Monday, November 5, 2007

Women of old: did they really work?

Sometimes, when you read certain books or watch movies that describe the home life in 19-th century and earlier, it's easy to believe that women did nothing but sitting and doing needlework or having tea parties. While I find both aforementioned activities very nice and relaxing, and enjoy them myself on a regular basis, women of old did much more than that.

In novels I've read about 19-th century Russian nobility for example (Tolstoy and other classics), I see quite a lot about home management; no, noblewomen didn't scrub their own floors - but they had large households to manage, and many servants to direct. They were often also responsible for the family finances. Without their instruction, everything would fall apart! I'm pretty sure it was the same in other countries too.

There's one Russian author named Saltykov-Schedrin who gives, in one of his books, an excellent description of one day in the life of a Russian noblewoman, a mother of nine children, in a large country household. It included supervising all the servants, meal planning, gardening (in a large garden which produced all the greens they ate), and the children's education; dealing with family financial business and correspondence; and tending to the myriad of needs arising throughout the day. So, this woman could hardly be expected to do all the cleaning, cooking, milking cows and gardening herself (her household was much too large), but she had heavy responsibility on her shoulders, and worked hard.

Second, not every woman had servants. In fact, nobility was hardly a major part of society. Many women (farm wives, homesteaders) had to do almost everything themselves. My great-grandmother was one of those women. I think she had hired help from time to time, but with 7 children, she still had more than enough cooking, sewing, baking, cleaning, washing, mending and so on - to do. Most of the homemakers today are of this kind: no servants, and a much smaller household to manage.

To sum it up, I think we can learn a lot from the Victorian era about the value and culture of home, but we certainly shouldn't idealize it. Instead, we can take the skills which would be useful in our own homes, today, and invest in developing them.

27 comments:

Kaeus said...

unfortunately all too many people believe that stay at home mothers/wives today do much of the same - sitting around doing nothing.


whether you have one child or many, or none at all, it can still take a fair bit of effort to keep a house running smoothly. although, of course, everyone has a different definition of 'smoothly'.

how nice it would be if everyone realised this and appreciated the work we do as just that - work, even if we dont get 'paid' for it.

on a different but related note, sometimes i think it would be harder to be in the position of the noblewoman you mentioned. i have only a handful of people other than myself to keep inline. and a cat, but who can keep a cat inline? the noblewoman, as well as her family, has a whole bunch of servants who need to be told what to do, kept a check on, etc etc. keeping tabs on that many people at once has got to be tiring, even if you arent doing the 'heavy stuff' yourself.

Terry said...

Well. I'm sure it goes without saying that my grandmothers (raising families in the segregated south) did not have servants. They were really creative and resourceful homemakers. And they worked really hard at raising far more kids than I'll ever have to raise. They made bedspreads from potato sacks that was some of the most incredible handiwork I've ever seen. All cooking and baking was done from scratch, and they sewed a lot of their own clothes as well. Personally, I'm thankful for washing machines, dishwashers, and many of the other modern conveniences we enjoy. I still think we could learn a lot from those who have gone before us.

Kaye :) said...

Hi Anna,

I was in the "neighborhood" so I thought I'd drop by to say hello. :)

Great post.

Kaye :)

Gothelittle Rose said...

In those times, finding a good wife was a lot different than it is now. Nowadays, it seems guys are encouraged to find a woman he's 'fallen in love with'. Go out, meet a bunch of girls, fall in love with one of them, and boom, that's it.

Back then, a man looking for a wife was looking for much more. Beauty alone wasn't so much of an issue. The women and older men in his life would counsel him to look for a good household manager. The less he had, the better a manager he needed. People talked about whether a woman could sew, whether she had education and culture, whether she could understand good literature, be prudent with money, good with servants... in short, her ability to manage a household and raise children was more important than how he felt about her.

What about love? Natural affection can't help but to develop when his woman provides a steadfast management of his household and he provides a steadfast flow of supplies for her to do so. Working together towards a common goal naturally brings people together and physical attraction easily follows. (I say this as a writer. One of the easiest ways to bring a couple together is to throw them into a maelstrom and make them struggle together to survive.)

Sammybunny said...

I think it is fascinating to look at how the women of old lived their lives! i just love historical fiction and find it amazingly interesting! very interesting post, anna! have a great monday!

~sammybunny

Sammybunny said...

i also have a question for you, anna (I cannot get outlook express to work on my computers for various reasons...:-(). I was wondering if you knew of any methods to make one's hair grow faster? I have very short hair and am thinking of growing it out before I get married (I got about two years to do that) so I was wondering since you have such lovely long hair, if you knew of any ways to make it grow any faster!

Nicki said...

Hi Anna,

Just reading your post reminded me very much of the Proverbs 31 woman. At times I often read that and wonder whether there really was ever such a woman as that and should I be looking to do all that is described of her?!

