Boston — It is tempting to road Norton Juster's "So Sweet to Labor: Rural Women in America 1865-1895" from the perspective of at least 100 years' worth of liberation, and pity the downtrodden farm wife and her lot. As I read admonitions to put a blanket over th pump handle on cold nights and the recipes for stove polish, I dreamed of the good old days, days of homemade jam, sitting around the fire and self-suffieciently knitting one's own socks with wool from creatures one knew as lambs. I thrilled to read what "Every Kitchen Needs," as outlined in one of the book's many household hints.
Not that I'd know what to do with "a box containing a hammer, carpet-tacks, and nails of all sizes, a carpet-claw, screws and a screw-driver, pincers, gimlets of several sizes, a bed screw, a small saw, two chisels (one to use for buttonholes in broadcloth) two awls and two files" (and that's not even mentioning the linen). It just seemed so sensible and helpful.I imagined the problems our forebears solved with two awls and two files. Ready for anything, they were the perfect housewives.
Such romantic yearnings set me up for a big shock at the chilling glimpses of the other side of a woman's life on the farm. One picture was enough to wake me from dreams of petty domesticity with a start. A broad, squarish, aproned woman stands sternly in front of a broad, squarish house. She wears a plain dress. She looks businesslike. There is integrity in her stout figure, her plain face with hair pulled back, and frowning brows. She looks like what she is -- a hard worker. She has probably kept an eye on the root cellar for many winters, darned countless sheets, and ironed many chair tidies, crash towels, and other linens we have never heard of. Her hand is on the fence in front of the house. You feel she has just put down some chore to be photographed and will soon stump back into the house to work.
There is an unexplainably grim air to the photograph which silences the chirping of household hints as no feminist tract ever could. Unexplainable until you notice that woman and house look like each other, like an old married couple.
I mentioned that picture to Norton Juster when I interviewed him. He nodded and flipped the book open to that photograph.With the eagerness of a Fuller Brush man showing his wares, he said, "This is from a collection done by the Howe brothers, who were both photographers in this area. They did thousands and thousands of pictures. They were itinerant photographers. Many areas had them. . . . But this theme of woman and house, I must have found a thousand of them. . . . That was the relationship. The man and woman, less important. . . . Look at this photograph. Woman and house, that's it."
In fact, it was a farmhouse that caused this book to be written. The Juster's farmhouse in the tiny town of Shelburne Falls, Mass., is low, gray, and homey. A real charmer.The outside is weathered, the inside is spanking clean and modern, with only a lavender banister in a white front hall to spice up the basic, good common-sense atmosphere wrought by Juster's designs and the labor of friends.
At first it was a place Juster and his wife scrambled to on weekends to fix up, and a summer vacation house. Then they moved there year-round, leaving the urban life of his native Brooklyn behind. (Jeanne Ray Juster is from London.) Juster knows houses. Aside from writing books (he's the author of that childhood favorite "The Phantom Tollbooth," among others), he is an architect.
He was learning about housework. The change to the simple life, and his observing a commune down the hill which tried and failed to do everything with 19th-century equipment, got Juster thinking about the good old days. "I was finding out more and more that the demands of the place really altered not only my sense of time, but what I thought about the energy I had, both psychically and physically."
That and the fact that he had always been an inveterate collector of all sorts of junk -- and there was plenty around -- left over from the 19th century.
"I began collecting a lot of books at junk sales. I'd go to these auctions and my wife would really have to restrain me, because I would say, 'I could get that!'" He makes a grasping motion across the table of the small cafe in downtown Shelburne Falls (which comprises about four blocks), goggles his eyes, croaks the last words, then imitates his wife's imploring "Why?!"
No one in the cafe is alarmed. His architect's office is across the street, and they are probably used to this balding man with the Brooklyn accent and deep chuckle who immerses himself in, and acts out, several different ideas per spoken paragraph.
"So i collected all this information and I was fascinated by it. Because here I had to deal with this old place. The farmhouse we bought was a mess; I was fixing it up. Nothing had been done with the property, the barn was falling down. . . . I slowly got hooked on all this stuff. It all seemed to converge at one time. It had nothing to do with a women's book at the time. It was just a book about living in the 19th century."
He was going to call it "Making It in the '70s" in the early 1970s, when he first thought of writing the book, and when people were going back to the land in big numbers. But the title referred to the 1870s, when the land had the same type of romantic promise.
Then he met up with The Household, a magazine that was sometimes the only companion of pioneers' wives as they helped carve a living out of the wilderness , trying to make a home out of the empty sod or log box their pioneer husbands put up. It spoke to Juster much more about the quality of life than the farming and building manuals he had found. Many excerpts from it and The Agrarian, a similar magazine, found their way into his book.
