It is safe to say that no class of women in the civilized world is subjected to such incessant trials of temper, and such temptation to be fretful, as the American housekeeper. The reasons for this state of things are legion; and, if in the beginning we take ground from which the whole field may be clearly surveyed, we may be able to secure a better understanding of what housekeeping means, and to guard against some of the dangers accompanying it.
The first difficulty lies in taking for granted that successful housekeeping is as much an instinct as that which leads the young bird to nest-building, and that no specific training is required. The man who undertakes a business, passes always through some form of apprenticeship, and must know every detail involved in the management; but to the large proportion of women, housekeeping is a combination of accidental forces from whose working it is hoped breakfasts and dinners and suppers will be evolved at regular periods, other necessities finding place where they can. The new home, prettily furnished, seems a lovely toy, and is surrounded by a halo, which, as facts assert themselves, quickly fades away. Moth and rust and dust invade the most secret recesses. Breakage and general disaster attend the progress of Bridget or Chloe. The kitchen seems the headquarters of extraordinary smells, and the stove an abyss in its consumption of coal or wood. Food is wasted by bad cooking, or ignorance as to needed amounts, or methods of using left-over portions; and, as bills pile up, a hopeless discouragement often settles upon both wife and husband, and reproaches and bitterness and alienation are guests in the home, to which they need never have come had a little knowledge barred them out.
In the beginning, then, be sure of one thing,—that all the wisdom you have or can acquire, all the patience and tact and self-denial you can make yours by the most diligent effort, will be needed every day and every hour of the day. Details are in themselves wearying, and to most men their relation to housekeeping is unaccountable. The day's work of a systematic housekeeper would confound the best-trained man of business. In the woman's hand is the key to home-happiness, but it is folly to assert that all lies with her. Let it be felt from the beginning that her station is a difficult one, that her duties are important, and that judgment and skill must guide their performance; let boys be taught the honor that lies in such duties,—and there will be fewer heedless and unappreciative husbands. On the other hand, let the woman remember that the good general does not waste words on hindrances, or leave his weak spots open to observation, but, learning from every failure or defeat, goes on steadily to victory. To fret will never mend a matter; and "Study to be quiet" in thought, word, and action, is the first law of successful housekeeping. Never under-estimate the difficulties to be met, for this is as much an evil as over-apprehension. The best-arranged plans may be overturned at a moment's notice. In a mixed family, habits and pursuits differ so widely that the housekeeper must hold herself in readiness to find her most cherished schemes set aside. Absolute adherence to a system is only profitable so far as the greatest comfort and well-being of the family are affected; and, dear as a fixed routine may be to the housekeeper's mind, it may often well be sacrificed to the general pleasure or comfort. A quiet, controlled mind, a soft voice, no matter what the provocation to raise it may be, is "an excellent thing in woman." And the certainty that, hard as such control may be, it holds the promise of the best and fullest life here and hereafter, is a motive strong enough, one would think, to insure its adoption. Progress may be slow, but the reward for every step forward is certain.
We have already found that each day has its fixed routine, and are ready now to take up the order of work, which will be the same in degree whether one servant is kept, or many, or none. The latter state of things will often happen in the present uncertain character of household service. Old family servants are becoming more and more rare; and, unless the new generation is wisely trained, we run the risk of being even more at their mercy in the future than in the past.
First, then, on rising in the morning, see that a full current of air can pass through every sleeping-room; remove all clothes from the beds, and allow them to air at least an hour. Only in this way can we be sure that the impurities, thrown off from even the cleanest body by the pores during the night, are carried off. A neat housekeeper is often tempted to make beds, or have them made, almost at once; but no practice can be more unwholesome.
While beds and bedrooms are airing, breakfast is to be made ready, the table set, and kitchen and dining-room put in order. The kitchen-fire must first be built. If a gas or oil stove can be used, the operations are all simpler. If not, it is always best to have dumped the grate the night before if coal is used, and to have laid the fire ready for lighting. In the morning brush off all ashes, and wipe or blacken the stove. Strong, thick gloves, and a neat box for brushes, blacking, &c., will make this a much less disagreeable operation than it sounds. Rinse out the tea-kettle, fill it with fresh water, and put over to boil. Then remove the ashes, and, if coal is used, sift them, as cinders can be burned a large part of the time where only a moderate fire is desired.
The table can be set, and the dining or sitting room swept, or merely brushed up and dusted, in the intervals of getting breakfast. To have every thing clean, hot, and not only well prepared but ready on time, is the first law, not only for breakfast, but for every other meal.