I'm inclined to agree with you about women managing the home - when we think about it in that way all the tasks needing done don't seem to as overwhelming. It's just a pity that many of today's women are so far removed from God's calling and design for them.

Thanks for your posts, I enjoy reading your blog.

Katy-Anne said...

Great post Anna! I agree totally.

Rebekah S. said...

Yet another wonderful post, Anna!! That's so true!! Women had it right back then; they knew what their role was and they performed it with great joy and dedication. May we learn many lessons from these wonderful women!!



P.S. Could you recommend to me any books that you've read from this era?

Anonymous said...

Well put, Anna. I think I appreciate your last paragraph particularly, about being careful not to idealize the ways of our foremothers. Some people pratically worship the ways of the past...not understanding, perhaps, that every "Past" was at one time the present, & I'm certain that there were those shaking their heads, & yearning for the "the good old days". Nevertheless, it's always good to esteem the good, the right, the godly behavior & values of those women & men of other times. This way, we can live our lives much more fully, & do far more good for our families.

Brenda

Mandy said...

I love to read 19-th century classics(including War and Peace!), but I've definitely noticed the tendency to make it seem that all women did was go visiting and dancing in pretty dresses. Some books do a good job of portraying what women's life was really like. From those, it's easy to see that women took pride in managing their homes well and caring for their families.

tales_from_the_crib said...

also good with regards to women and household management are the anne of green gables books, particularly the later ones...anyone who thought they sat around and did nothing it nuts.

Frogdancer said...

I came to you via your comment on 'Down to Earth'.

It's easy to glorify the good old days... but can you imagine having to sew and knit enough clothes to cover evryone in the household? Let alone looking after the food, accounts and all the other administrivia. And if you had servants.... you'd have to mediate disputes, keep them in order and .... ugh!

I think that although my life as a teacher and mother of 4 is busy, I probably have it better in a lot of ways than those women. :)

deb said...

We have to remember that women of long ago washed clothing by hand, made their own bread, sewed their own clothing etc. Their lives were hard. My grandmother's mother is a perfect example. My great grandmother was a midwife, herbalist and assisted her husband in the fields. She did have one maid but her life was hard. Yet, I have a white pillowcase that she embroided with neat little cross stitch.

Anna S said...

Rebekah, my favorite classics are the works of Tolstoy, but they are heavy, and you would have to read them in English, so I'm not sure how much you'd like them :)

Kelly said...

Well said Anna. There is just such an attitude that the homemaker does nothing but sit all day. I'm already getting questions of: "so what are you going to do all day once your daughter is in school?"
Ugh.

Bonnie said...

Reading about what women had to do 50-100 years ago makes me realise women of these days really don't have to do anything! We have sewing machines, dish washers, washing machines, irons, electricity, water etc...! When you think about it, those things take away a lot of hard labor hours! We should be very grateful.

Mimi said...

each generation looks back at the prior generation and think that they had it easier had less pressure ...
the Victorians did wear all those beautiful dresses... but the sheer act of cleaning them was a very large job within itself .... and even though on the large plantations they may have had servants to do the heavy work there was much to be done...
remember they made most all their own clothes as well as the clothing for their husbands and sons......
our mothers, and grand mothers, and great grandmothers each had their own set of problems and hard work to contend with...
and we could well learn from them.. because they knew their place was to make the house a home... and they spent their life doing just that.

Cristina (a.k.a. "Stramenda") said...

Hi Anna

I'm three weeks away from being "due" and will have my baby a week later. I sure feel the difference in not having the agility to do what I'd normally do around the house. Its easy to see what wouldn't get done if we "sat all day" LOL.

I too idealised the "Pride and Prejudice" way of life, but now take a different view. I simply enjoy the simplicity of accepting a role as wife and mother, not shunning it and calling it inadequate like modern day feminism does. There's a freedom in allowing myself to enjoy it. In days past, a woman enjoyed her homemaking work as a necessary part of life, and it was respected!

Sincerely
Cristina

Anonymous said...

There is another side to all of this, unfortunately. In the past few years I have witnessed many women in what I call "the new breed of stay at home Moms/homemakers" who are giving some ladies who genuinely live out this role a bad name. Many of todays young SAHM's or homemakers want their husbands to work two jobs at times so that they can afford to stay at home, and for what? So they can go shopping, have lunch with friends, nap, watch Oprah, talk on the phone, etc., and sometimes their homes are falling down around them.

One young lady in our church had a husband who was working three jobs and she stayed home with her daughter. She was very angry one day because when her husband came home from work he would not help her with the housework. My question was, "what were you doing all day?" She claims to be "busy with the baby" but isn't her role to care for the baby AND the home if she is indeed a SAHM and a homemaker, not expect her husband to come home from his job and assist her with the housework? My concern is that some gals seem to "want their cake and eat it too." They want to stay at home but they do not realize that in staying at home that becomes their job description and it does not include sitting on the couch watching TV or having long lunches with friends. If you are home working you are doing just that - working. People sometimes do ask women, "what do you do all day?" but unfortunately it is because in some cases they have seen bad examples of women today who are home but not getting the work done. I believe if you are home everyday and consider yourself a "homemaker" then your home should be completely in order being that it is your full time job. If you were working outside the home and were expected to keep something in order and you did not you would be fired - you would not be able to simply ask other co-workers to help you do your job.

