Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Ginger's View of Housekeeping Then and Now

As I was bemoaning the few chores I faced today, I stopped and gave myself a reality check.  I started thinking about the pioneer women in the novels I read and write, and realized how cushy my life is compared to theirs.

Take for instance making the bed.  All I have to do is spread up the sheets and comforter.  Of course, although I b*tch and groan about how my husband's wiggly foot manages to untuck everything, I gave praise that I don't have to deal with a straw mattress and flour-sack sheets and pillow cases. I didn't have to pluck a chicken or turkey to fill my pillow, nor, do I have to empty a chamber pot like those kept beneath the bed to avoid those nighttime potty calls.

 Next time you have to clean the toilet, thank God you have one. Our pioneer sisters didn't have the comfort of having an "on-suite" bedroom, so those treks to the outdoor privy, especially during the winter months, could really be the pits.

As I tossed a load of clothes in my washer and added my convenient liquid detergent and softener, I paused a moment and pictured the agony of having to visit a local stream and beat the clothing clean on a rock or, in the case of the more modern gal of the ages, lug out a washtub and scrub board and spend a few backbreaking hours laboring to refresh the family wardrobe.  Then my gaze caught sight of my dryer and I remembered back to when I first married in the early sixties.  We couldn't afford a dryer at the time, and I had to hang everything on a clothesline.  OMG, I hated that.  Sure, you got the benefit of a fresh air smell...when there was one, but the towels and linens were stiff and you weren't done with the hanging of the wet laundry, you had to go back and retrieve it.  Somehow, it always managed to rain while I had clothes on the line.  I was so happy to see those days pass, and I can bet the head of a pioneer woman visiting today would spin at all the modern conveniences we take for granted.

How about your vacuum cleaner?  The best a pioneer women could do was gather fresh straw and make a new broom.  They may have owned a rug or two, (handmade of course), but dirt or wood floors were the norm.  No wall-to-wall carpets for them.  Sometimes just sweeping the dirt smooth was the best a gal could do.

Can Openers?  Yeah, some of us may still use the ones you have to "manually" twist, but I've moved on to the one you set on the can and it does its magic all by itself.  Imagine using a knife blade to open a tin?  I'd probably be covered with Bandaids.  Hey, did they even have those back in the day?  I don't think so.  Torn scraps of cloth were some of the best first-aid tools available.

Stoves?  Some of the richer pioneers had them bought from the local mercantile.  They were huge and weighty pieces that took up a lot of room, but a vast improvement over bending over the hearth to stir soups and stews suspended over the fire.  With a turn of a knob, we have flames.  Even their modern stoves required wood, and that meant a lot of chopping and carrying to keep the supply plentiful.

Iced tea anyone?  How often have you sat down to enjoy a nice cool drink during the summer?  I live on iced TN sweet tea, but I'd have to learn to forgo the ice in most cases if I was a pioneer.  Since I wasn't sure how the ice was kept, I borrowed this from Wikipedia:

Ice houses are buildings used to store ice throughout the year, commonly used prior to the invention of the refrigerator. Some were underground chambers, usually man-made, close to natural sources of winter ice such as freshwater lakes, but many were buildings with various types of insulation.  During the winter, ice and snow would be taken into the ice house and packed with insulation, often straw or sawdust. It would remain frozen for many months, often until the following winter, and could be used as a source of ice during summer months.

I'm back. *smile*  You didn't even know I was gone, did you? All the thought of iced tea made me thirsty, so I took a break in blogging and went for something to drink.  As I gazed around my awesome kitchen at the automatic coffee pot, the blender, the toaster, and all the other things that have spoiled me rotten, I opened the refrigerator and noticed the bottled water inside.  Although a few pioneers enjoyed a new-fangled indoor water pump, most had to trek to the well or river for water.  Something as simple as bathing for the early 1800 dwellers, consisted of several trips and buckets full for them in order to fill perhaps the same tub they used for washing the clothes.   Boy, do we have it made or what?