After breakfast comes the dish-washing, dreaded by all beginners, but needlessly so. With a full supply of all conveniences,—plenty of soap and sapolio, which is far better and cleaner to use than either sand or ashes; with clean, soft towels for glass and silver; a mop, the use of which not only saves the hands but enables you to have hotter water; and a full supply of coarser towels for the heavier dishes,—the work can go on swiftly. Let the dish-pan be half full of hot soap and water. Wash glass first, paying no attention to the old saying that "hot water rots glass." Be careful never to put glass into hot water, bottom first, as the sudden expansion may crack it. Slip it in edgeways, and the finest and most delicate cut-glass will be safe. Wash silver next. Hot suds, and instant wiping on dry soft cloths, will retain the brightness of silver, which treated in this way requires much less polishing, and therefore lasts longer. If any pieces require rubbing, use a little whiting made into a paste, and put on wet. Let it dry, and then polish with a chamois-skin. Once a month will be sufficient for rubbing silver, if it is properly washed. China comes next—all plates having been carefully scraped, and all cups rinsed out. To fill the pan with unscraped and unrinsed dishes, and pour half-warm water over the whole, is a method too often adopted; and the results are found in sticky dishes and lustreless silver. Put all china, silver, and glass in their places as soon as washed. Then take any tin or iron pans, wash, wipe with a dry towel, and put near the fire to dry thoroughly. A knitting-needle or skewer may be kept to dig out corners unreachable by dishcloth or towel, and if perfectly dried they will remain free from rust.
The cooking-dishes, saucepans, &c., come next in order; and here the wire dish-cloth will be found useful, as it does not scratch, yet answers every purpose of a knife. Every pot, kettle, and saucepan must be put into the pan of hot water. If very greasy, it is well to allow them to stand partly full of water in which a few drops of ammonia have been put. The outside must be washed as carefully as the inside. Till this is done, there will always be complaint of the unpleasantness of handling cooking-utensils. Properly done, they are as clean as the china or glass.
Plated knives save much work. If steel ones are used, they must be polished after every meal. In washing them, see that the handles are never allowed to touch the water. Ivory discolors and cracks if wet. Bristol-brick finely powdered is the best polisher, and, mixed with a little water, can be applied with a large cork. A regular knife-board, or a small board on which you can nail three strips of wood in box form, will give you the best mode of keeping brick and cork in place. After rubbing, wash clean, and wipe dry.
The dish-towels are the next consideration. A set should be used but a week, and must be washed and rinsed each day if you would not have the flavor of dried-in dish-water left on your dishes. Dry them, if possible, in the open air: if not, have a rack, and stand them near the fire. On washing-days, let those that have been used a week have a thorough boiling. The close, sour smell that all housekeepers have noticed about dish-towels comes from want of boiling and drying in fresh air, and is unpardonable and unnecessary.
Keep hot water constantly in your kettles or water-pots, by always remembering to fill with cold when you take out hot. Put away every article carefully in its place.
If tables are stained, and require any scrubbing, remember that to wash or scrub wood you must follow the grain, as rubbing across it rubs the dirt in instead of taking it off.
The same rule applies to floors. A clean, coarse cloth, hot suds, and a good scrubbing-brush, will simplify the operation. Wash off the table; then dip the brush in the suds, and scour with the grain of the wood. Finally wash off all soapy water, and wipe dry. To save strength, the table on which dishes are washed may be covered with kitchen oilcloth, which will merely require washing and wiping; with an occasional scrubbing for the table below.
The table must be cleaned as soon as the dishes are washed, because if dishes stand upon tables the fragments of food have time to harden, and the washing is made doubly hard.
Leaving the kitchen in order, the bedrooms will come next. Turn the mattresses daily, and make the bed smoothly and carefully. Put the under sheet with the wrong side next the bed, and the upper one with the marked end always at the top, to avoid the part where the feet lie, from being reversed and so reaching the face. The sheets should be large enough to tuck in thoroughly, three yards long by two and a half wide being none too large for a double bed. Pillows should be beaten and then smoothed with the hand, and the aim be to have an even, unwrinkled surface. As to the use of shams, whether sheet or pillow, it is a matter of taste; but in all cases, covered or uncovered, let the bed-linen be daintily clean.
Empty all slops, and with hot water wash out all the bowls, pitchers, &c., using separate cloths for these purposes, and never toilet towels. Dust the room, arrange every thing in place, and, if in summer, close the blinds, and darken till evening, that it may be as cool as possible.
