Mother of Invention
Gone are the days when the ideal homemaker sported a perfect coif, heels and pearls while tidying the house, setting the table and preparing a casserole dinner. Though I’m not sure women in my family ever strove for this standard (unless ponytails, slippers and sweats count), things have come a long way for moms since our grandmothers and great-grandmothers set up house.
Just a century ago, life expectancy averaged in the mid-50s, infant mortality was high and women had limited job options. We couldn’t vote, couldn’t hold office and very rarely held executive positions. Women’s contributions were relegated, for the most part, to the home, a home that bore little resemblance to the appliance-packed quarters of today.
Whenever a tough day gets the better of me, I think about these bygone times, open the hallway closet and look lovingly upon my Dyson. Sure, it sounds like something small (unless you’ve seen the price tag on one of those British-born vacuums), but if you consider how people fared during preindustrial days, you’ll appreciate the many little modern conveniences that make running a household a much smoother prospect.
I once had a pre-nuclear panic attack when it was my turn to host Thanksgiving dinner and my oven and microwave teamed up and decided they had enough of my too-few-and-far-between second-rate culinary attempts. What was I supposed to do? Cook everything stovetop? Are you kidding?
Fueled by angst and anxiety, I managed to eke out a makeshift meal while attempting to corral my then-two-year-old son, thinking that things couldn’t possibly be more stressful. Yeah. Right.
Before supermarkets and the availability of all those shiny domestic devices nestled in our kitchens, women usually made family meals from scratch in clunky, cast-iron stoves that required vigil maintenance. Much care was spent sifting ashes, lighting fires, carrying coal or wood, and applying thick, black wax to keep surfaces from rusting.
Back then, women baked bread, butchered meat, plucked chickens, kept a garden, ground spices and created conserves among other things, occupying most of their time. You know, in the good old days.
Believe it or not, cleaning was an even more arduous task than cooking, requiring around 40 hours per week. Soot and smoke from stoves, fireplaces and lamps blackened walls, dirtied drapes and soiled furniture. Each day, glass had to be wiped and wicks trimmed or replaced. Plus, floors were scrubbed, rugs beaten, trappings dusted and windows washed.
Of course, we can all relate. Pulling out that pre-moistened wipe, pushing around that self-propelled vacuum or wiping away sprays from that bottle of cleaning solution can be quite taxing. I need a glass of wine just thinking about it.
By far my least favorite undertaking, washing clothes often feels like the most tedious, thankless task. With a little boy on the loose, dirty clothes amass at a relentless pace. On a weekly basis, I strain and sigh as I haul around a basket piled high with grimy garments, dreading the process of folding and replacing them only to find them strewn about by week’s end.
But before washing machines were standard, not only did women have to lug around heavy bundles of dirty linens, many also had to transport and heat about 50 gallons of water from a (hopefully) nearby source to complete a single load. This involved soaking, scrubbing, boiling, stirring and rinsing the items before wringing them out and pinning them up one by one to dry.
And since there was no laundry detergent at the time, lye soap was typically made from animal fat leftover from when meats had been cured for storage. Dishpan hands have nothing on what these women’s digits endured.
Then, the following day was reserved for ironing and perhaps mending. You know, using fibers harvested from cotton or flax fields that had been hand-spun into thread.
I salute those women before us, yet despite how far we’ve come, motherhood still ranks as one of the toughest jobs. But at least we have more help from our partners who take on domestic duties as we share responsibility in the workforce. Plus, we can be grateful that there are a lot more conveniences available to the average household, not to mention a lot less soot.