In the 1900 census reports, the occupation of a married women was often listed as “Keeping house”. (Or it was blank or recorded as “None”). My paternal grandmother was married in 1899 in Colorado and my maternal grandmother was married in 1905 in North Carolina. The skills that they would need for Keeping House included Cleaning, Laundry, Sewing (making the family clothes), Gardening (to raise the family food), Cooking and Child Care. My maternal grandmother also kept the family accounts and my paternal grandmother worked in our grandfather's store. A farm wife would have done farm chores.
The skills that a woman needed then were different from the ones needed in my mother's time (she got married in 1932), but the skills needed by my mother were not that different from the skills that I needed when I got married in 1959.
Where did I learn those skills?
Cleaning – Our mother worked part time, so when we were children, our chores included helping with the cleaning on Saturday. My little sister was assigned to dust – being smaller, she could get down to do the chair rungs more easily than any of the rest of us – and I got to do the vacuuming.
We had Oriental rugs and Mother taught me to vacuum one side with the Electrolux, and then fold the rug over in half, vacuum the back and then turn the rug over and do the other side of the back before I put it back down. There was also a wall brush that we could put on the end of the wand to do cobwebs at the ceiling, and a thin tool that we could use between the sections of a steam radiator. In my grandmother's time, they would take the rugs outside and beat them, but we had the Electrolux.
The harder chores such as cleaning the bathrooms, and polishing the silver were done by a maid. But I learned how to polish silver too. We used our silver every day for lunch and dinner. (Not for breakfast because eggs are bad for silver.) If you use it, it doesn't need much polishing. Polishing silver hasn't changed.
I didn't learn to clean bathrooms at home – that I learned in college. I lived in a Co-op and that was one of the jobs that we could select. I quite enjoyed cleaning the bathroom – it was a small room so it didn't take much time, and it was filled with hard shiny surfaces which looked clean when I was finished with them.
Laundry We grew up in an era before drip dry and perma press and knits. Our clothes were mostly cotton and except for things like T-shirts, they needed to be ironed. Mother had a wringer washer when we were little, but she had a regular washing machine and drier by the time we were in high school. She liked to have the sheets dried outside, so I learned how to peg out the wash on lines, putting the unmentionables (underwear) inside the sheets so they were hidden. If it was too rainy, we hung the sheets on lines in the cellar even after we had a dryer.
We spent the summers in rented rooms in Woods Hole, and one summer when I was about 13, my mother assigned me to do the family laundry. Learning to use the washers and dryers was not a problem, but Dad always wore a starched white dress shirts. I learned how to moisten the clothes and roll them up so that they could be ironed from my mother, but I learned how to iron a man's dress shirt from a friend of mine – Charlotte Brown who had been doing the laundry of her big family for a couple of years.
After I got married, we would go on Saturday to the commissary and to the laundromat to do the wash. Bob's white uniforms had to be starched so that they could stand up by themselves. The pants were difficult to iron because they were heavy cotton duck and they had metal buttons on the fly – the buttons would get hot and burn me when I ironed.
I would starch the trousers and put pants pressers in them and hang them on the line to dry. But there was another problem. The road we lived on was unpaved and when anyone drove on the road it raised dust. The dust turned the white uniform pink. Bob couldn't wear a pink uniform. So eventually we decided it was best to let the base laundry do his white uniforms.
Sewing – My grandmother had a sewing machine and my mother made a lot of her own clothes and also made a lot of our clothes. I liked picking out the pattern and the material, but I hated having to stand still up on a table so she could pin up the hem.
I learned to sew both in school and with my mother. I sewed almost all my maternity clothes. My mother smocked dresses for us when we were little. She gave me the dress pattern so I smocked dresses for my children.
I knitted and crocheted. I taught myself macrame, and various embroidery stitches. I embroidered sweaters and ties for Christmas presents. When knits came out, I sewed myself a knit dress with an invisible zipper. I learned to do needlepoint and taught needlepoint to school children and made my own needlepoint designs.
Bob rented a sewing machine. He took it with him on cruise and taught himself upholstery.
Eventually clothes got so cheap, that it didn't pay to make them myself anymore. I did continue to do and design needlepoint.
Cooking – We grew up during WWII when there was rationing. We were encouraged to have a “Victory Garden” - to grow things to feed our own family. But our tiny yard had almost no sun and about the only thing we could grow was radishes. I don't much like radishes – you can't tell in advance if they are hot or not. I didn't like the surprise. I wanted to prepare.