Sweeping days for bedrooms need come but once a week, but all rooms used by many people require daily sweeping; halls, passages, and dining and sitting rooms coming under this head. Careful dusting daily will often do away with the need of frequent sweeping, which wears out carpets unnecessarily. A carpet-sweeper is a real economy, both in time and strength; but, if not obtainable, a light broom carefully handled, not with a long stroke which sends clouds of dust over every thing, but with a short quick one, which only experience can give, is next best. For a thorough sweeping, remove as many articles from the room as possible, dusting each one thoroughly, and cover the larger ones which must remain with old sheets or large squares of common unbleached cotton cloth, kept for this purpose. If the furniture is rep or woolen of any description, dust about each button, that no moth may find lodgment, and then cover closely. A feather duster, long or short, as usually applied, is the enemy of cleanliness. Its only legitimate use is for the tops of pictures or books and ornaments; and such dusting should be done before the room is swept, as well as afterward, the first one removing the heaviest coating, which would otherwise be distributed over the room. For piano, and furniture of delicate woods generally, old silk handkerchiefs make the best dusters. For all ordinary purposes, squares of old cambric, hemmed, and washed when necessary, will be found best. Insist upon their being kept for this purpose, and forbid the use of toilet towels, always a temptation to the average servant. Remember that in dusting, the process should be a wiping; not a flirting of the cloth, which simply sends the dust up into the air to settle down again about where it was before.
If moldings and wash-boards or wainscotings are wiped off with a damp cloth, one fruitful source of dust will be avoided. For all intricate work like the legs of pianos, carved backs of furniture, &c., a pair of small bellows will be found most efficient. Brooms, dust-pan, and brushes long and short, whisk-broom, feather and other dusters, should have one fixed place, and be returned to it after every using. If oil-cloth is on halls or passages, it should be washed weekly with warm milk and water, a quart of skim-milk to a pail of water being sufficient. Never use soap or scrubbing-brush, as they destroy both color and texture.
All brass or silver-plated work about fire-place, doorknobs, or bath-room faucets, should be cleaned once a week and before sweeping. For silver, rub first with powdered whiting moistened with a little alcohol or hot water. Let it dry on, and then polish with a dry chamois-skin. If there is any intricate work, use a small toothbrush. Whiting, silver-soap, cloths, chamois, and brushes should all be kept in a box together. In another may be the rotten-stone necessary for cleaning brass, a small bottle of oil, and some woolen cloths. Old merino or flannel under-wear makes excellent rubbing-cloths. Mix the rotten-stone with enough oil to make a paste; rub on with one cloth, and polish with another. Thick gloves can be worn, and all staining of the hands avoided.
The bedrooms and the necessary daily sweeping finished, a look into cellar and store-rooms is next in order,—in the former, to see that no decaying vegetable matter is allowed to accumulate; in the latter, that bread-jar or boxes are dry and sweet, and all stores in good condition.
Where there are servants, it should be understood that the mistress makes this daily progress. Fifteen minutes or half an hour will often cover the time consumed; but it should be a fixed duty never omitted. A look into the refrigerator or meat-safe to note what is left and suggest the best use for it; a glance at towels and dish-cloths to see that all are clean and sweet, and another under all sinks and into each pantry,—will prevent the accumulation of bones and stray bits of food and dirty rags, the paradise of the cockroach, and delight of mice and rats. A servant, if honest, will soon welcome such investigation, and respect her mistress the more for insisting upon it, and, if not, may better find other quarters. One strong temptation to dishonesty is removed where such inspection is certain, and the weekly bills will be less than in the house where matters are left to take care of themselves.
The preparation of dinner if at or near the middle of the day, and the dish-washing which follows, end the heaviest portion of the day's work; and the same order must be followed. Only an outline can be given; each family demanding variations in detail, and each head of a family in time building up her own system. Remember, however, that, if but one servant is kept, she can not do every thing, and that your own brain must constantly supplement her deficiencies, until training and long practice have made your methods familiar. Even then she is likely at any moment to leave, and the battle to begin over again; and the only safeguard in time of such disaster is personal knowledge as to simplest methods of doing the work, and inexhaustible patience in training the next applicant, finding comfort in the thought, that, if your own home has lost, that of some one else is by so much the gainer.
THE EASIEST WAY IN HOUSEKEEPING AND COOKING.
Adapted to Domestic Use or Study in Classes