The housewives' writings are frantically energetic, as if the requisite a attitude toward the week's work had taken over the way they thought and wrote. Sometimes this is exhilarating. You get the sense that without these women taking care of the houses, our country would never have been settled.
And some of them exulted in it, as did one woman who described, in the American Kitchen Magazine of 1900-1901, a life spent on a farm, sticking to the theme "work never kills."
She explains how she and her husband started with "not a foot of land" but through saving and hard work paid the mortgage on her husband's parents' 50 acres and bought 150 more. Her contribution was washing, dyeing, spinning, and eaving the wool from their sheep to make the men's clothing, knitting all the socks, making butter from the milk of four to eight cows, bringing up five children, weaving and washing her own rag carpets. Spectacular feats are noted:
"One fall, alone, I husked between five and six hundred bushels [of corn]. I had one daughter and she was at home at that time; so I did no housework while husking, although I attended to the milk and butter, milked, and got breakfast. One summer I piled up one hundred cords of wood and did my own housework. You will say there is no call for this. We were married in the first year of the Civil War. In '63 my husband was drafted, paid his $300, and stayed at home. That had to be met in hard times for the farmer."
She was part of a team that made a living, not to mention building up a farm. The limitless man- and woman-hours necessary paid off in the end. The author of that essay even had the rare satisfaction of having her labors recognized. "My husband says, 'You helped earn and saved more than I did,'" she writes. More often, the work went unsung. It was a virtue to appear to run a house effortlessly, you learn elsewhere in the book: As some fair violet, loveliest of the glade,m Sheds its mild fragrance on the lonely shade, . . .m So woman born to dignify retreat;m Unknown to flourish and unseen to be great;m To give domestic life its sweetest charm;m With softness polish, and with virtue warm;m Fearful of fame, unwilling to be known,m Should seek but Heaven's applauses and her own.m -- Hannah More
The exhortations and recipes collected in this book imply that if the wife works a little harder and uses all her scraps for rugs (after, of course, taking the winter coats apart and turning all the material inside out to get double wear from it), makes her own soap, furniture polish, medicine, and learns to churn butter faster, the farm will succeed.
Juster juxtaposes the tasks to be performed with the mythology about women's work in a way that speaks his point eloquently.Household hints and recipes -- for a cement for cracks in the floor, for making one's own red ink, methods for avoiding waste, a suggestion that tweeds be soaked in sulfate of lead, alum, and 10 gallons of water to make them waterproof, and others -- sit in little boxes in the margins alongside chatty articles and poems like Hannah More's.
On every page, you see a double image. The recipes and instructions conjure up a strong woman on the frontier, mixing alum, boiling water, filling cracks, and shucking corn. Then there is the "fair violet," polishing "with softness," when everyone else had to make a mixture of beeswax, some arcane chemical, and a lot of elbow grease. "With virtue" she warmed, while one woman wrote to The Household about getting up to make a breakfast for 16 people in a 32-degree- below-zero kitchen.
One photograph shows a woman pushing a wheelbarrow full of buffalo chips across the prairie, her tired face peering out from a drooping bonnet. In the same chapter is the recipe for removing freckles which that woman may have read in one of her magazines.
The work that had been done so self-effacingly as to be almost unnoticeable could take a toll on the "fair violet." The three themes that run through the book, Juster says, are the exploitation of the land and of woman, the sentimentality that rationalizes it ("you take the exploitation because you're accepting your so-called exalted position"), and stress. The third is the product of the conflict between the first two. And it is mentioned here, in a disproportionate number of rural women in mental institutions. The depressions and fretfulness that resulted from "not having any real connection to life or any real control of it, or anything to really say about the circumstances of it."
There are alarming cautionary tales about housewives who succumbed to sheer exhaustion, and it is always pointed out that those who survived the nervous and physical collapse couldn't get any housework done while they recovered.
The job of housewife wasn't always so thankless and alienated. In the early 19th century, Juster says, the wife took a much more important role in the family.
"A farm in the early 19th century really was a small-scale factory, and she was actually essential in a very primary way in the work that she did. When you shift after the Civil War, her work was important, but enough had happened in terms of things you could buy and the type of stuff that factories were producing so that her work . . . was not the same," just as farm life was not the same, with more activity being centered in industry. Rural life became more isolated as more people moved to cities to work in factories.
"[The farm wife] was, in a sense, diminished. And something had to be done to keep her . . . reasonably contented with that. . . . Much of the stuff that's sentimental and idealized and mythologized . . . I think was really the result of having to find a way to make that besically unfair kind of existence acceptable."
The unfairness was protested. The Household began publication the same year as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton's feminist weekly, Revolution. Hoping for reform, Harriet Beecher Stowe and her sister Catharine E. Beecher wrote "The American Woman's Home," which sought to systematize housewifery and raise it to the status of a profession. But the mainstream magazine was The Household. Though the early feminist tracts are the women's writings we associate with the period, household hints were much more widely read at the time.
