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100 Years Ago: Cleaning House

April 19, 2018


When I was younger, I developed a slight obsession with housekeeping. Oh, not with actually cleaning my house, but with reading books and manuals about cleaning! This started when I was still in my teen years, and I discovered a book called The Messies Manual by Sandra Felton, which taught its readers to clean a room by starting on the left side of one wall and working around the room (referred to in the book as the “Mount Vernon method”). Here is the version I owned:

MessiesManual

 

This obsession (for me) culminated around 2005 with possibly the most comprehensive book ever written about housekeeping:  Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelson.

HomeComforts

( If books were priced by their thickness or number of pages, this one would be one of the best deals ever!)

Perhaps this passion really started with the home Laura Ingalls Wilder described in the Little House in the Big Woods, the first chapter book I ever remember reading.

“Ma sat in her rocking chair, sewing by the light of the lamp on the table. The lamp was bright and shiny. There was salt in the bottom of its glass bowl with the kerosene…and there were bits of red flannel among the salt to make it pretty” (38).

Ma always scrubbed her house clean, no matter which little house they were living in (dugout, cabin, shanty, or store), and did her chores and kept a routine, even in the midst of a snowstorm or when faced with hard economic times. Her house always seemed, to me, so cozy and warm. As a young girl, I never realized they lived in poverty most of those years. These routines seemed to truly give purpose to their lives.

51oX8cir1RL

Mrs. Wilder actually began her career as a non-fiction writer, submitting articles to magazines (many of them describing farm life on their five-acre home in the Ozarks). Here, in an article for Country Gentleman (published in 1925), nearly one-hundred years ago, she describes some of her cleaning supplies:

 

“Above the sink are cupboards, one for cooking dishes, the other for the lamps, laundry soap, scouring powders, and so forth. Under one cupboard, against the chimney, is a shelf for my flat-irons, and the towel rack is fastened to a corner of the shelf” (A Little House Sampler, edited by William T. Anderson, published 1988 by Harper, p 142).

 

She was a believer in housekeeping as a science and, with Almanzo, purposefully planned her kitchen for easy cleaning:

“We painted the whole room white–two coats of flat white and a finishing coat of white enamel. I would hardly have attempted this in an ordinary farm kitchen but mine has no place to catch dust; no baseboards, no window sills, no beveling on doors. Wherever there is a corner it is rounded with a piece of molding and white paint is really much easier to keep clean than dark paint” (A Little House Sampler 142).

In the 1920’s, books on “household management,” cookbooks, and several home magazines were already popular amongst housewives, some of the bestselling published works of the day. A home economics textbook from one hundred years ago instructs:

“Rooms which are in constant use should be swept and dusted every day. A thorough cleaning of each room in the house will be necessary every week or two” (Household Science in Rural Schools published 1918).

HouseholdScienceinRuralSchools

This seems reasonable until I see that a weekly cleaning includes dusting everything that is “moveable” and taking it out of each room (while one cleans the floors), brushing the walls and ceilings, washing all of the woodwork with wood soap, taking the rugs outside and beating them, putting everything back in place, and then boiling the used dust cloths.  In the bedroom, one was to also dust the bedframe, turn the mattress, and shake the curtains.

I consider this a yearly cleaning at best, my version involving a rug shampooer. I think every housekeeping book I have ever read from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s insists one must turn the mattress every week and do so for each bed in the house. This explains why beds were so much smaller and mattresses thinner (yes, it was likely the other way around, that the thinner mattresses wore better this way, but I can’t help but wonder)!

Dust, like a villain in a melodrama, was the enemy of an excellent housekeeper. One book from this era explains in detail, perhaps for those young women whose mothers did not teach them:

“Sweep the cobwebs down with your clean broom…get up on your stepladder, and with brush and dustpan, clear the dust from door and window tops, and dust the mouldings with the whisk broom. Brush the walls, and dust the baseboards with the broom, then sweep the floor with light strokes…” (Anna Maria’s Housekeeping pub. 1912).

Published in London, a city fighting against smog, coal dust, fumes, and the refuse of industrialism, the book above instructed one to “time yourself to do this sweeping in fifteen minutes, then sit down for a five minutes’ rest ” and “after you have swept and dusted everything by brushing it, begin cleaning.” Apparently, the real cleaning involved, among other things: boiled water, ammonia, sand, and soap, taking out drawers, washing window frames, clearing the dust from the window locks, and turning the kitchen table upside down to clean underneath.

Kitchen work might easily have consumed the majority of a housewife’s day. It was recommended that the sink be washed three times daily with sand soap or kerosene (please do NOT try this at home) followed by pouring boiling water down the pipes. A good housewife would also scrub “all parts of the inside” of the refrigerator twice per week. Stoves were a completely different appliance then, and care may have involved “blacking” the stove or at least, in the case of a gas stove, rubbing it clean and keeping it filled with oil.