Mother saved fat and we ate things like beef tongue (which I liked). She made spinach soup by sieving spinach through a strainer (no blenders in those days although she did have a mixer.) We would have Welsh Rarebit for lunch (I always thought it was rabbit but it was really cheese.)
My mother did try to teach me how to cook. She gave me a lesson on how to make tender flaky pie crust, but I don't remember ever making it after the lesson. It was quicker for her to do it herself. I could do butterscotch refrigerator cookies.
I didn't really learn to cook until I went to college. Some of the co-op jobs involved cooking. After a stint the first year of washing dishes, I decided I needed something less physical to do. The next year, I was menu chairman which meant I had to plan the menus to include the proper amount of vegetables, taking into account what ingredients we had on hand, what the cook would cook, and taking leftovers into account. I planned lunch and dinner for 6 days.
Wednesday night we always had pie for dessert. Mrs. Wynn the cook would teach the people who were doing Wednesday lunch how to make pie crust. Lunch on Saturday was the leftovers from the previous week. Sunday dinner was usually some kind of roast done without the supervision of the cook – she had Sunday off.
My roommate was the meat buyer. She would get a good deal on buffalo heart and so I would plan meals to use that. If the food buyer decided to save money by buying a crate of pickled beets, I had to figure out how to use them up.
We baked our own bread. So one of the jobs I volunteered for was to bake the bread for one day. We had a big industrial food hook mixer. I learned how to activate the yeast, and let the dough rise. The recipe I used made 20 loaves of bread.
After I was married I relied heavily on the Good Housekeeping Cookbook which my matron of honor had given me. I also had the Joy of Cooking from my mother, but I found that the GH Cookbook was the beginner course and Joy was more advanced. It took me some experimenting to get the bread recipe down to where I wasn't making 20 loaves, but my recipe wasn't good for sandwich making so I soon stopped making bread.
I got some recipes from my grandmother via my mother. The carrot casserole was too much work to grate all those carrots. Hot milk cake was a hit, but it made a three layer cake and Bob didn't eat that many sweets. So I would make one layer, and make the rest into cupcakes which I would freeze. I would take the one layer, cut it in half and have a half two layer cake. And my mother, whether on purpose or by accident, gave me the corn pudding recipe with more milk than it should have and she gave my sister the recipe with not enough milk.
Managing Money – Both my grandmother and my mother managed the family money.
My parents got married during the depression and there were apple sellers on every corner trying to earn money to eat. My dad was a 'soft touch', so my mother would give him $5 for his lunch money for the week. If he gave it away, then he didn't have lunch.
As children we got an allowance which was to cover our Girl Scout dues, and the money for the church envelopes, plus about 5 cents which we could save or spend.
When I was 12, I got a clothing allowance. I don't think this had the effect that my mother had in mind. The first month I had to buy a winter coat and some evening dresses for “dancing class” and I had to borrow on future allowances to have enough money for that. But after that, when my mother would see a cute blouse or something on sale, she would ask me if I liked it, and I would say “Not enough to spend my money on”. And she would be unable to resist the bargain and would buy it for me. I ended up the year with all my money in the bank, and no decent underwear.
After we got engaged, Bob explained to me that I would be expected to manage the household money because, since he was in the Navy, he might be deployed and wouldn't be able to do it. Fine with me. I thought it was depressing that some of our acquaintances gave their wives an “allowance” to buy groceries. I had a former boyfriend who told me that I would not be allowed to work, and that I would have to beg him for any money that I needed. He obviously thought that this was the right way to do things. I didn't find it particularly appealing.
As soon as he could, Bob put his pay into automatic deposit. The only problem was that if he scheduled it to go to automatic deposit on the first of the month, we didn't get it deposited for the first time until the end of the month with the result that we were without that money for the month. I had that money to use for groceries or whatever I needed for the house. We started saving $30/month in a mutual fund. After about the first year and a half, when he wrote a check on the account and forgot to tell me about it, we each had our own bank account. I got his pay in “my” account (which was a joint account), and I paid all the household expenses. He had a separate (also joint) account for incidentals.
Car Maintenance One of the differences between Keeping House in 1900 and Keeping House in the 20th century is the intrusion of the Motor Car in our lives. My mother learned to drive on a Model T when she was 14, and she drove all her life up until the last year when she was on oxygen. But her mother didn't drive (I don't know if she ever had a license), and my mother-in-law didn't drive until Bob taught her.