Juster feels one can get a better feeling for "the whole process of the women's movement over the last 100 years and what are the circumstances that they're really confronting here" by reading The Household, because, unfortunately, the burden on housewives is still with us.
He was disappointed when the book came out in 1979 and reviewers "got very intrigued with the bits and pieces which are nice and write it up almost as if that's the sum total of the book." He feels the book makes a political statement , not just a historical one. The contradiction between fair violet and pioneer wife relates to what women are expected to do, and expect themselves to do, today.
"After the Second World War . . . there was a whole campaign in women's magazines about how creative housekeeping would be," he says. Even now, he maintains, this attitude has "changed here [he taps his head], but it hasn't changed here." He points to his stomach indicating gut reactions.
Though he admits, "I'm not a historian, I'm not a scholar, and of course I'm not a woman, so I'm really suspect in any kind of way you look at it for this kind of book," Juster is convinced that "So Sweet to Labor" has meaning today. Hints for polishing stoves and keeping the pump from freezing overnight may sound quaint, but the attitude toward housework as something utterly important and central that should be done as if it were no trouble at all, forged in those times, is with us still.
"I honestly feel it's the time when all of these attitudes really got hardened to the point where they're what we're dealing with."
Jane Davison is one who is dealing with those attitudes in the present. Her book, "The Fall of a Doll's House," explores the life and times of the hardworking "fair violet" of the 20th century. Jane Davidson was a nice middle- class American housewife keeping a nice middle-class American house with a full refrigerator, cheery items from chic houseware stores, and all the other creative touches expected of a Smith graduate with a family to nurture.
After all, Adlai Stevenson III had told her graduating class (1955) that "There is much you can do about our crisis in the humble role of housewife," using their educations creatively to better human life and solve the alienation postwar American men felt, by, well doing the wash, looking after the children, looking dinner, decorating, and washing the dishes. Not to mention vacuuming, all within the confines of a single-family house.
She looks at the grip the house held on her life -- on her time, her thoughts , and her affections. She also looks at the tidying, cozying, dusting, and tending done by her mother and grandmother. She points out that the housewife's workweek hasn't gotten shorter with modern conveniences, because surveillance of those machines that wash and fluff and cook and clean themselves takes time, too. She says she isn't so much complaining about housework as she is about the dangerous effect of "spending all day alone working with inanimate objects." She points out in her book that even if she's isolated in her house, today's housewife isn't alone in her plight.
"I had never realized how deeply and widely the attachment to the ideal of the single family in the single-family house had grown into American soil. The effect has often been, I fear, as destructive as the roots of the linden tree that grew in our backyard. They can choke off and crussh buried pipes, heave up solid asphalt, entangle, distort, cut off choices. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with the tree: Its shade is pleasant. Nor do I hold some sullen grudge against the singlefamily house; I appreciate its pleasures and privacies. But too many of us, pale creatures, have dissipated our lives in its dappled shadows."
Her particular house was an old one in cambridge, Mass., comfortably book-lined. Like many an American housewife of the '50s and '60s, she worked hard to make it habitable, and she "did it herself."
"With each new do-it-yourself project, I became more proletarian. As he [her husband, a publisher and poet] rose toward seniority, with his 'fine clubs and expense-account restaurants,' I seemed to sink in social status. Joshing with the guys at the hardware store, swapping tales of spackle and grout, lunching on leftover peanut-butter-and-jelly crusts, on an ordinary day I may have been a happy peasant but I certainly was no lady. . . ."
The house got to be too expensive to heat and pay taxes on, so they sold it and moved to an apartment on Boston's waterfront. But Davison made her break in her own way. It happened while she was packing. A monarch butterfly was flapping against the screen door, unable to escape.
"I majored in English," she writes. "I know a symbol when I see one. Strangely detached, I observed that other me try to sweep out the butterfly, which was by now flapping suicidally. I couldn't stand it. We, that housewife and i, dramatically joined forces, and together we wielded the broom like a lance. The rotten mesh rent easily; the butterfly flew off toward Somerville. What did I care if a great swatch of screening lay in shreds? Let themm worry! My house was no longer mine."
To divorce the house must have taken courage as well as desperation, especially when you realize how much housework mythology has survived from the period Juster was writing about. The marriage of woman to stern, demanding house is at least a century old.
And it's an emotional relationship. When I interviewed Davison in her sunny Boston office she made no apology for the fact that her book is as rambling as some of the houses she writes about. She included "everything I could find," such as a bibliography of 73 books, snippets from classmates at the 25th reunion , family diaries, letters, all forming a rich if confusing mulch of thoughts about home.
