Saturday, April 9, 2011

No Housework Day--All in a Name?

April 7th was (among other things), No Housework Day.

Never heard of this before seeing it listed on an April calendar. I have no idea who made it official or if it's a grassroots holiday. But it triggers a surprinsing variety of thoughts for me!

I have never claimed to be Suzy Domestic. Like many women I know, it's a juggling act to manage outside-the-home work, housework, errands (what the Scots call "messages"), and the multitude of other things we want/need/ought to do every day.

My mother, Dorothy Dangler Jacob, did housework because it had to be done, and she delegated chores to me as I grew old enough to learn how to do them, but she was not a career housewife--which must have been awkward in the 1950s and early 60s when Donna Reed and June Cleaver presided over the cultural consciousness of Sweet Housewives wearing pearls and heels. Although Mother maintained a clean, welcoming and pleasant home, she was much more interested in art, church affairs, and other activities than she was in having the shiniest kitchen floor on the block. As more and more women have combined working inside and outside the home, that has become more the norm, and more women have struggled with Doing It All--as women have always struggled, if without formal acknowledgement in their cultures that they were handling many roles.

My first husband's grandmother and great-grandmother were Career Homemakers. His mother, a divorcee and single mother, worked as an executive secretary from the time he was three and she moved him back home to her family in Pittsburgh's Homewood neighborhood. The two of them had an apartment in the attic, his grandparents lived on the second floor, and his great-grandparents lived on the ground floor. As the adored only child, he had the run of the whole big house, spending many hours with his grandmother and great-grandmother. This was good, in that he was a happy, loved child and boy. But they were so adept at running their households in tandem that they made it look effortless...and somehow he completely missed the point that they were in the home all the time, and not also in an outside workplace. Thus, when we got married, his expectations of what I would do did not mesh with mine...

It was understood that I must find a job, which I did. One example of our differing perspectives of my role in the home started with his watching me fold laundry one day in our bedroom after bringing it up from our apartment building's laundry room. "Hey! You aren't putting those in the drawer, are you?" he asked.

"Did you want your undershirts in a different one?" I asked, pausing.

"But you haven't ironed them!"

I stared at him incredulously. "Ironed undershirts?" I repeated the utterly foreign phrase carefully.

"My grandmother always irons my undershirts," he asserted. "They feel better, ironed. No wrinkles."

Did I mention that except for college, he had always lived at home? And that they delighted in spoiling him?

I set them aside. That evening, I set up the ironing board and he watched me iron one before turning back to a Pirates game on TV.

Two days later I asked him how his undershirt felt. "Fine!" he said. "You did a good job."

I looked him in the eye. "Just so you know," I told him, "I ironed the one you wore yesterday."

"I could tell," he nodded.

"But you can't, because I didn't iron the one you're wearing now. And I'm not ironing them again, or your teeshirts. It's a pain and completely pointless, since nobody can tell the difference. Grandma Jane has her routine, and part of that is spending four hours every Tuesday ironing. She irons everything, clothes, sheets, towels, handkerchiefs, even though she has drip-dry and no-iron things, simply because it's a habit and part of what she's done for the past fifty years--and I am working fulltime, the same as you are."

To his surprise, his mother backed me up. "She's not being lazy," Belle-Me/re said to him. "There is a difference between being unwilling to do something necessary and doing something that is just extra work. Grandmother Jane had the leisure to do it for you; your wife does not. She could have pretended to do it, you know. Frankly, I think you should learn to iron your own clothes. I'm sorry I didn't insist on it!"

As  a girl, I objected to interrupting my play or reading to dust or vacuum or clean the toilet. My parents listened to my protests, and told me to do whatever it was anyway, and I did. Most of my objections stemmed from a feeling of unfairness. It wasn't that I felt myself above doing it; it was the injustice that I was expected to do my chores while my older brother was usually able to get out of doing his. My parents admitted later that they spoiled him, and that's the truth, but they were determined not to make the same mistakes with me, and this inequity only sowed the seeds of my rebellion and dislike.

Mother's mother, Abigail Jones Dangler, rarely allowed her blindness to stop her from doing what she wanted to do. When I was 7, that included teaching me to make my own bed. From scratch. Daddy had made me a new pink bed, now that I was too old for the youth bed converted from my crib. I was so proud that he had made it just for me! It was high, so I had to scramble up on it, and that was so the bottom part could have two big drawers to hold linens, extra blankets and some winter clothes. The headboard was heart-shaped, just right for sitting my Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls on until I needed them to sleep with or console me for any troubles.