Bob is a car guy. Our first date was to the Stock Car Races at Westport. Bob did almost all the work on the cars himself. All I did was come out sometimes and push on the brake pedal to “bleed the brakes”. He restored two 1932 Plymouths, and converted a diesel Escort into an electric car which he drove to work for 5 years. He taught our children to change the oil, change tires, how to gap the spark plugs and other small maintenance chores.
Until he retired, all the cars were all titled in Bob's name because military members did not have to change their car registrations when they moved, but in those days a car belonging to a military spouse did have to change the car registration. We had one car to begin with – a new 1959 Ford station wagon.
But when Bob was in pilot training he had to be at the base really early and my job in the other direction just had regular hours so I could take him to work and then go to my work, but I didn't get off to go pick him up until after I got off work at 4:30 and he had been done for a couple of hours by then. So he bought another car. A 1949 Plymouth that he could drive to work.
Child Care – When I started having babies in 1961, it was just at the beginning of the “natural childbirth” era. Neither Bob nor I were interested in doing that. The only thing I was worried about was whether they would give me something to dry my milk up because it was still uncommon for women to breast feed. So I insisted on knowing what each pill that they gave me was for. In one case the nurse had two little pink pills which she said were for “pain”. I said I didn't have any pain and refused to take them. In exasperation, she finally said that they were aspirin. So I chewed them up so I could taste them to see if she was telling the truth.
We didn't have diaper “systems”. There was only one kind of diaper- regular flat birdseye diapers. We folded them differently for the different size of baby so we didn't have to buy different sizes. We used diaper pins to hold the diapers on to the baby. Some of them had plastic heads for “safety”, and we had to learn to stick them into the diapers but not into the baby. We washed the diapers (and all the baby clothes) only with Borax and Ivory soap flakes (no detergent and no chlorine bleach). In Norfolk, I had a washer but not a dryer, so I hung them on the line. In the winter they would freeze. You could put plastic pants over the diapers if your baby had tough enough skin and didn't break out in a rash.
Mother would give me a month or two of diaper service with each newborn baby and this was a REAL boon. Babies pee and poop a lot when they are little. I would start out with 90 diapers a week
In those days babies slept on their stomachs and naturally learned to crawl. They didn't need “tummy time”. I understand why babies are put to sleep on their backs now, but it was easier to have them on their tummies.
My pediatrician was not helpful with breast feeding and there were no breast feeding consultants in those days or if there were I didn't know about them. So when I got impacted milk glands, I relied on my mother for help. And she did help. She also had me start feeding the baby solids earlier than is the practice now.
We did not really have car seats for infants like they have now. I had what was called an Infaseat but it would not have protected the baby in a car crash. I had a German car bed which was plastic and cardboard and would collapse flat, and I sometimes put a playpen in the back of the station wagon so the child was contained but could move.
I did “child-proof” my house, but also kept the baby in a playpen so I didn't have to be hovering over her 100% of the time she was awake. I believe in playpens to keep children safe. I thought that my son (who was the fourth child) had climbed out of the playpen, but I found later that his older sisters would take him out because they didn't want to see him confined. They took him out, but they didn't watch him afterward and he did get himself into some dangerous situations. He walked up the outside of the stairs, and of course when he got to the top, he was still on the outside of the railing over the concrete steps below. He had to be rescued.
Bob and I will have been married for 62 years (as of June 2021). Although we are no longer doing much in the way of Child Care (our four children have grown up and produced eleven grandchildren and six great grandchildren), we still need to Clean, Cook, and do Laundry.
Managing Money We still have two joint checking accounts. I still pay the household expenses but now I have payments sent out automatically from the bank for the bills that come in. He pays the grocery bills out of his account.
Car maintenance It isn't that easy to do your own maintenance now because cars are so much more complicated.
Sewing – We don't darn socks to turn shirt collars anymore, and it doesn't save much money to sew your own clothing, but it is still sometimes necessary to sew on a button or turn up a hem.
Other than that, not much has changed.
Laundry The smart washers do not go around the house and gather up the dirty clothes, wash them, dry them, fold them and put them away. Since we don't have disposable clothes, someone still has to put the clothes in the washer.
Cooking - Even with a microwave, many more pre-prepared foods and fast food outlets, we still need go to the grocery store (or order food to be delivered), and put food on the table.
Many new products have been invented to help with Cleaning (Swiffers, HEPA vacs and there are even Robot vacuums), but we still do not have the Jetson's Rosie to do it for us.