Transcript of video presentation by Constance
Our households have changed considerably over the years. Today,
we cook meals in minutes with programmable ovens, wash clothes
in energy-efficient, high-performance machines, and press our clothes
with cordless, electronic steam irons. If we need soap or other
household necessities, we merely go to the store and find countless
products at our fingertips.
But life was not always this simple. To get a glimpse of what
households used to be like, let's travel back to the mid-nineteenth
century using the collections at the Library of Congress. Diaries,
letters, women's magazines, trade cards, and household manuals
help us discover the everyday life of our feminine forebears and
the challenges they faced as they struggled to keep their families
fed and clothed. Life for the majority of women involved exhausting
physical labor from sunup to sundown and left precious little time
for leisure. A homemaker noted in her 1855 diary, "We have to work
ourselves nearly to death to keep victuals on the table."
There were few labor-saving devices. Days were consumed by chopping
and hauling wood, making and tending fires, pickling and canning,
preparing meals, lugging and heating water, and scrubbing and ironing
clothes. Families even had to make their own soap, which was a
very demanding, time-consuming, unpleasant, and odorous process.
One homemaker wrote, "It is not pretty work, but it's rather necessary." As
menial as these tasks seemed, they were essential for sustaining
Women's popular literature of this period was full of advice about
proper housekeeping. Implicit in this advice was the notion that
by keeping a clean, neat, well-ordered home and filling it with
warmth, inviting smells, and Christian charity, women could achieve
their highest calling. A movement to elevate the status of housework
found an early voice in the writings of Catharine Beecher, sister
of the antislavery novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe. Beecher devoted
much effort to glorifying housework and attempting to convince
her readers that their daily duties, however tedious, constituted
important work. She, and many others of the same mind, set out
to train housewives for their calling.
Homemaking manuals and articles in women's magazines set high,
if not impossible, standards for cleanliness, cheerfulness, and
efficiency. You may remember the chapter on "Domestic Experiences" in
Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, in which Alcott observes, "Like
most other young matrons, Meg began her married life with the determination
to be a model housekeeper. John should find home paradise; he should
always see a smiling face, should fare sumptuously every day, and
never know the loss of a button." Of course, there was the day
that her jelly wouldn't gel and John came home to no dinner, a
jelly-strewn kitchen, and a distraught Meg! But clearly, she tried
to live up to the expectations of the homemaking manuals of her
A 1906 article in Everyday Housekeeping concluded that
homemakers must have been "made of exceptionally strong fiber.
. . everything required hard, persevering, and unremitting labor." However,
the realities posed by the sheer number of tasks to be completed
daily stressed even the hardiest of women.
One of the nineteenth-century homemaker's most arduous and dreaded
tasks was laundry. According to Helen Campbell in her Easiest
Way in Housekeeping and Cooking, a weekly wash was necessary
for perfect cleanliness, a state all homemakers were encouraged
to achieve. Campbell chose Monday as the logical laundry day because
clothing was generally changed on Sunday. Sunday's leftover lamb
could also make the Monday meal, allowing the housewife to devote
her entire day to washing.
Without running water, gas, or electricity, even the simplest
laundry process consumed staggering amounts of time and labor.
Water had to be moved from river, well, or cistern to tubs, buckets
or wash boilers and then heated on a stove or over an open fire.
Elizabeth Steele Wright recounted in her diary, "No rain yet, so
we had to draw water from the river, it was late when we got done
washing; it is hard work in hot weather." Cold weather brought
more challenges. Her 1861 diary entry states, "A bright day, but
very cold and our woodpile is very low, have burned the last stick
so we split up some boards . . . our cistern is frozen so that
we cannot pump water. We melted snow, it was tedious."
Illustrations in the Growth of Industrial Art give us
insight into the evolution of the washing machine, as do some of
the ads from women's magazines. In the mid-nineteenth century,
clothes were cleaned by rubbing them against a fluted wood, tin,
or glass washboard in a tub of hot soapy water. Bending over the
tub strained the back, the lye in the soap reddened the hands,
and the rubbing action bruised and tore the flesh on the knuckles.
One homemaker of the time exclaimed, "We done our washing. It was
a very hard job, but we lived through it."
Later in the century, clothes were washed in a wooden or galvanized
tub with a dolly stick, which looks much like a four or five-legged
stool on a stick. The housewife used a twisting action, first turning
the dolly in one direction, then in the other to agitate the clothes.
The early mechanical washers also used a dolly-like device to clean
the clothes. The mechanical wringer, which was first attached to
wooden washtubs, was introduced in the 1860s. While it took some
muscle to crank the rollers, it was still much easier than wringing
the clothes by hand. The wringer washing machine didn't become
generally available until the 1880s.
If clothes needed to be whitened, they were either bleached with
a blue powder in the rinse water, soaked in cream of tartar, or
spread on the grass to be bleached by the sun. They were usually
hung to dry on a clothesline out of doors. This was often a problem
in the winter. One homemaker wrote in her diary on a cold December
day, "Left our clothes out but, they cannot dry. They are frozen
too hard." The clothes had to be brought indoors and draped on
furniture or racks to dry. The virtues of hanging a "proper clothes
line" were passed from mother to daughter. Undergarments were hung
on the inside lines, shielded from view by sheets and pillowcases.