Gramma had me strip the bed down to the mattress, and then showed me how to do hospital corners, explaining that that was the way nurses did it, so the sheets were less likely to come out and slide around at night. (Yes, this was before fitted bottom sheets.) So I practiced putting on the bottom and top sheets, and then the blanket, a nice new blue one, folding back the top of the sheet under it--something that apparently is not done west of the Alleghenies in western PA except by NJ transplants like me. Perhaps having a few inches of sheet turned over the top edge of the blanket dates from a time when blankets were scratchier (It must have been hard to completely rinse soap out of woolens before automatic washers), or perhaps when hand-embroidered sheets were a prized part of a housewife's linen chest, to be shown off before the post-WWII fashion of bedspreads as a decorative status symbol). She showed me how to put the pillow case on, and then the bedspread. That was the hardest part, getting it on smoothly, the design centered and without wrinkles. With her sensitive fingertips, Gramma could find the tiniest mistake. "I'll never get it right!" I grumbled after I made my bed for the eighth time.

"Ach, aye, you will," she said, pointing unerringly to the framed needlepoint pictures Daddy had hung up on the wall for me. "Remember when you learned tae dae those? You thought the first stitches waur hard tae dae, and noo you dinna even think of hoo tae dae them. It will be the same wi' this. The wa' you ken you've mastered something is when you dae it wi'oot ha'ing tae think of each step."

She was a wise woman. It's true; making a bed from scratch, queen-sized now instead of a twin, takes me less than five minutes.

I have a friend who has collected how-to-do-housework books for years, and I've read some of them. The Side-Tracked Sisters helped me reorganize my kitchen more efficiently. Several years ago, I was having a hard time. I was working fulltime, and in one year, my husband had seven operations (and long recuperations) and four infections. I was his caregiver. When he was in the hospital, I was going from home to work and then the hospital and then home to fall into bed....and at the hospital all day and evening on the weekends. When he came home, the house was a mess and I felt overwhelmed.

Enter the FlyLady, Marla Cillia, a housework coach. (Forget any horror movie images; the name stems from a time when she taught fly-fishing!) I love her sensible approach, that not everything she suggests will work for each person, but that most of it will. Marla advocates decluttering, something I still struggle with. She recommends maintaining a shiny kitchen sink or something that you will keep looking nice, as a starting point in a room, to gradually expand on as you slowly develop new, better habits, and that you can accomplish a lot in just fifteen minutes. This notion of being able to start anew is something I strongly believe in, the hope of improving. As I remarked to an acquaintance yesterday who told me he is reading Plato's The Republic for the first time, I'm more of an Aristoltian than a Platonist, because I am in a process of becoming.

But what really saved my bacon that year was her belief in routines. I developed one for each evening, putting out my clothes before bedtime (which Mother had started me on when I began kindergarten), but expanding that to getting things ready for breakfast the next morning like prefilling DH's coffeemaker (DH stands for Dear Husband), putting things I needed to take with me the next morning on my "launch pad" (like bills to mail), and setting the alarm clock . After a while, I added a morning routine for before leaving for work. Timing how long things take made a big difference for me, because if it takes four minutes to do something, and I have five minutes, then it doesn't seem that huge. The first time I had to change his incision dressing seemed to take forever, not to mention giving a bed bath, but in less than a week, I had a routine worked out so I didn't overlook any steps or materials, and knew exactly how long it would take. Knowing a task's length helped me figure out what time I needed to get up to get them done without rushing--and for an owl like me, that was important! .A routine for the afternoon after I returned from work followed--simple things like making sure that nothing was lying on the dining-room table, starting a load of laundry, having a few minutes to sit down and share our day before starting supper. At one point, dusting seemed like an insurmountable obstacle--but if I broke it up into babysteps, doing one room a day, by the end of the week, the whole place had been done and no surface was grey-furry with dust. If  our home wasn't white-glove immaculate, at least it was neat and, I felt, under control, as well as easier for my husband to move around in as he grew stronger.

For me, one of the least enjoyable chores is grocery shopping. i don't understand why some women boast of going to the store two or three times a week. John was able to download an application onto my Palm, and once I customized the list according to the store's layout, checking off each item on that list as I put it into the cart, the quicker I could get done and the fewer things I forgot.

