|This vintage Mother's Day card was published n 1914, the same year that President Wilson proclaimed the day as a national holiday. Carnations were the traditional symbol of motherhood.|
“Man may work from sun to sun, but woman’s work is never done.”
This rhymed couplet dates from the late 18th century and, for many women, still holds true today. Sunday, May 12 is Mother’s Day and along with dining out, flowers and other gifts of love and appreciation, mothers might be given a temporary reprieve from never-ending tasks of housework and raising children.
This column explores the origins of Mother’s Day and then reviews of some innovations that changed women’s household work prior to 1965. Many of the memories were gathered during recent interviews at four local senior centers. The women I talked with recalled their own experiences as well as those of their mothers and grandmothers.
Celebrations of mothers can be traced back to earlier civilizations. The Christian festival known as “Mothering Sunday” is a precedent for our modern observance. In England, “going a-mothering” and gifting mothers with a simnel fruitcake cake was a tradition.
There had been earlier efforts by activists, such as Julia Ward Howe, to recognize mothers as a way to teach improved child care, to reconcile the nation after the Civil War and promote world peace. In 1909, the United Opinion included a column that mentioned “Mother’s Day, which is coming to be a national event, is being observed in many places for the first time.” The Modern Woodmen organization was among those that encouraged it by attending church services as a body.
Anna Jarvis of Grafton, West Virginia is credited with the movement that led to Mother’s Day becoming a recognized American holiday in 1914. That year, after President Woodrow Wilson issued the first Mother’s Day proclamation, one Vermont newspaper concluded “This day has taken hold wonderfully all over the country.”
In the years that followed, mention of local Mother’s Day observances usually involved church services. Attending mothers were often presented with a carnation, a symbol of motherhood. Only later did advertisements for gifts or special dining experiences become common.
In early New England, women were usually described by reference to the men in their lives. The most recognition that women could hope for outside of the home was “the dignity of anonymity.” Within the family setting, their work was never done. They raised the children they birthed, made meals from the food they grew or slaughtered and washed the clothes they handmade. They supported their men and did double duty when they were away. Their title of honor was “goodwife.”
The following descriptions of so-called “women’s work” depended on rural or village settings, marital status, number of members of the household and the impact of change. For most women, changes in their lives were incremental. For example, electricity came to most village homes by the early 20th century, whereas in rural areas it may not have arrived until the late 1940s. With electricity came relief from some of the burdens of homemaking previously done largely by hand power.
In an interview for Scott and Elsie Hastings’ book on Vermont farm families in the 1930s, 92-year old Grace Hutchinson of East Corinth told of her pre-electricity home and said: “People who were born into a world full of electricity and appliances, they don’t have the experience of knowing what it would be like without them.” She went on to say that the housewife of that earlier time had “an awful lot more skills.”
The industrial revolution of the 19th century was instrumental in bringing about new household products and services. Those changes increased in rapidity in the 20th century.
Food preparation had always been central to women’s work in the home. Meals had to be made “from scratch” from recipes often kept in a woman’s head. Interviewees said that they often made dishes their mothers made, and considered themselves lucky if they had mother’s box of handwritten recipes.
From their gardens and barns in rural areas and from merchants in urban areas, women obtain the family’s food. Even when food was obtained from outside the home, it came unprepared. Prepared food in boxes or cans did not arrive until early in the 20th century and frozen foods not until the 1940s.
Canning was central to preserving summer’s bounty. Interviewees told of the pride their mothers felt with cupboards filled with up to 500 jars of canned vegetables, meat and fruit. Crocks were used for pickled or salted food. Those who grew up on farms mentioned their mothers making cheese, butter and sometimes, homemade ice cream.
Keeping food cold included hanging meat in the shed during winter months. Baked goods could be stored in a cold attic or back pantry. Iceboxes kept food cold with ice harvested from nearby lakes or delivered by a village iceman.
In the 1920s, manufacturers began a campaign to replace the icebox with electric refrigerators. The initial cost prevented widespread sales until the late 1930s. For the housewife, this appliance meant the elimination of the drip pan mess, food that was kept fresher longer and the availability of a small freezer. One woman said “The day in 1950 when we got a refrigerator, that was a happy day!”
In the early 1950s, home freezers came on the market, replacing community freezer lockers. This allowed for the extension of seasonal bounty. My dad sold home freezers at that time and the one we owned was filled with our own meat and vegetables. We enjoyed corn on the cob well into winter.
Cooking stoves began to appear in the mid-19th century. Housewives learned how to cook on a wood, coal or gas burning stove to produce pies, breads, soups and other dishes. The Glenwood range was very popular and local ads touted it as “the range that makes cooking easy.” In 1911, a St. Johnsbury newspaper advertisement suggested “A gas range makes summer cooking bearable.” Electric ranges began to compete with these cooking modes by the 1920s. While microwave ovens were first sold in 1946, low cost models were not available until the late 1960s.