In rainy weather, clothes were strung in the attic or hung on drying
racks in the kitchen. Gloves, pants, and curtains were placed on
stretchers to prevent shrinkage as they dried. When dry, clothes
were folded, sprinkled, and rolled for ironing.
Tuesday was usually set aside for ironing, a chore that took all
day and was nearly as tiring as washing. As one expert noted, "Ironing
is admitted to be somewhat trying work, because necessarily much
heat is involved; but orderly procedure and good methods will prevent
the worker from getting into a flurried state of mind." The 1886
edition of Practical Housekeeping advised, "When inviting
friends for visits of a week or more, try to fix the time for the
visit to begin after the ironing is done." The point being that
the homemaker would be in a better frame of mind and have more
time for cooking meals and tending to her guests.
Women of the time undoubtedly would have been using a "sad iron" to
press their families' clothes. One meaning of sad in nineteenth
century dictionaries was "heavy." Although many of these irons
were small, they were very heavy. When sad irons were heated near
an open fire or on the stove, their handles became red hot. Women
tried wrapping aprons or towels around the handles, but still burned
their fingers. Mary F. Potts endeared herself to countless women
when she patented a much lighter sad iron with a detachable wooden
As technology advanced, irons fueled by charcoal, gas, and alcohol
became available. Brass hot-box irons were fueled by charcoal,
which was placed in the body of the iron and lit. The burning charcoal
heated the iron. This iron has a small tank for white gasoline.
A valve at the base of the iron regulated the amount of fuel fed
to the burner. It's hard to imagine ironing with a burning flame
inside an iron, but these liquid fuel irons were sold to rural
families well into the twentieth century. The liquid fuel sometimes
caught on fire, singed the handle, or simply exploded. This iron
has a pipe that was attached to the gas line in the home and lit
with a match, much like a gas stove. Dangerous as they were, gas
irons had a continuous supply of fuel, were light, and maintained
a more even temperature than the old sad irons.
Another wearisome but essential task was cooking. Meal preparation
was laborious and seemed never-ending. Boiling was the most common
method of cooking in the early nineteenth century. In order to
cook food, wood had to be chopped and hauled; fires had to built
and maintained. Skinned animals and vegetables were covered with
water and boiled in large pots or cauldrons, which stood in the
fire or were suspended over it. Biscuits and fruit crumbles were
put in covered pots and nestled in the fire to bake. Iron spiders,
which looked like iron pans with legs, were placed in the coals
and used for frying salt pork, corn meal mush, and other foods.
Early cooks were resourceful and inventive. One excerpt from the Letters
of Polly the Pioneer illustrates this point. "When the hoe
is not in use, I make hoe-cake. I do this by slipping the handle
off the hoe, cleaning it well, and greasing it with bear's grease.
Then I place a good stiff dough upon it and set it near the coals.
I bake one side and then the other." Cooking over an open fire,
however, was decidedly hazardous. Scalds, burns, and catching
one's apron or sleeve in the fire were everyday occurrences.
By the 1840s, the enclosed cast-iron stove became widely available.
It consisted of a firebox that was filled with either wood or coal,
an oven, and a stove top fitted with rings for pans and kettles
to rest upon. The fire was refueled by lifting the rings and dropping
in additional wood or coal. An arrangement of flues and dampers
helped, to some degree, to control the temperature of both the
oven and the stovetop.
With the invention of the gas stove, the oven temperature could
be regulated to a much finer degree and be maintained for just
as long as was needed. There was no longer a need to refuel the
stove. As Emily Holt, author of the Complete Housekeeper,
remarked, "Matches are the only kindling and no more need be burned
than just suffices for the cooking." This also made for a much
cooler kitchen in warm weather.
The advent of the stove dramatically changed food preparation
and cooking. Recipes became more complex and varied. The Ladies'
Home Journal even included cooking lessons in its monthly
magazine and cooking schools sprang up in major cities. A number
of these schools published cookbooks, the most famous of which
was the Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, known today as Fannie
Farmer's Cookbook. An 1899 issue of the American Kitchen
Magazine, and cookbooks of the time, offered guidance for
making fancy beef and seafood dishes, frosted ham, timbales, and
Electricity, an innovation of the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries, ushered in great changes. Electric stoves, washing machines,
and irons reduced exhausting physical labor, and were more efficient
and safer to use. In essence, they lessened the burden of those
onerous tasks that homemakers had loathed for centuries.
Electricity also spawned a whole new era of innovation. Trade
cards became a popular means of introducing the homemaker to the
flood of new products. Some trade cards featured the item they
were promoting, while others relied on the sentiment attached to
the charms of a winsome child or an attractive woman to draw attention
to their products. These colorful cards were distributed free of
charge to consumers by merchants, door-to-door salesmen, or by
youngsters stationed on busy street corners. The trade cards chronicled
the birth of many nineteenth-century products and were collected
at the time in much the same way as postcards are today.
The Library's collections of nineteenth- and twentieth-century
magazines, housekeeping manuals, diaries, and trade cards provide
a wealth of information about the everyday hardships and challenges
faced by our ancestors. They relay humorous anecdotes, and common
practices and products of the time. By looking at the changes in
households over the years, we can discover the depth of American
ingenuity and invention and obtain fascinating insights into the
progress of technology in our culture.