Monday, 7 May 2012

The Importance of Domestic Skills.

I would like to share a short story from a book called Advice to Young Ladies on their Duties and Conduct in Life. As you can probably tell from the title, it is rather an old book! It was written by T.S. Arthur and was published in 1850. My copy belonged to Kate Gunby who signed it in August 1894. I love that it is signed! The book is in such good condition so I know that it has been loved and cherished over the years. 

A very beautiful and delicately-raised girl was married, not long since, to a young man on the eve of his departure, with a stock of goods, to a small but thriving town in the west. Her parents were in moderate circumstances; but she was their only daughter, and they had raised her most tenderly. Every dollar that could be spared was expended on her education. The highest accomplishments were sought for her. At the time of her marriage, she was a young, slender, sylph-like creature, that looked as if time had never showered any thing but blossoms on her head. She could dance with the grace of a fairy, perform with great skill upon the piano, harp or guitar, and sing exquisitely. But she knew as little about housekeeping as a boy just let loose from school. 

A few weeks after their marriage, the young couple started for their new home in the west. On arriving there, they found a little village of three or four hundred inhabitants, in which was a stage-house, or tavern, kept by a drunken Irish-man. At this house they were compelled to stay for two or three weeks, until their furniture arrived. There was no other boarding-place in the village. By the time their furniture was received, they had rented the only vacant house there was. This was a small frame tenement, containing four rooms, two below and two above. It stood alone, on the outskirts of the village. Without, all was cheerless enough. The yard contained about an eighth of an acre, and was enclosed by a post and rail fence. There was upon it no tree nor shrub; but plenty of rubbish from the house, which had just been built. Inside, every thing was as meagre and common as could well be. There were windows, but no shutters; rooms, but no closets; walls, but no paper - not even whitewash. All was as brown and coarse as when it came from the hands of the plasterer. The young bride shed many tears in prospect of being compelled to occupy so miserable and lonely a place, and the young husband was made to feel as wretched as could well be, in circumstances. 

At length their furniture arrived; but there were no upholsterers to make and put down the carpets. Nor could any body, with the ability to ply a needle, be obtained, in the village, to do the work. After various efforts and inquiries on the subject, the bride was coolly told by a plain-spoken matron, that she guessed she would have to make her carpet herself, adding, "People in these 'ere parts have to help themselves." The making and putting down of carpets was more serious work than she had been used to, or ever thought of doing. But it was out of the question to think of living on bare floors; so after taking a good hearty cry to herself, she went to work, and, after two or three days of steady application, got the carpets made and tacked down. It is not to be denied that some of the figures were a long ways from matching, and that a number of rough places in the seams attested the young lady's want of skill in such matters. But the work was done, after a fashion, and that was a good deal. The bedsteads were then put up, the furniture arranged, and the young couple took possession of their new home. 

But here a new and undreamed-of difficulty arose. A servant could not be had for love nor money. There was not a woman in the village who had any help, unless she were fortunate enough to have a grown-up daughter, a niece, or an unmarried sister living with her. 

"What am I to do?" asked the bride in despair, after she fully understood the disabilities with which housekeeping was to be attended. "I can't cook and do all the work about the house. I never got a meal's victuals in my life."

"We can go back to the tavern and continue boarding, I suppose," said the young husband, uttering what he did with great reluctance; for the accommodations at the stage-house were little better than no accommodations  at all. 

"I wouldn't be paid to stay another night in that house," was the quick reply. "The worst fare we can have here will be better than going back to that wretched place."

"I fully agree with you," said the husband. "Bread and water here would be preferable to the richest food there. Try and do the best you can, and I will help you all I know how. It would be a pity, it seems to me, if two young people, with health, and means of living as we have, could not take care of themselves."

So it seemed to the young wife; but, then, how was she to do at all? She could make a cup of tea, but that was about the most she could do. As to baking a loaf of bread, she knew no more about doing it than if she had never heard of bread; and the cooking of meat, or the making of pies or puddings, were mysteries of the culinary art far beyond her comprehension. 