Taking care of the family’s clothes was time-consuming. The women I interviewed said their mothers made their children’s clothing, manufactured on a foot treadle sewing machine. During the Great Depression, everything from sheets to dresses and children’s clothes were made from cotton grain bags.
One woman said that her first store dress came in 1944 when she needed a dress for her senior events. When asked how she felt about wearing homemade clothes, she replied “happy and proud.” Additionally, housewives spent time repairing clothes. My mother, relaxing from the day’s work, darned stockings or patched worn pants for my father and three brothers.
Many housewives dreaded Monday wash days. Monday seemed practical as weekly baths were often taken on Saturday night with clothes changed in anticipation of church on Sunday. Only after 1900 were newly constructed homes expected to have modern indoor plumbing. Prior to that time it was not uncommon for all bathing and household cleaning water to be lugged by hand, “ a staggering burden” for the housewife.
Wringer washing machines replaced hand-scrubbing of clothes. In 1908, Hurley’s Thor electric-powered washing machines came on the market. Within the next decade, local advertisements promised the washer would “leave you cool and refreshed, relieved from the nerve-wearing strain of old-fashioned, hot wash days.” These ads were accompanied by those for new types of granulated washing soaps.
Prior to the introduction of the first domestic automatic washing machine in 1937, the washing machine was rolled to the sink, clothes sorted and washed and put through the attached wringer before being hung on the line to dry. In winter, wet clothes were hung indoors or, if hung outdoors, were often brought in frozen, stiff as boards. Cloth diapers and personal care items posed special washing issues as they had to be boiled to be sanitized.
Clothes also had to be ironed. Either with a hand iron or with the help of a mangle, clothes were pressed before being put away. The mangle allowed clothes to be pressed by being passed through two rollers. Some mothers were known to even iron their husband’s underwear, although those I spoke with laughed at the suggestion.
While new electrical appliances such as these were advertised as labor saving, other changes in society often filled in with additional duties. For example, doing laundry became easier, but families acquired more clothes and washed them more frequently.
Keeping the rest of the house clean was a major task for housekeepers. Wood-burning stoves, kerosene lamps and tracked in dirt were constant challenges. Chamber pots had to be emptied daily. The electric vacuum cleaner began to replace the hand sweeper in the early 20th century for those who had electricity. Brands such as Hoover and Electrolux were sold nationally by the 1930s, often by door-to-door salesmen.
Spring meant a top-to-bottom cleaning for many households. Rugs and even mattresses were taken out and beaten. Windows and curtains were washed along with floors and walls. Until the 1930s, hot water for cleaning household items and family members was heated on the stove.
As important as any of the work mentioned above, the role of mother as caretaker defined her place in the family. Many early American women bore up to eight or more children, binding them to constant tasks of child care. Additionally, mothers have always been the primary caregiver for those in the family who were ill or elderly.
Unless there was alternative child care available for infants, women were less able to be employed outside of the home. One woman told me she belonged to the Bradford Pre-School Mothers Club in the 1960s because membership was required for use of the club’s pre-school day nursery, allowing her to hold a job.
I asked the women I interviewed who, in their experience, helped with the household duties. Sometimes there were newspaper ads for “a young woman to help with household tasks.” Older daughters also helped. Husbands and sons rarely assisted even when they had the spare time. That is not to say that husbands did not work hard, but rather that wives seem to work longer. For women who accepted a career outside of the home, the job and housekeeping meant double-duty.
That was not true in all cases. One Orford woman said that when she went to work outside the home around 1966, her husband helped with cooking, “taking up the slack.” Daughters, mothers and sisters also helped with childcare and other tasks. Most said that their brothers and sons were generally not taught nor expected to do household tasks.
When asked how her mother did all she did around the home, one woman said “I don’t know how she did it.” Getting up early was one way, with sleep deprivation normal. Perhaps that was the only way a woman could get ahead of the day’s chores before other family members demanding her attention. One woman said that her father expected a full breakfast meal when the morning barn chores were finished. That might include fresh pastry, vegetables and meat.
Another coping technique was multitasking. Perhaps it was the task of caring for youngsters that made most mothers masters at dealing with more than several things at a time. Cooking a meal while cuddling a child and starting a wash is something most mothers have accomplished.
Recent studies have shown that there is still a gender gap when it comes to household chores. Women, these studies indicate, do a larger percentage of chores around the house than their partners, “regardless of either’s career or income.”
I close this incomplete study of the work of mothers and Mother’s Day with two quotes from the past.
In 1914, the Burlington Free Press article on “The Significance of Mother’s Day” warned that the true sentiment of the day was endangered by “the wild rush of commercialism.” It still may be.
In 1876, Silas McKeen described the work of Lydia Peters Baldwin. While other women may not have accomplished quite the work of Baldwin, his concluding comment about her applies to many mothers: “A woman who accomplished a work so great and good, deserves to be held in honorable and lasting remembrance.” Hats off to super moms, past and present!