Before I realized that moderate tone deafness was the reason I could never tune my guitar, I enjoyed the role of teenage folksinger. I often sang Peggy Seeger’s arrangement of “The Housewife’s Lament,” a 19th century poet’s detailed recounting of all the chores that caused an overburdened housewife to keel over and die; it’s a wonder my guitar teacher (and anyone else within hearing distance) did not fall on the floor from uncontrollable laughter.
Truthfully, I knew as much about housework as I did about physics or rock climbing. My mother had hired some household help as soon as my father finished law school, and no one ever expected me to do more than set the table, fill the dishwasher, or perform the occasional vacuum once-over. My first year or so out of college, I did not live anywhere long enough to notice much dirt. It was not until I moved to Maine and lived on an unpaved road, miles from electricity and telephone service, that I had to do any housework.
Perhaps the most onerous cleaning task was the soot on the kerosene lamps. We tried washing them in hot soapy water (heated on the woodstove) but wiping them with old newspapers was much faster and almost as effective.
[Clockwise from top left: “The Wash” Linoleum Print by StageFortPress; Vintage Washing Machine from CoffeehouseVintage; Handwoven Laundry Basket by Basketsbyrose; “Laundry Day” Mixed Media on Canvas by CruzArt; Handmade Laundry Soap by Pabadoo]
Laundry was another matter. Instead of making our own soap and spending arduous days hauling and heating water to wash and rinse heavy clothing, we made the trip to town for a visit to the laundromat and hot showers (as long as a car started).
[Clockwise from top left: Vintage Sewing Machine from PriorMemories; Vintage Housewife’s Guide to Making & Mending from VintageVisageonEtsy; Vintage Spool Ring from ArcOfTime; Silver Thimble Illustration by Williamkdavis]
My father’s mother taught me to sew when I was so young I had to sit on a telephone book to reach the sewing machine. She drew spirals and zig-zags on paper. I practiced without thread until my hand was steady and accurate. I made most of my own clothes and even supported myself by dressmaking for a few years.
[Clockwise from top left: Vintage Scrubbing Brushes from UrgeStudio; Mason Jar Canning Labels by Krankpress; Vintage Carpet Beater from BiminiCricket; Dryer Sheet Alternative by zJayne; Heirloom Carrot Seeds from Cubits]
In the past, a housewife’s duties included growing and canning food to be eaten when nothing much was in season. I could never understand any modern person wanting to preserve and can until I became more of a stickler about eating locally grown foods. If I want a tomato in January, I pretty much have to freeze or can it myself in August or September.
My ignorance of housework does not mean any disrespect for the genuine hardships so many women have endured doing laundry, cleaning house with only brooms and mops, preserving and cooking food without refrigeration. Even today, girls all over the world miss school because they must spend hours walking to and from distant sources of water. All that hard labor fills me with awe, and I feel pretty ridiculous when I remember that I had to call a friend to ask her how to mop my kitchen floor when I was in my thirties!