"Sine Qua Non"
Means and Ends
But if I have succeeded in placing your domestic education in the right light, and in infusing the right spirit, or rather, if your mothers have done this work before me, you will perform these occasional duties, not only with cheerfulness and resolution, but in the spirit of zealous scholars, who are doing these tasks well now, to qualify themselves for the future.
Depend upon it, that if you are totally ignorant of domestic affairs, you are nearly as unfit to be an American wife and mother, as if you were lame in both feet and hands.
But what shall we say to those unfortunate young persons, who bred up in luxurious establishments in town, are cut off from all accidental and irresistible opportunities of acquiring a knowledge of domestic affairs? They are as ignorant of domestic processes as is the lily that neither spins, nor weaves, of the modes by which it is more gorgeously arrayed, than Solomon in all his glory.
This ignorance is all but an inevitable misfortune. There is an intrinsic difficulty in the case. all the arrangements of a town-establishment, and al the arrangements of town life, presuppose that the ladies of the house are to do nothing.
Such ladies may be so fortunate as to secure competent, well-instructed, and faithful domestics, but such are rare birds in our land; and those to whose share they do not fall, must make up their account to having sometimes confusion and disorder in their establishments, to neglected children, and displeased husbands; to finding they have been imposed upon, or, what is far more painful, that they have been unjust to their domestics. How is this to be avoided? Only by an all-conquering sense of duty on the part of the parent, or by the combined sense and virtue of a self-training daughter.
To show the disastrous and mortifying consequences of omitting this must have of an American girl's education, we publish extracts from the letter of an accomplished friend who, after keeping house for twelve years a New York, removed soon after to commercial crisis, to one of the Western States.
After describing the richness and exquisite beauty of the country about her, and the change in her husband from extreme defection to cheerfulness, in consequence of the happy change in his pecuniary prospects, she says, "but what does all this avail me? I am a miserable, mortified woman. Don't be alarmed by my language. I have not yet broken any of the laws of the land, nor lost my husband's affections, though I am sure I deserve to lose them; but read on and pity me. You know, I determined to be virtuously economical, so I brought but two servants with me. This was rather a reduction from my usual establishment of six; but our fortune was reduced and I wished to conform to my husband's circumstances. Anne was to be my woman of all work, she was country-bred, and highly recommended; and the other, Rose O'Brien, was to be my children's nurse.
"We sent on Anne some weeks before us to unpack the furniture, and get the house in order, and when we arrived, in nice order it was; and Anne had found time to do up a courtship, and the very day we arrived, she set off to be married to a young farmer at the head of the river, telling me, very cooly, that she should think, I 'might have expected as much--that all girls that came to the West, calculated to be married!'
"I submitted--I could do nothing else. Rose had been brought up to nursery-work, and was almost as ignorant as myself of all other household work, and besides, her hands were full with my baby, who was cutting her eyeteeth.
"The first morning after our arrival, I determined to be energetic, and do my best to make my family comfortable till I could supply Anne's place, so I hurried on my dressing-gown, and went down to the kitchen to make the coffee. But how was it to be made? I ran up to ask Rose. She had 'always seen it made in a grecque,' so had I, but we had none. I thought if I let i soak long enough in boiling water, it would be as good as if poured through a grecque. Accordingly, I soaked it till I had every thing else ready. Anne had left some nice little trout all prepared to fry. I put them in a utensil that I knew was called a frying-pan, and there they dried away to a coal. In attempting to cut the bread, I cut my thumb, it has been ever since nearly useless to me!
"'What stuff is that?' asked my husband, when I poured out the coffee. I burst into tears, and confessed my ignorance. 'You should have boiled it, my dear,' he said. The next morning I did boil it, but it was so thick, it could not be drank. How to clarify it, none of us knew--we drink tea for the present. I have my beds to make, my rooms to sweep, and my tables to set, but I am well and strong, and should not mind it, (for I really feel the better for the exercise,) if I only knew how. Anne left us a large baking of bread. I looked forward with dismay to the time when that should be eaten up. We were reduced to the last loaf, and I begged my husband to ride over to the nearest neighbor's (two miles) and get me some leaven--for I knew that bread required leaven, though not how to make it, and unfortunately, my receipt-book was in a package of books not yet arrived.
"The good dame sent me some hard, bitter cakes, which she called 'turnpike emptyings.' How to apply them I did not know, but I grated them into my flour, and I rose in my own esteem: but, alas! my bread did no rise! You laugh, my dear friend; I laugh, too, sometimes; but, I assure you, that I cry much oftener. All day, and all night, I waited for the dough to rise. In the morning, it was the same lump as when I mixed it. My husband suggested i might rise in the oven; this seemed to me a bright thought, and into the oven it went; but, alas! it cam out even more solid then it went in. My children were actually crying for bread, and I had nothing better than a stone to give them. I went to my room. My beautiful Petrarca was lying on the table. I looked at it for a moment with a sort of loathing. I would gladly have given all my knowledge of Italian, of which I have felt proud, to know how to make bread! 'But,' said my conscience, 'you might read Italian, and make bread, too. The time spent in getting half-a dozen lessons, would have sufficed to acquaint you with this essential art.'