"I had huge files. I could have written three books . . . so I developed this patchwork quilt approach."
The book for all its patchiness and upper-middle-class assumptions, does re-examine the unspoken vows that bind the housewife, and the housewife alone, to producing unyellowed floors, a fresh scent everywhere, and coffee good enough to keep Mrs. Olsen from barging in the back door. It might foment more screen-door swattings, but most readers will just sit down and puzzle things out. Jane Davison is too thoughtful for rabble-rousing, and besides, she still likes houses.
From the vantage point of the apartment to which the family fled. Davison's book paints a portrait of a marriage to a house that is so close and cozy it can strangle. She looks at previous partnerships -- her grandmother "married to" an expansive house in Summit, N.J., where she raised nine children. She haunts her mother's smaller but tasteful colonial. Then she re-creates her days of frantic Design Research shopping, spackling, and small dinner party-giving in her own Victorian in Cambridge.
She talks disapprovingly -- and knowingly -- of work that it not functional, but "ceremonial," like frantic little gourmet dinner parties she and her contemporaries held in the early years of their marriages. She examines the folklore, familial and national, that powered all these activities. She disdains chores done not just in order to eat and stay clean, but to generate that elusive "home feeling," a never-ending task putting housewives at the service of their houses. During the interview she wisecracks, snorts disdainfully, and laughs at the burden of extra work she maintains that women carry around.
But still, the interview has the flavor of a neighborly chat. She starts out with a lament about the behavior of a new washing machine. talk of washing machines strikes a chord in me, I am ashamed to realize. And I notice that the New York Times Home section is open on her desk. I suspect the reason she's siting in an office in Boston rather than next to a washing machine in the suburbs is not entirely because she has overcome her housewifely zeal. She has just rechanneled it. She and Bob Vila have written a book version of "This Old House," a chronicle of the renovation of an old house on PBS. And she is thinking about writing something about the classier housewares catalogs.
She is still, in her heart, a housewife, and it takes one to know one. As I persued the accounts of ridiculous chores in "The Fall of a Doll's House," muttering against the things my motherhs generation had to put up with, I even thought about doing some ironing or maybe putting up some wallpaper. When Davison scoffingly recounts all the tasteful mixing and matching of antique colors by fans of the Colonial period, I saidm "How superficial," but I thoughtm "Maybe in the hallway, that nice blue . . .?"
Norton Juster is not immune to the pleasure and perils of housework, either.
"Last night I had a marvelousm plate of parsnip fritters," was his answer when I asked if he tried some of his book's suggestions. But he knew "So Sweet to Labor" was relevant to women of today when he let a friend's wife red some of the samples he had with him while riding the bust to his New York publisher. Half an hour later, he looked up from his newspaper to find her with tears streaming down her face. He asked her what was the matter, and she replied, "I'm just reading this srtuff and it really got to me terrifaccly." Mr. Juster says he knew then that he was on the right track.
The romance of the wife as keeper of the family flame continues, Jane Davison says, and that keeps housework inefficient and ceremonial. She says she doesn't want that job alone, any more than she wants hers to be the only hand that runs the vacuum cleaner.
"If it's shared work, that is a differnet thing from doing it alone. [ There's] a real sense of value in what you're doing, if it's subsistence. If it's doing unnecessary frills for social reasons by yourself, that's an entirely different thing. In other words, I don't think work is the problem. It's make-work and frivolous work."
For the time being, work isn't the problem. But Norton Juster sees, in efforts to save energy, a lot more housework in the future.
"One of the great generating forces for the women's movement in the last 20 or 30 years has been in the fact that women, because of the circumstances of life, are more liberated," he says. But what if the family decides to keep a wood stove going all day instead of using oil or gas to heat the house? he asks.
If the woman is making less money than the man of the family, she may be elected to stay home and split wood, or at least keep the fire going. Sitting in her office, Jane Davison laughs sympathetically when I show her "So Sweet to Labor."
"It seems so unsensible, doesn't it?" she says. She can afford wryness. After all, she is snug in an office. But it will take more than a broom through a screen door to sweep away the demands of the house, not to mention those taproots of home feeling that grow down into some of our hearts. Jane Davison has gotten the jump on her home feeling and turned it into a business. But that primordial urge to tidy up and cozy up survives.
"I was astounded to see how much of that was engraved in me," she says. "Once you bring some sort of expectation that's totally irrational to the surface, you think . . . is that the premise undr which I have been behaving? Do I want to be a matriarch? Or do I want to not let anyone know that I'm working hard?"
Women who have read either norton Justerhs book or Jane Davison's will inevitably ask themselves these questions. They might well add, "Do I want to be the one who tends the solar panels and polishes the wood stove?"