and most unselfish actions which are suspected, simply because their very unselfishness makes them unintelligible; and if we do not reverence what we cannot understand, we suspect it.

It may seem but a small thing to do for charity's sweet sake, but who shall measure the results? Say that in the course of a year four young girls receive a practical knowledge of the art of cooking, how far will the influence of those four eventually reach? The larger part of all our good deeds is hid from us,—wisely so, else we should be overmuch lifted up. We have nothing to do with aggregate results, and I believe that the woman who provides intelligently for her household, makes it cheerful and restful, and finds heart and space to help some other woman to a higher life, has the noblest of “missions,” the grandest of “spheres,” and is most blessed among women.

She who adds to household duties maternal duties fills also the highest national office, since to her hands are committed—not indeed the laws of the republic but the fate of the republic; for the children of to-day are the to-morrow of society, and its men of action will be nothing but unconscious instruments of the patient love and prayerful thought of the mothers who taught them. And yet let the women who are excused from this office be grateful for their indulgence. Alas! how many shoulders without strength have asked for heavy burdens.


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