According to The Housekeeper’s Handbook of Cleaning (by Sarah J. MacLeod), published in 1915, “cabinets should be emptied of contents at least once a month and washed thoroughly” (31).

HousekeepersHandbookofCleaning

This same book has an entire chapter devoted to floors, the choices including varnished floors, waxed hardwoods, linoleum, and cork. The trend then was toward linoleum (at least in the kitchen and bath) because it provided some support for weary feet. The oiling or waxing of floors was a tedious job, but allowed the housekeeper to wipe them clean on a daily basis. Linoleum needed to be swept with a damp broom and washed with soap and water. Rugs, popular then as now, were swept with a broom and taken outside to be beaten.

Books for young girls at this time abounded, didactic, suggesting that neglecting one’s duties a terrible sin.

In literature, writers such as L. M. Montgomery give us some glimpses of this era as well. Anne’s House of Dreams, published in 1917, shows a young, newly-married Anne as a wife and homemaker. Rachel Lynde comments:

“Anne’s a good housekeeper…I’ve looked into her bread box and her scrap pail. I always judge a housekeeper by those, that’s what. There’s nothing in the pail that shouldn’t have been thrown away, and no stale pieces in the bread box.”

AnnesHouseofDreams

 

Montgomery reiterates what the books at the time taught. Una and Faith in Rainbow Valley (published in 1917) attempt to clean their house by taking all of the furniture out onto the lawn as “an orgy of sweeping followed,” as well as dusting and washing windows. The girls cannot understand why their windows don’t “sparkle” after using soap and water to wash them!

Housekeeping one hundred years ago required energy, planning, and a lot of elbow grease! None of the above even takes into account babies, diapers, or cooking for a family. Yes, housekeeping was more than a full-time job.

New Year’s, Bigfoot, and Lucy Maud Montgomery

January 9, 2018


I guess I’ve always had a thing for sleuthing. When I was nine, my best friend and I formed a Mystery Club. We were convinced that Bigfoot prowled around our neighborhood at night. With notebooks in hand, we inspected the fields and tree rows near our houses and wrote down anything that looked suspicious. Once, we found a stepladder leaned up against a tree and footprints nearby. That confirmed for us that we were very close to finding him.

Many years later (not to tell my age, but Trixie Belden was my hero), I still love mysteries. While I no longer prowl around looking for physical clues, I still enjoy finding “clues” in books. Finding an author in her work or discovering what life was like in the past through the everyday experiences of characters is like finding a treasure.

New Year’s Day was last week, but was no holiday for my students at the facility where I teach. While trying to get back into a routine again after my Christmas vacation, scanning my lesson plans, loading videos that I wanted to show, and assigning books to students for the new semester, I began to think about how New Year’s was celebrated long ago. Perhaps, I thought, it was more than a ball dropping, a countdown, and a toast.

A poem for children from 1881 titled “A New Year’s Dialogue” by Marion Douglas reveals small children making resolutions on New Year’s Eve in a simple poem. Nothing about weight loss or organizing their rooms or career goals is mentioned. Rather, these are moral resolutions to be more cheerful, kinder, and more disciplined:

TheNursery“The past is past; the year is new:
We will be patient, brave, and true;
When we are bidden, quick to mind;
Unselfish, courteous, and kind;
And try in every place to see
What good, good children we can be.”

We see this reiterated in L. M. Montgomery’s The Golden Road (the sequel to The Story Girl), published in 1913, when the Prince Edward Island children decide to make New Year’s Resolutions. The narrator, a boy of around 14 years old, suggests that resolutions should be “giving up wrong things or doing right things” after his brother Felix proclaims he going to stop eating apples as his resolution for the year (62).

TheGoldenRoad

Cousin Cecily worries incessantly that they are not being kind enough to one another on the last day of the year, and hired boy Peter promises, “I will try…to say my prayers every night regular and not twice one night because I don’t expect to have time the next…” (68).

In Elizabeth and Her German Garden (Elizabeth von Arnim), published in 1898, the very British Elizabeth, who is living in Germany with her husband, describes New Year’s Eve as having a “funeral sort of feeling in the air” as they attend a church service where the parishioners are reminded of their sins and encouraged to repent:

“The church was as cold as a tomb; some of the candles guttered and went out; the parson in his black robe spoke of death and judgment; I thought I heard a child’s voice screaming, and could hardly believe it was only the wind, and felt uneasy and full of forebodings; all my faith and philosophy deserted me, and I had a horrid feeling that I should probably be well punished, though for what I had no precise idea (157).”

