Inside the Brown Bag

The Chores

By Peg Brown

Women spend half as much time on housework today compared to the 1960s.

I know what you’re thinking—RIGHT! But apparently it’s true. According to a study conducted by the Telegraph Media Group, published in January, 2015, women today, on average, spend just over 18 hours a week on cleaning and housework, compared with 44 hours on average devoted to “domestic chores” during the 1960s.

This is not an expose on who does more by gender (of course it’s still women) and all of these statistics are influenced by size of family, part and full time jobs, marital status, economics and any number of factors—but it did get me thinking about chores of days gone by.

I was startled to find that electrification—something we take for granted until there is a big storm—is considered the number one greatest engineering achievement of the 20th century. Directly related is the development of household appliances (ranked as number 15 of the greatest achievements)—while computers ranked a surprising eighth. As America became steadily connected to the electric grid, by the mid-1920s, 60 percent of households had electricity—the days of my grandmothers. This meant that time spent cooking and tending the cast iron stove, fueled by wood or coal, for women of that era was significantly shortened when electric and gas stoves began to appear. Instead of loading over 50 pounds of fuel into the stove each day, emptying the ashes at least twice a day, and applying polish to prevent rust, time could now be spent managing other household details.

I don’t remember whether Grandma Cordwell had a gas or an electric stove, but I do remember the afternoons spent in her tiny kitchen, watching her can hundreds of jars of vegetables, relishes and jams in those Mason jars. She was also the family’s legendary pie baker. And it was never one pie—more often a dozen or 16 at a time. Largely apple, with mincemeat and raspberry according to season or the holiday—and that dreaded rhubarb and strawberry pie that everyone pretended to like.

Pie making was both a science and an art—and as this Thanksgiving approaches, I remember the process well. Grandma would put her “pie board” on top of the small kitchen table, and begin the dance with flour, shortening, and a bit of ice water. The clouds of flour that filled the air as her small and delicate hands provided just the right light touch to the dough rivaled those created by the steam of the canning season. The crimped edges of the pies were always wrapped in long strips of dampened, torn white cotton rags to prevent the edges from burning, and the piece de resistance for the four grandchildren was Grandma’s turkeys—extra pie dough rolled out and cut with a red plastic turkey shaped cookie cutter. Sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. We treasured those turkeys which served as the centerpieces of our coffee breaks. (Yes, grandma let us drink coffee. She collected English china tea cups and she would let us choose our favorite from among her collection, fill it with cream and sugar, and a drop of coffee to go with our turkeys or, more often, heavily buttered toast.) In the 1960s, Grandma, who was not extravagant, insisted that she needed a huge chest freezer (housed in the garage), for all of those pies and other confections. I have no idea what she did with all of those pies before freezers were invented!

One chore that was repeated every spring was the cleaning of the heating pipes that ran through the first floor of the house. Heat for most of the homes in Ogdensburg was supplied by coal—several tons of coal were delivered to homes and fed into the cellars through narrow windows. The sound of those coal deliveries was part of the rhythm of the household until I was at least seven or eight. The coal had to be fed frequently into a huge furnace many times during the day. The furnace, wrapped in heavy strips of asbestos for insulation, yielded some important side benefits however. The ashes were spread on the driveways and sidewalks for added traction throughout the winter, and the furnace provided the perfect place to set a pot of baked beans to simmer throughout the day—long before the advent of crock pots.

As I indicated, the pipes ran exposed through the first floors of most homes. Holes were cut in the hardwood floors of the upstairs bedrooms and bathroom (only one!) to let the hot air rise. While these holes, with their iron lattice work, were less than effective as conveyors of heat, they did provide wonderful ways to spy on the happenings of the first floor and gather clandestine information from what were thought to be private conversations. Each year the pipes were taken down, place on the newspapers spread throughout the first floor, and the soot from the previous winter was removed, reducing the possibility of fire. While oil and gas furnaces replaced this system, none of my parent’s apartments or homes ever had heat piped directly to the second floors—causing the need for significant investments in flannel sheets and quilts. (During the winter, I honestly got dressed for school under the covers!)

Washing clothes presented multiple challenges. Deep in Grandma’s cellar was a washing machine–wide open top—attached to a metal tower topped by two wooden rollers. The clothes would be swished back and forth with the agitator, then fed by hand through the two wooden rollers which squeezed out most of the water—sometimes you had to feed them through multiple times. The clothes dropped into a cast iron set tub, awaiting hanging—in good weather—on the backyard clothes lines, held up with poles placed randomly so that the sheets wouldn’t touch the ground. The set tubs in the cellar were also the place that Grandma made soap out of a concoction of lye and fat. She would cut the soap into neat little bars, never wrapping them because she said that the dryer they were, the longer they’d last.

Those clothes, all of natural fibers, were much wrinkled without the benefit of a dryer—and ironing was another chore that could consume an entire afternoon. In fairness, Grandma ironed everything—sheets, towels, underwear, and even Grandpa’s shaving rags (used to remove shaving cream from his straight razor.) Grandma let us iron Grandpa’s handkerchiefs. We thought that was a big deal. The first iron with a temperature control didn’t arrive on the American scene until 1927, and a spray option didn’t appear until 1962. This meant that all of those cotton clothes had to be sprinkled with water held by an empty soda bottle, topped with a red and white sprinkle attachment. Often, if you couldn’t iron them immediately, you rolled them and placed them in the refrigerator. There was no spray starch either—and curtains that needed to be starched were dipped in a solution usually in the family bath tub, then stretched on large flat wooden frames, with little nails in the perimeter to hold the curtains flat while they dried. In winter, clothes were hung in the cellar or on the porch—often drying “stiff as a board.”

I will admit that some of these early practices influenced me. I don’t make pies—that was Grandma’s job—and I do iron everything—with starch—in a spray can. After all, where in this life can you make everything even, have complete control over a tangible end product, and keep it in perfect form until you decide that it’s time to bring it back to chaos—knowing full well that you can once more make it perfect.

Author’s notes: One of the earliest household appliances to be developed was the vacuum cleaner in 1907; the first electric toaster appeared in 1909; the first refrigerator for home use in 1913; the first washing machine to wash, rinse and extract water from clothes in the mid-1930s; the first automatic coffee pot in 1952; and the self-cleaning oven in 1963.

The term “stiff as a board” dates to the 17th century when a game played by children was observed. It involves having a participant lie on the floor and spacing the other participants around the “body.” Using just two fingertips each, the team can ultimately raise the person from the floor. One source observed this is a game played by children at slumber parties (do they still have those?)

One of my mother’s first comments to my father after their marriage—I’m not ironing your underwear! I guess that obsession skipped a generation.