tips for housewives, circa 1900

The following page shots come from a 1903 Good Housekeeping. The home-made baby bassinet strikes me as a bit out of the ordinary, but the others are typical of the sorts of tips and ideas I find in these vintage housekeeping magazines.make your own bassinet

make a bassinet 2

good housekeeping helpful hints


The purpose of a woman’s magazine (or any periodical) then and now is essentially the same: to sell advertisements, to influence readers and change the culture, to sell advertisements, to entertain and inform the reader for the purpose of selling more advertisements, to attract more subscribers (for the purpose of selling more advertisements). And yet, there are certain distinctions between then and now.

I just finished an article on choosing furniture for the home. The emphasis was on form and function- in choosing chairs for the dining room, they advise, choose straight backs to assist your family and guests in sitting up straight and behaving mannerly at table, and make sure the chairs slide easily on the floor, since dining room chairs must be moved more than any others.

There is a focus on doing things, often quite complicated things expected to be done by a woman advanced in her craft, such as complex beadwork, basket-making, sewing your own clothes, extending flannel undergarments for children by ripping out the seams and sewing in an extra strip of fabric from top to botom or making the above bassinet. That article is like most of its kind, it expects the lady reader to be able to figure out what she is about with only a sketch.

I found another article explaining how to solder one’s own boiler when it has sprung a leak (the explanation indicated a soldering iron was part of the equipment of most homes), and I’ve seen another advising women how to build and sanitarily maintain their own ‘fresh air’ closets for food (store in clay rather than metal containers, wrap food in cheese cloth, take the ‘closet’ apart annually and sanitize it).

The vocabulary is more complex- I find words like exudable, interegnum, contrivance, inquisitive, expatiate, aperture (not in an article about cameras), desmene, commissariat (the mother who hosts a children’s party is as much commissariat as hostess) and literary allusions such as comparing sweeping to a labor of Tantalus.

I found an early reference to a ‘stay-cation,’ where the mother of the family hired a house-keeper to come for two weeks and take care of everything while she stayed in the family guest-room and used her time to read, rest, catch up on letters and handicrafts, and play with the children, leaving the temporary housekeeper to handle meals and clean-up, laundry and so forth.

I do not make the mistake of supposing the past was better than the present. There is also an article waxing nostalgic on ‘mammies’ that literally made the hackles on the back of my neck rise. There’s another from an Indian graduate of an Indian school complaining of a newspaper article she saw suggesting the new Indian graduates would help solve the domestic servant problem. Her rebuttal was a combination of cringe inducing and delightful, as she explained that Indians are not and never have been servant material and had not the hereditary make-up of those whose ancestors had been servants and they do not habitually serve those of other races, but would take their places in the pews and offices of America right next to their white cousins. But the errors which our own contemporary culture now shuns are easy to spot and dismiss (as C.S. Lewis said), which the attitudes and values which serve as corrective to our own day are refreshing and thought provoking.

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