The next time I start to feel sorry for myself, I'm going to pull out my history reference book and remind myself of how far we've come.  As I sit here, blogging on my computer, I wonder how a pioneer woman would react to the Internet and the extended and immediate "reach" we have today.  You know, it often took months for the Pony Express to deliver the mail.  Loved ones might not hear from their families for years.  We can reach out and touch someone in seconds.  How great is that?

Oh, and just to give you a taste of how one might incorporate some of the housekeeping chores in a book, I invite you to share this except from Prairie Peace, my debut novel.  It's listed with all my books, on my Amazon page.

Excerpt:

It was apparent why the previous occupants had left behind the odds and ends of furniture. The table and bench were made out of wood so rough, Cecile imagined picking splinters from her behind if she sat. A chair with a broken rocker rested in the corner next to the fireplace, and beside it was an old crate where a rusty lantern perched precariously, most likely to provide light for anyone brave enough to risk the broken chair.

What had she done to herself? She pictured her mother’s living room with its matching furniture and crisp pleated draperies and fought hard to hold back tears. Her mother had never really prepared Cecile for being a wife or housekeeper, requiring she only do minimal chores around the house. She surveyed the challenge set before her. This was going to be a learning experience she'd have to endure on her own. Her days of being spoiled and pampered had ended.

She took a deep breath and dug in, trying to wash away the accumulated dust and grime.
What she hated most was dealing with the various prairie creatures that thought this was
their home. “Oh dear…I hate spiders,” she proclaimed as one skittered across the floor.

Wiping a trickle of sweat from her forehead, she glanced around the room for something
to shuttle the insects outside, and spied an ancient broom in the corner by the fireplace.
Although missing most of its straw, there was still enough left to use. Looking at the dirt
and grime around her, she wondered why the broom looked so worn. How long had it been since anyone used it?

The floor had dried and warped with age, and the cracks between the planks had widened
to reveal the ground below. Cecile vigorously swept several times, trying to get some of the dirt and dust to fall through. When she finished, she wore most of it. Tossing the broom across the room in disgust, she peered at herself through the cracks in the mirror, barely recognizing the reflection staring back. Her hair hung in unruly strands around her face, and her complexion was gray from the coat of dust. She emitted a loud sigh as the looking glass revealed the sagging and dirty mattress behind her. Who or what had slept there before? Clearly, the bedding needed a thorough beating and airing out, and it was
her glorious job to do it.

The tears welled again. She prodded herself to stay busy, believing work would keep her from dwelling on her disappointment. With great effort, she dragged the mattress outside, and for some reason, every whack of the broom against the old tattered thing made her feel better.

She struggled to get it back into the house and onto the bed frame. She refused to call Walt for help because he was busy outside, cleaning the yard and hauling junk from within their poor excuse of a barn. Silly emotions and false pride were not about to get the best of her. She wanted Walt to be proud of her, and she was determined to make the best of this, even if it killed her. Besides, she was tired of sleeping on the hard ground with nothing but a thin blanket between her and the dirt. Even this ugly mattress had some degree of appeal.

As soon as they moved into the house, she’d cover it with the blankets from the bedroll and bring in the pillows still stowed in the wagon. Using the barn as shelter left her worrying the whole thing would fall down and crush them to death in their sleep. So many boards were missing from the walls, she was amazed it remained standing at all.

Note:  The piece of "mirror," hanging haphazardly and cracked, was mentioned in a previous paragraph.








30 comments:

Caroline Clemmons said...

Ginger, loved this. All information helps us write more credibly. Once again, as much as I love writing and reading about the old West, I am so glad I didn't live then.

Devon Matthews said...

Great post, Ginger! As I read down your list of things pioneer women had to deal with, I had to smile because I experienced pretty much all of them when I was a child--except the icehouse. By the time I was born, electricity had come to our part of Appalachia. My early years were spent on my grandmother's tobacco farm. I've always been grateful for those experiences and also thankful that I was a child so I was mostly an observer to the real work that went on day to day. But the memories have come in mighty handy for writing my historicals.

Paty Jager said...