Anna S said...

Anonymous,

You bring up a very interesting point. I suppose that as there are some lazy workers in almost every company, there might also be slacker homemakers somewhere out there.

There's a different side to this story, though. A wife isn't employed by her husband - they are a team. Sometimes it is impossible to keep the house immacculately clean if a woman has several young children for example, or if she's going through a difficult pregnancy. This was discussed on my blog just a few days ago, by the way, you can check out the post and comments.

Jordin said...

Great post, Anna! I feel ashamed when I hear my great-grandmother explaining how her grandmother used to work. We really don't have to work hard at all compared to them; and we can learn a lot from the women in the past. My great-grandmother's grandmother (whew!) gave birth to her daughter, and then went out working in the fields TWO HOURS later. I can't imagine! :)

Love Sows Seeds said...

Anna I have started to write comments before on your posts, but lol they get just so long and then I run out of time to finish and actually post. So I will try to keep this comment short.

I feel so blessed to be a homemaker, and I am also fascinated by the women of old and how they worked/kept home/their values. When I think how hard many women worked to keep home, nurture children, provide nourishing meals under often very difficult circumstances it motivates me to work harder.

I also feel blessed because right now I am able to stay home. I think about my great great grandmother who worked so many hours in the cotton mills just to make ends meet (she had 9 children and her husband was a philanderer and she ended up throwing him out).

Blessings.

Emily said...

Brilliant post, Anna. I particularly love this part: "I think we can learn a lot from the Victorian era about the value and culture of home, but we certainly shouldn't idealize it. Instead, we can take the skills which would be useful in our own homes, today, and invest in developing them." So true!

Julie's Jewels said...

Things back then were certainly much more complex in the duties of the home and how they were done. They didn't have the modern day conveniences that we have today. Our responsibilities are much easier today than they used to be due to vacuum cleaners and electric stoves and ovens and washing machines and electric dryers.

Dana said...

Off topic, but to Rebekah or whoever wants to read Tolstoy, the new translations by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are getting excellent critical reviews for being closer in style and spirit to Tolstoy's Russian than most earlier translations. I don't know any Russian myself but I did enjoy their translation of Anna Karenina.

Elizabeth said...

This is really interesting. In fact, in England, women in every strata of society worked for hundreds of years. Before the 1700s, a woman of noble birth would be raised with the expectation of marrying a man of noble birth, looking after his households (yes, households, he would most likely have had several country manors - each one with its own house or castle - as well as a house in London), raising his children and looking after his tenants and other dependents - such as poor people and beggars who lived on his estates.

Such a woman might not have been taught to read or write, but she would have been taught to manage households and raise children. In those days, managing a household did not just mean managing servants, co-ordinating house-work and selecting menus. Noble households of those days were comprised of hundreds of people and it was the wife's job to make sure that there was a clean establishment and plenty of food for them. The household would have been self-sufficient, so she would have overseen the making of everything - clothes to wear, food to eat, liquid to drink.

A properly-educated women of noble birth would have been able to spin, weave, sew, embroider; she would have been at home in the kitchen, the dairy and the brew-house - especially the dairy and brew-house where cheeses and beers were made; she would have overseen the gathering and storing of the harvest and the butchering and preserving of the animals; she would have been familiar with basic herbal medicines and would have been able to make simple diagnoses and prescribe simple remedies. Her family and her husband's servants and dependents would have relied on her in the first stages of illness and injury. Such a women would have educated her daughters and her maids to do her work with her, all the women working together.

Oh ... and if her husband was away from home, a woman of noble birth would probably have been required to work with her husband's steward to manage his estates and business, handle his accounts and dictate letters to keep him up-to-date with news and ask for his advice. Before the 1500s, she would possibly have been required to defend her husband's estates against robbers or jealous neighbors.

After the 1700s, women of noble birth gradually became more and more distant from the real work of managing their husband's households. House-keepers did that and the wives and mothers suddenly had a lot of time to sew and read and drink tea and gossip. I imagine some women did stick to the old ways and some women filled their free time with charity work. But in general, by the 1800s women of noble birth often lived empty and pointless lives. Think of Lady Bertram in 'Mansfield Park', lying on the sofa, sewing and sleeping!

Of course, women of less-than-noble birth have always had to work ... further down the social scale women have had smaller households to manage, but have been been required to do more work with less help. I doubt if many such women had much leisure time at all!

It makes me smile when I hear women talking of 'the good old' days and longing for leisure time and time to themselves! The work my ancestors did makes my mind boggle! More women of this generation have more time to themselves than most other women in any other period of history! I don't think we're any happier for it as a society, though!