GermanChurch

It is also on New Year’s Eve that fictional Nat realizes the error of his ways and repents of spending too much money, idling away his time in superficiality, and not being focused on his music (Louisa May Alcott Jo’s Boys).

Like Elizabeth, he is in Germany at the time, and on New Year’s Day, his German landlady brings him a tray “on which st[ands] a bottle of wine and an astonishing cake bedecked with sugar-plums of every hue, and crowned with candles.” She and a neighbor both wish him not just a happy New Year’s Day, but wishes for a good year all-around (Alcott 235).

ChocolateBavarianCream

Bavarian Cream from Lowney’s Cookbook, published 1908

By incorporating seasons in her books, Alcott often gives us glimpses of our favorite characters in summer, fall, winter, spring, and various holidays. She again shows one of her characters repenting on New Year’s in Rose in Bloom, published in 1876. Charlie has gotten drunk after making “New Year’s calls,” which, it is implied, involved going to various friends’ houses to drink toasts.

EightCousins.jpg

Eight Cousins (Alcott, published 1874)

This hearkens back to the English tradition of wassailing:

“It was an ancient Saxon custom to begin the year by sending presents to each other. On New Year’s Eve the wassail bowl of spiced ale was carried round from house to house by the village maidens, who sang songs and wished everyone “A Happy New Year” (Old English Sports by P. H. Ditchfield).

According to the book referenced above and published in 1891, the gifts may have included oranges “stuck with cloves,” custards, or tarts (basically treats). By the 1800’s, this expanded to jewelry and other presents we might expect to receive at Christmas.

In fact, the word Yule translates to “second Christmas.”

This likely explains why the college students in L. M. Montgomery’s story “Ida’s New Year Cake” are commiserating at the beginning of the story “because none of them was able to go home for New Year’s” (Lucy Maud Montgomery Short Stories 1905 to 1906):

“This will be the first New Year’s I have ever spent away from home,” sighed Sara, nibbling chocolate fudge. “It does make me so blue to think of it. And not even a holiday—I’ll have to go to work just the same” (51).

The plot revolves around Ida Mitchell, who has invited everyone over for a celebration, but finds that her fruitcake has been delivered (accidentally) to another Ida Mitchell. In trying to retrieve her lost cake, she discovers that the recipient is a lonely, poor girl whose life has been brightened by the home-baked gift. The main character hasn’t the heart to tell her namesake the truth.

Jc rankin at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Dalhousie College in 1905:  JC Rankin at the English language Wikipedia (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

In real life, Lucy Maud Montgomery did, in fact, attend a university for a time during the school year of 1895-1896 at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In her journals, she indicates that she was unable to go home for the holidays due to the weather and her grandfather’s being unwilling to meet her or return her to the station (The Selected Journals of L. M. Montgomery Volume I:  1889-1910: 151).

She also returned to Halifax to work for the newspaper in town as a proofreader in 1901-1902.

While the short story may not be autobiographical, LMM cleverly inserts another character, a “Miss Monroe,” who lives in the same boarding house as the college girls and is invited to attend the party. Miss Monroe is described as “a clever journalist, who worked on a paper, and was reputed to be writing a book” (52).

The author that gave us both Anne and Emily was able to show us the feelings of the introvert and the extrovert. She herself had been the popular college student, the lonely schoolteacher, the proud working girl, and the freelance writer (and all this before writing the books for which she is best known).
I end with an excerpt, recorded on New Year’s Eve, from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s journals back in 1891 when she was 17 years old:

11093468464_7434151f7f_o.jpg

Public Domain, from the British Library
Title – Illustrated Poems and Songs for Young People. Edited by Mrs. Sale Barker (1885)

“Thursday, Dec 31, 1891

The old year did not slip away in a green twilight and a pinky-yellow sunset. Instead, it is going out in a wild white bluster and blow. It doesn’t seem possible that another year has gone…I am cosily tucked up in bed now, sitting up to write this. It is a wild night out–one of the nights when the storm spirit hustles over the bare frozen meadows and black hollows and the wind moans around the house like a lost soul and the snow drives sharply against the shaking panes–and people like to cuddle down and count their mercies” (The Selected Journals…Volume I: 1889-1910:  71).

Happy New Year!

This Month 100 Years Ago…

November 9, 2017


In October 2017, two of my grandparents weren’t born yet. The others were children. My great-grandparents were still very young…at least four of them were still in high school.

So much was happening in the world. World War I was raging, and America had only entered it about six months earlier. My Grandpa Great fought in this war at only 18 years old. I remember him singing, “It’s a long way to Tipperary. It’s a long way to go…” as his thoughts seemed to go back to this time in his life.