Fun post Ginger. It does make you stop and think about all the hardships our ancestors went through on a daily basis and didn't even think about the work. I have a post on my blog today about washing clothes if you want a more in depth knowledge. http://www.patyjager.blogspot.com Great minds think alike. ;0)

Peggy Henderson said...

OMG! I hate doing housework! This makes it sound so much worse. Thank goodness for modern conveniences. Great reference material, Ginger.

Lyn Horner said...

Ginger, I've always thought I'd make a terrible pioneer woman. After reading your post, I know it for a fact. We are so lucky and spoiled!

Ginger Simpson said...

Caroline...I'm with you. I might last a day, but I doubt it. I cringe at the idea of an outhouse, even though I remember when I was very young, some of my relatives had them. Yep...give me modern conveniences any day. :)

Ginger Simpson said...

Devon,
Have you written about your childhood or do you just draw on the memories? I've watched specials on those who lived in the Appalachian Mountains, and many families are truly tucked away in the past. Hard to believe that there are still folks in this country who live without even the slightest advancements. Just your comment makes me want to read about your past and know more about you.

Ginger Simpson said...

I'll check out your blog post, and yes, great minds do think alike, as evidenced by this creative group. :) I remember my grandmother using her old wringer washer and cracking jokes about not letting her chest get to close to the appliance. When it comes to housework, that old commercial for "more feminine" cigarettes definitely rings true. "We've come a long way, baby."

Ginger Simpson said...

The older I get the more I don't mind letting the dust accumulate a day or two longer. I used to be a fanatic about house-keeping, and although I'm still pretty good at it, I've sort of adopted the saying, "It'll still be there tomorrow." Of course, now I have to worry about whether I'll be or not. *smile*

Ginger Simpson said...

We do tend to romanticize the old west, don't we? If you stop and think about how infrequently people bathed, the amount of work they did and sweat they shed, it sort of takes the "r" right out romance. Yep, we are definitely spoiled, and I wouldn't have it any other way. I might like to time-travel back for a day, but no way would I stay much longer. :) With my luck, I'd end up on a wagon train in the middle of a war-party attack. *lol*

Meg said...

LOL!! I was just thinking this on Monday while cleaning the bathroom. I'm with you about "it'll wait till tomorrow"... Loved the excerpt. :-)

Devon Matthews said...

I haven't written about my experiences, except for the one-room schoolhouse where I started school. I did blog about that a few years ago. I think I've conditioned myself not to mention my roots because I've spent my entire life trying to overcome the hillbilly stigma. In some parts of the country where I've lived, people were brutal. If you heard me speak, you'd understand. LOL! I would love to write more about it, but I don't know how well it would be received. Tell people you used a chamber pot and see the reaction you get. But there are many, many things that aren't covered when people do their research on "the way it was." I moved back here 25 years ago and we've come a long way. Heck, I even have a dishwasher! ;) But I do cherish the memories of those days. Maybe I'll do a few posts and see how it goes. Whatdaya think?

Ginger Simpson said...

Thanks, Meg. I can't believe I wrote that novel over ten years ago. Wow, time does fly, especially when it comes to cleaning toilets. *lol*

Ginger Simpson said...

Devon,
If anyone looks down their nose at you, they have a problem. Who would find fault with someone who pulls themselves up by their bootstraps and finds a better place to roost? I think your memories present an opportunity to show others what shaped you into the fascinating author and good friend you are today. I guess because I grew up with "hillbilly" relatives, I'm not at all shocked by a chamber pot, and I don't see how that takes anything away from who a person is today. I'll definitely read about your past...please blog about it!

Alison E. Bruce said...

I thought you two conspired, but maybe it's the effect of spring, and spring cleaning, in the air.

Lauri said...

Okay, so much for traveling back in time, unless the house I land in has a full time house keeper. Poor woman.

Tidbit: The can opener was invented 48 years after the can. Though I have no idea who invented it, my guess would be a woman. ;)

Awesome post!

mesadallas said...