I developed routines at my job too--doing periodic "room rescues" every day of two areas I was in charge of  which were used by most of the staff kept things neat and supplied. Every day my desk was cleared off before I went home, and getting to work a bit earlier than my start time gave me a few unhurried minutes to get organized for the day.

If this sounds remeniscent of  Grandma Jane and her mother, well, yes. The old rhyme:

Wash on Monday,
Iron on Tuesday,
Bake on Wednesday,
Brew on Thursday,
Churn on Friday,
Mend on Saturday,
Go to meeting on Sunday.

was followed by thousands of women for over 100 years in this country. The more I think of it, the more sense it made for many of them before the invention of the many labor-saving devices we take for granted today. Washing clothing dirtied by hard physical work, at a time when one commonly bathed in a washtub in the kitchen on Saturday night, was difficult, especially when fabrics were coarser and often worn more than once between launderings. If cloth took a long time to make, it was more expensive, so people had less of it. Up through the 19th Century, clothing was often mentioned in wills, handed down through generations. In A Girl of the Limberlost (1909), Gene Stratton Porter had one of her characters remark, "A girl who can't keep a dress clean for three days is a dirty girl." If you look at the list of items Laura Ingalls packed into her new brass-bound trunk to take in 1888 to her marriage  to Almanzo Wilder, as described in These Happy Golden Years, she did not have as many clothes as most women take for granted now.

To do a load of wash, you heated water on the stove or over a fire built in the yard, dipped or poured it into the washtub, added lye soap (hard on the hands), added the clothes, and rubbed each item up and down over a slatted washboard (which meant you had to bend over it, so your back would ache) to loosen the dirt, then wring it out, put it into another tub of clear water to rinse it up and down, possibly more than once, wrung out the excess water, and then put it into a basket to lug to a line and fasten with clothespins. Yes, I've left out the steps involved in bleaching or "bluing" whites). By the way, the washboard and a clothes-line in the 19th Century were high-tech; before that, women would slap the clothes against a river-rock and drape wet clothes over bushes. When it was dry, you folded it back into the basket and took it inside--supposing that something hadn't caused the line to fall down, or a goat tried to eat the tablecloth or sheets, or it rained suddenly.

Mother's was green.
The first washing-machine I remember was a big old round green wringer washer on legs. Daddy put it on castors when we moved from New Street in Budd Lake, NJ to the second-floor apartment on Mountain Avenue in Hackettstown, NJ when I was 6 1/2. We learned to walk small and speak softly on Mondays, a day Mother hated from her soul. She would connect the washer via a hose to the kitchen sink to fill it, add some Tide and the clothes, run it, and then roll it over the linoleum floor to the bathroom off the kitchen, where she would hand-crank each item through the wringer; it would fall onto a metal "slide" Daddy made her; she propped one end against the washer, and the other into the bathtub, half-full of clean rinse water. She'd souse the item up and down, run it through the wringer again without letting it slide, and put it into a cloth sling that hung from a frame on wheels. Once that bag was full, she'd wheel it out of the bathroom, across the kitchen floor, out to the landing on the back stairs, in winter put on her coat, open the window, and hang it on a pulley clothesline. By the time she was finished with a week's washing, she was tired, aching and very short-tempered.

One of Mother's painting friends, Mrs. Koehler, had her sons dump clothes from the line into the basket for her, and then  she used to spend a lot of time rolling up clothes and sprinkling them with water before ironing them, a common step. Mother felt it was a waste of time after drying the clothes in the first place; she maintained that if you folded something carefully, it had fewer wrinkles, and if you had a good steam iron, that would take care of steaming out any harder wrinkles as you ironed. But while Mrs. Koehler didn't have an old flatiron she heated on the stove, she didn't have or use one with a steam feature. Years later, I was surprised to find out that my college roommate's mother sat down to iron! Everyone I knew stood up.