Meanwhile, in Russia, a revolution was taking place that would change the world, and not for the better, in my opinion. My sophomore class is reading Animal Farm, and it struck me that these events are now one hundred years old. How different it would all have been if only the provisional government had had a little forethought!

Here are some other highlights from 100 years ago:

Billie Burke, who would later play Glinda the good witch in The Wizard of Oz, was featured in the magazine Photoplay, having recently married Flo Ziegfield. Here she is in a feature story in October 1917:

Screenshot 2017-10-09 at 6.34.31 PM.png

 

The Chicago White Sox beat the New York Giants in the seven-game World Series of 1917. Here is a link to clips, or what we used to call footage, of the first game:

1917 World Series Game One

How formally everyone dressed, with umpires, coaches, and even spectators in suits, vests, and ties! Though not as lean or as in shape as today’s players, these early all-stars sure did have some raw talent.

Some classic books were published during this time, as well. I think if I had to choose my favorite Anne book, it would be this one published in 1917:

Anne'sHouseofDreams

In chapter ten, Anne visits the shore on a cool October evening:

“There had been an autumn storm of wind and rain, lasting for three days. Thunderous had been the crash of billows on the rocks, wild the white spray and spume that flew over the bar, troubled and misty and tempest-torn…now it was over, and the shore lay clean-washed after the storm…” (Montgomery 93-94)

She has a way of putting images and words together to express how I feel. This post is woefully late, but I am publishing it anyway!

Popular Baby Names in Classic Literature

May 14, 2017


According to the most recent data from the Social Security Administration, new parents are choosing names once prominent from the 18th through the early 20th centuries. Here are some well-known female characters and writers from literature and their name rankings from the current decade (2010-2019 so far):

Emma (ranked #2) -This name is popular in the fictional world, as well as the real one. Think Emma Swan (Once Upon a Time) and Emma Frost (X-Men).  Now over 200 years old, matchmaker Emma Woodhouse shows us that it’s attractive to be confident. In a time when it was unusual to do so, Jane Austen’s famous protagonist insists she will never marry, and, though she does in fact accept a proposal, she stays true to herself by holding out for true love.

 

Emma-ch34_(II,16) (1)
Emma, 1896 edition, ill. Hugh Thomson

Isabella (ranked #3) – Jane Austen assigned this name more than once (including to Emma’s older married sister). Yet, it is Isabella Thorpe from Northanger Abbey who leaves the stronger impression. Flirtatious and beautiful, Isabella is the friend no other girl wants too close to her man. If alive today, she might go by Isabel or Bella.

Northanger_Abbey_CE_Brock_Vol_I_chap_V

Northanger Abbey, 1907 edition, ill. C. E. Brock

 

Emily (ranked #5) – Fiercely independent Emily Bronte, author of Wuthering Heights, gave us one of the most haunting, but strangest, love affairs in history. Baffling to researchers and readers alike, this talented writer never married and in all probability never even had a love affair. She could have fooled us!

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47dd-cf0a-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.w

Emily Bronte

https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47dd-cf0a-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Lily (ranked #22) – Trapped between a high social standing and financial destitution, Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart (The House of Mirth) seems to always be one step behind the security she seeks. Still, she lives up to the class and dignity of her name by choosing honor over reputation. Edith Wharton well understood the world of high-society New York as shown here around 1880:

 

Grace (ranked #20) – Even a secondary character, especially when she is mentally-disturbed Grace Poole from Jane Eyre, intrigues me enough to place her on this list. However, author Grace Livingston Hill deserves first place for creating an entirely new genre of writing known as the Christian romance and for writing well over 100 novels in the early- to mid-1900’s. She understood well the meaning of grace.

Barbour Publishing, 2000

Elizabeth (ranked #10) – “Elizabeth, Elspeth, Betsy, and Bess…” This children’s rhyme displays the versatility of this classic name. Memorable Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice lives on as a model of the strong, sassy female protagonist. In contrast, Elizabeth (Beth) March (Little Women) lives on as the girl whose sweet nature influences all those around her. [Note the illustration drawn by the real Amy (May Alcott).]

Houghton_AC85.Aℓ194L.1869_pt.2aa_-_Little_Women,_illustration_320

Little Women, 1896 edition, ill. May Alcott

I like to think that at least some of the many names that remain popular decades and even centuries later can be attributed to the writers and characters of our favorite books. Perhaps Anne Shirley said it best:  “I don’t believe a rose WOULD be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage” (L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables).

 

 

The vintageinkstand is a personal blog merging two of my biggest passions–reading and all things historical and vintage. From biographies to handwritten recipes to household hints of the early 1900s, from diaries to journals to my great-grandmother’s letters, I hope to share my latest findings, oldest dear friends (and my books are friends), interesting blurbs, and reviews of …

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