Don't forget diapers! Anyone who remembers the days before disposibles knows how horrific that was even with a washing machine. Imagine having an infant on a wagon train.

Ellen O’Connell said...

This was timely for me because I've been thinking about laundry in the Old West lately. Every time the subject comes up, I remember my grandmother (who grew up in rural Western Canada) telling us how when she was young they had to wash everything, including the rags used for menstrual cycles, by hand. For some reason the yuck factor of that isn't as high for me as thinking about used handkerchiefs - and having a cold when cloth hankies were all that was available. It's understandable why women were so careful to wear large aprons to keep clothes clean and why everyone wore such complete underclothing under their outer wear to keep things clean as long as possible.

mesadallas said...

You are so right,Ellen. Cloth hankies would have been the worse thing to have to wash. Gross.

Ciara Gold said...

I had to chuckle at the reference to cleaning the toilet. As a girl scout, I cleaned my share of outhouses. About once a year, we'd have to toss a bit of lime down the hatch. Dropped a flashlight down the hole once. Glowed bright orange all night long. Can we say "yewwwww"?

Ginger Simpson said...

I didn't research the can opener. I just recalled how many times I saw the trail hands on a cattle drive open a can of beans with their knife. I'd be bleeding. *lol*

Lisabet Sarai said...

Devon,

I'd personally love to read about your childhood Appalachian experiences. That world is, I think, rapidly disappearing.

Ginger - great post! But did the pioneers even HAVE tin cans?

Ginger Simpson said...

True. No diaper service either, or the wonder of Pampers. :) I flash back to the Indian women who didn't even have the cloth that the white women had. They used tree moss to line the cradleboards and soak up the waste. Thanks for bringing up an interesting topic.

Ginger Simpson said...

Funny, my mother and I just discussed the lack of information shared about topics as personal and monthly periods, even back in her younger days. No one told her at all, and she thought for sure she was dying when the bleeding came. The closest someone came to telling her was when one grandmother asked, "Has Grandma come to see you yet?" All that did was confuse my poor mother because one grandmother lived with her and the other who was asking knew that. :) Yes, my mother told me how they ripped up old sheets and rewashed the homemade pads over and over again. I long ago gave up what some would consider a "luxury," and I couldn't be happier to have that phase of my life gone forever. :) From my mother, I got a pair of safety pins and something that resembled a chaise lounge cover. *lol*

Ginger Simpson said...

Oh, trust me. I think if you stop and consider, there had to have been much worse things to wash. *lol* Socks that had been worn for weeks in sweaty boots...long johns that had been sweated in for a month. Yuk! I don't know how to choose which is worse. Let's stick with the hankies. *lol*

Ginger Simpson said...

I've never been able to use an outhouse without thinking of a snake crawling back up out of the hole. OMG! I hate snakes, and I certainly only use today's "porta potties" if there is no possible way I can cross my legs tight enough. Of course, people with outhouses considered they had a modern convenience as compared to pooping in the bushes and wiping on a leaf. *rofl*

Jacquie Rogers said...

Great post, Ginger! Then there's cooking and ironing. Pots and irons weighed a ton. Just hefting around those things all day would make you tired, let alone doing the work! Oh, and I'm not the least bit fond of outhouses, either, for a variety of reasons. Um, does Sears make a catalogue anymore???

Peggy Henderson said...

ok, the flashlight in the pit is just really funny!

Ginger Simpson said...

Thanks Jacquie. Yes, I remember those cast iron skillets my mom used, and still does sometimes. I'm sitting here remembering one filled with potatoes fried in bacon grease like my Granny used to make. Great for raising the cholesterol level, but they sure were delicious.

I haven't seen a Sear catalog in a long time. Funny, I just imaged someone with ink stains on their butt as severe as the black from the newsprint I used to get on my hands from reading the paper. You don't see that on a Charmin commercial. *lol*

Regina said...

I love this article! Lots of the antiques in my mom's house were actually used by my great grandmother, so I've always been fascinated with the ways women (and men) got by in the old days. :-))) I think this is my new favorite blog!