The attempt to buy bread for the first meal proved unavailing. There was no baker yet in the village. The effort of beg or borrow was more successful. The young man called in at the house of their nearest neighbor, and frankly stated his difficulty. The woman to whom he applied understood the position of the young couple in a moment. She was of the better sort, and not only supplied them with a couple of large fresh loaves of good bread, but promised to step over in the morning, and give the inexperienced bride some little instruction in household affairs. She was as good as her word, and her young scholar was quite an apt one. The situation which the latter found herself so unexpectedly placed caused her to reflect upon and to be ashamed of her deficiencies. 

She had spent years in the acquirement of various branches of information, many of them little better than useless; but not one of them was now available in this her first essay in life. Her education had been confined almost entirely to the ornamental, while the useful had been totally neglected. She had married, and had commenced the world with her husband. He was fully prepared to do his part, but she was entirely deficient in ability to do hers. But she had the merit of possessing a fair proportion of common sense; had some quickness of perception; and, being willing to do the best she could, was not long, under the kind instruction of her neighbor, in acquiring a very fair knowledge of housekeeping. For six months, she did all her own cooking, baking, washing, and ironing. There was no help for it; unless she did it, it would have to remain undone. After that, she was fortunate enough to obtain a good domestic, brought from the East by her husband, when he went on to purchase goods. 

A little previous instruction in housekeeping affairs would have saved this person from a good deal of mortification, trouble, and perplexity. 

This is a story that I find inspiring and I also see myself in the character of the bride not in her physical description at all but more in her lack of practical knowledge. How many of the things I have learnt over years and years of schooling are practical? Not many! Home economics wasn't taught at any of the schools I attended and it is only in the later years, since leaving school, that I have started to learn domestic skills. I am working on rectifying my lack of skills now but sometimes wonder how much further along I would be had I started learning the basics at school. 




  1. What an interesting story! It is fascinating to see how people lived in the past, and it is definitely a shame that we have lost so many of those important skills over the years. I am glad that so many people are trying to re-learn some of these things (myself included). Have you read the book Radical Homemakers? It is very insightful, and has a lot of history on domestic duties and being in the home :-)

  2. I can totally relate! I still struggle & I have been at this for about 14 years.

  3. I can totally relate! I still struggle & I have been at this for about 14 years.

  4. I've been at this for 30 years, and I still learn something new every single day. I, too, wish I had been taught homemaking skills at home or even at school, but sadly was taught how to get and keep a job outside the home to the detriment of the home. I'm learning though, and happy to do so.

  5. The home ec I was taught in school was practically worthless. I learned far more from my mom & grandmother, thank goodness.

  6. Dear Jenny,
    I am so happy when I find good old fashioned girls like you! It means there is still hope in this world...
    I am very grateful to my parents who teached me everything (cooking, making bread, driving a tractor, milking a cow, sewing, making rugs and so on) But I am sad to confess I did not have the courage to pursue my dreams, I thought (and was partially told) I have no other option in the modern world but to join it. Old fashion living had no future...Nonsense, I say now! A couple of years back I took a course back. I am old enough to live my simple dreams, no matter what people think. Like Tasha Tudor, I am going to be an old fashioned granny! :-)

    Thank you for being inspirational!

  7. Oh, skill-less was I, when I started out on my own too. I am grateful for books and the internet. Anyone can learn anything they want if they just seek out how to do it.

    The story won't be the same for the next generation of this household...

  8. I love old books and old-time ways! I enjoyed your post. :)

  9. As for me, my mother tried to teach me, but I was uninterested! I learned much more than I realised, anyway. :)
    One of my favorite books is "The Plums Hang High" by Gertrude Finney.
    If you can find a copy to read, you may enjoy this novel about a wealthy English girl who comes, with her husband and baby, to a very different world in late nineteenth century America.

  10. So thankful to have a mother that was trained as a home-ec teacher and taught me to sew and cook at a young age (I was sewing my own Barbie clothes at 4 or 5) . . . and friends who learned to knit with me in undergrad . . . and friends in grad school that learned to can with me and keep chickens . . . Hopeful to continue meeting more and more people who can teach me new skills that I can put to good use making a home for myself and the family I hope to one day fill it with.

  11. I am expecting more interesting topics from you. And this was nice content and definitely it will be useful for many people.

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