After putting the baby to bed the other night, feeling exhausted and oppressed by my household duties, I cleaned the entire apartment. By this I mean I put away the baby’s toys, washed the dishes, wiped down all three inches of countertop, swept most visible sections of the floor, and palmed a tumbleweed of dog hair off the rug. The entire process took about fifteen minutes, and was by far the longest stretch of housework I’d done all day. When my husband came home from whatever it is he does all day, I made him dinner. By this I mean I boiled some pasta. And THEN I had to WORK. By this I mean, I put on my pajamas and sat on the couch with a glass of wine and some student stories. I do everything around here, I thought, self-pityingly. Sheesh! And, as a non-New Yorker friend said recently in amazement, “I bet you don’t even have a dishwasher! How do you do it?”
“Well,” I responded, “My life is horrible.”
But it has occurred to me of late that housekeeping used to be a much more odious thing, and to remind myself of this I read Susan Strasser’s excellent book Never Done, a history of American housework. I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone who has ever had to do a modicum of housework. There is nothing like a perusal of pre-industrial housekeeping practices to make sorting the recycling feel like a day at the spa. Seriously, did you know that everything used to suck way worse than it does now?
Exhibit A. Cooking.
Sometimes I have the thought, Greasy old unevenly-cooking, partially disabled rental apartment stove, I hate you. But you know what really sucked? Cooking over an open freaking fire, all sparking with burning cinders and scorching gates, using cast-iron utensils that weighed 8,000 lbs each. Labor-intensiveness aside, just imagine all the ways an underfoot toddler could injure herself in such a kitchen! Wait, don’t actually. It’s too gruesome. And then even coal or wood stoves, once they came along, still took at least an hour a day just to maintain, what with all the fire-tending and coal-carrying and stove-blacking. I can totally relate to this because every few months or so I have to relight the pilot light on my stove, which takes an entire match and sometimes dozens of seconds.
Strasser’s book also reminded me how once upon a time food arrived in the kitchen unprepared. No, really unprepared. As in, each ingredient had to be processed by hand – chickens plucked, hams blanched, coffee roasted, spices ground, flour sifted, oatmeal soaked, and so on. By way of contrast, I was once reduced to tears by the thought of all the work involved with heating up a premade veggie corn dog in the toaster oven. Granted, I was pregnant and very tired, but so, I imagine, were many of our great-grandmothers while they were nurturing yeast.
Exhibit B. Laundry.
I live in an old brownstone without a washing machine, which has led many a person to gasp in protest, “But you need laundry with the baby, right?” Well guess what I found out from this book? No one used to have a washing machine! And one wash used fifty gallons of water, which of course had to be moved and heated by hand. And oh yeah, they hadn’t invented detergent yet. Remember that chapter in Little House in the Big Woods where they describe making soap from pig lard? Ewwwwww.
No surprise then that Strasser writes, “Of all the household chores that depended on hauling water and building fires to heat it, laundry earned the most complaints … it appears that women jettisoned laundry, their most hated task, whenever they had any discretionary money at all.” And here’s a little tidbit for you: in the beginning of the 20th century commercial laundries became popular and the task seemed to be on its way out of the house right along with making your own clothes and shoes. Then the invention of the electric washing machine plunked the act of laundry right back into the lap of the housewife, a development Strasser calls a “raw deal.”
So guess what this means? This means I have ingeniously bucked the housewife-oppressing system! Laundry doesn’t isolate me in my basement OR take up two days of my time a week OR actually any of my time, since I drop it off at the Laundromat and pick it up some hours later all neatly folded into a tiny space-puck of mathematically impossible dimensions. Do you see what this means? I am living the dream of the pre-industrial housewife. Thank you, Crystal Clean Laundromat!
Exhibit C. Extra Credit.
Back when the only out-of-home “daycare” was the “orphanage,” cash-strapped nineteenth century mothers cared for their children while tending the home fires (literally) and often taking in work they could do at home – extra laundry or mending for example. In other words, they did what I do – take care of baby, take care of household, work a little from home – but in long skirts and without running water, manufactured soap, or baby toys that light up. Or lattes. Or mom-tot yoga.
In conclusion: suck it up, me. Things are pretty awesome! Now if you’ll all excuse me. I have a stressful night ahead: a bathtub full of un-lugged, un-boiled hot water, and then off to sleep in sheets washed, luxury of luxury, by somebody else.