I was started on ironing Daddy's handkerchiefs, then dish-towels, moving on to more complicated things like blouses and shirts. By then I could understand why Mother felt that percale and other "miracle" fabrics of the mid-20th Century were just that--it was hard to iron something as large as a sheet, for example, and keep it off the floor. Once I got over being scared of burning myself, I found I loved the scent of freshly-ironed clothing, and I liked watching the wrinkles vanish. Mother found it boring...until we moved to the half-a-double-house on Washington Street. Then she would set up the ironing-board, lugged upstairs from its bracket and rope hanger on a basement pegboard, in the dining-room, and listen to French records while she performed this task. By then, she and I were dividing it up; she did her clothes, my brother's, and half the household things, and I did mine, Daddy's, and the other half--and by the time I was 12, we had matching white boxy washer and dryer in the kitchen. Somewhere deep in my memory are overheard French irregular verbs, the complete lyrics to the Singing Nun albums, and Roger Tory Peterson's North American birdcall recordings from her ironing stints.

Bee Butter Pat Mold
Because Mother didn't bake, except for holidays, or brew (dating from the days of home-brewed beverages like beer, ale and homemade wines--and did you know that Jane Austen was considered a fine brewer? You can see the brew-house behind her cottage in Chawton near Winchester, England if you go), she did other things on those days. She didn't churn in my childhood, either, although when she lived on farms as a girl, she and her sisters must have churned the milk from Mollie the Cow into butter. She had a finely-carved old square butter-mold hung over the kitchen sink that I think Grandpop, George Dangler, had made for Gramma. It had a tiny man and woman on it, and some other figures. This was much bigger than the "pat" mold she had. It was wooden too, bell-shaped with a handle; you positioned the mold over a pat of butter, pushed down on the handle, and a smaller piece would be pressed down to  imprint a small bee on the butter, to look pretty--and if you were selling it, to show that it was yours.

By the time Sunday arrived, our foremothers had earned a day of rest! The strict Protestant insistance of no work on that day was rooted in the Bible, but also a way of setting the day of worship aside from the rest of the week. This idea may seem strange to many younger folk today, but although my family wasn’t strict, I can remember the Sunday hush. Fewer stores were open (Daddy used to gas up the car on Saturdays), and it was a special day. Sunday meant we had coffeecake instead of cereal, and the Sunday Newark Evening News with its colored comics, magazine and weekly TV listings. I’d dress in my Sunday dress, and if it was cold, my Sunday coat and hat, and walk to Sunday School before church. In the afternoon, while Mother did the dishes from a hot dinner (the rest of the week we had sandwiches for lunch), Daddy would read the Bible and the paper. Then we’d go for a hike in a state park and come home to a lighter supper.

I still don’t like doing housework, but I’m grateful for all the devices we have which make it easier and faster to do, even while I question the casual attitude we have that we’re justified in using more electricity than many other countries, and our dependence on the kind of energy we use to fuel that electricity.

Thousands of women in other countries are still walking miles to fetch water (not all of it clean), laboring to keep their families clothed and fed, their homes whole, clean and welcoming. Like us, they do these things day after day, with patience and impatience, with pride and annoyance, with frustration and satisfaction. In peace and war, in flood, famine and fire, women build and rebuild, and we all have this in common in whatever time or place:

We are more than housekeepers.

We make the homes and our families’ memories of them as we keep them.

We bless our homes and those within with the work we do.

Another old saying, “Many hands make light work,” originating in a time of large families, applies in a different way now. As I clean and cook, wash and mend, the kinship I have with my foremothers and other women strengthens me.

Is housework as onerous if we think of it as blessing those we love?

Similar, if a bit simpler than Mother's


  1. Hi Barra. This is a great post! Just want everyone now that I'm totally unbiased.

    Your husband,


  2. Dear Barra,

    Here I am again, trying to figure out what I did not do correctly when I tried to comment last time.

    This particular post was a walk down memory lane for me (and not always a comfortable one, I might add). I know only too well about the washing, ironing, hospital-corners-for-sheets routine. Like you, I am familiar with those wringer washing machines and the labor associated with them.

    Your mention of New Jersey took me back to my life in Hackensack and Matawan in the 60s - when I was a "career housewife" - although I didn't know it at the time. With five small children and a husband (who had about the same expectations as your first), I learned a great deal about myself. Unfortunately, I had no family to call on (I'm an only child), but my neighbors (bless them) were my salvation. Enough of this - what I really want to say is yes, we are more than housekeepers, and I am so proud of you for refusing to iron those undershirts! You go, girl!

    I still don't care much for shopping. . .

    (I'm not previewing this, so please forgive mistakes.)

    Best wishes,


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