"Do you remember how we used to laugh at Uncle John, when he came down from the country, and would tell us that we did not know any thing? Vain-glorying, as we were, in being the first scholars in Madame C.'s school; 'Learn to make bread, girls,' he would say, 'the staff of life--learn to make bread.'
"'But I know how to make cake, Uncle,' you replied. 'Fiddle de dee!' said Uncle John, 'that is an easy matter--but learn to make bread. Did you ever hear, girls, the story of the Queen of France who, when she was told her subjects wanted bread, asked why they did not give them cake?' 'I do not understand you, uncle, said I. 'Perhaps not, but you may one of these days.' Poor Uncle John, it seemed to me his ghost was at my elbow while I was watching that bread. I could make cake,--so could Rose. I once made some on a wager, under the eye of my mother's pastry-cook, but of what use was cake when we wanted bread.
"To return to my story. While I was lamenting my good-for-nothingness, my husband came in, and asked if he should unpack my piano? 'No--no,' I cried, 'I never will touch my piano again till I know how to make bread. Get me a horse, if you love me, and let me ride over to that woman, and ask what she meant by sending me those detestable turnpike emptyings.' By the time I got to Mrs. Gates', my feelings were somewhat subdued; so that I asked, very meekly, for directions how to use the turnpikes.
"'Gracious me!' exclaimed the good woman, 'I thought you knew as much as that!' I blushingly confessed I did not, and she gave me the directions. I went home, kneaded up my bread, and that evening's meal on the nice light loaf of my own making, was, it seems to me, one of the happiest of my life.
"My greatest difficulty was overcome, but every day and hour I experience the evil of my ignorance. I have obtained a raw Irish woman. She is strong and willing, but more ignorant than one of our savages. If I only knew how to direct, she could execute. Yesterday, my husband had some pork sent to him. I, without much reflection, expected it to come as from the market, all cut up and prepared; but, to my utter horror, the animals were whole. I am sure, the family, consisting of my husband, myself, Pat, our raw Irishman, Biddy and Rose, in joint council over the swine, were a group for Hogarth.
"Ah, my friend, 'you who live at home at ease,' little know the trials of ladies in the west. My husband had last week to go to Chicago, to meet some gentlemen from Philadelphia, on business. 'These shirts,' said he showing me the linen done up, (undone, rather,) by Biddy, 'are too bad to go among civilized people. Could you contrive, my dear wife, to have one or two decently ironed for me?'
"I faintly answered, 'Yes.' Biddy is quite competent to washing, so I gave her my orders and then asked Rose, as a particular favor, to iron the shirts. She replied, pettishly, 'that she could not do every thing;' and I, not accustomed, you know, to submit to any impertinence from my people, retorted sharply. The consequence was, that she fell to crying. 'If she could not plase me,' she said, 'she could lave me--it was Anne had invited her to come and live all the same as a sister with her, and sure that would be more plasing than living at service, and not giving satisfaction--there was no need of living a servant any way in the new country where there was room for all, and plenty.'
"I was terrified at the idea of her leaving me with the care of my children in addition to every thing else, so I choked down my griefs, and apologized, and soothed. Ah, my friend, it is one of the necessary and most mortifying effects of our domestic ignorance and imbecility, that they make us completely subservient to those we employ.
"I am wearying you, but I must write of what my hands and heart are full. I ironed the shirts myself, and --shall I confess it? I sprinkled them with my tears. What a labor it was! How often I thought of the weekly replenishing of my presses with clean clothes--I, never bestowing one thought on the labor they cost. My ironing turned out better than I hoped. I took infinite pains, you may be sure, and when I felt the glow of success, and my husband thanked me heartily, I fell to a little moralizing, and came to the conclusion that the humblest services may receive a certain dignity from the motives and feelings that attend them.
"The great domestic problem at present to e solved is, how I shall provide my family with soap. I have abundant materials left by the squatters on our place, but, though I have attended three courses of chemical lectures, I know no better than Biddy does how they should be combined; and she could as easily transmute lead to gold, as ashes and fat to soap.
"My prospects, however, are brightening. Mrs. Gates has promised to lend me her daughter, Louisa, for a month. She is to instruct Biddy and me. Louisa is what I now call and accomplished girl. Depend on it, the meaning of terms changes with our experience. At this moment, I would give all my accomplishments--all my knowledge of French, Italian, Grammar and Music, for Louisa Gates' ability in household matters. You will say, perhaps, that i exaggerate their importance, owing to my present unfortunate position. Believe me, my friend, it can scarcely be exaggerated. A wife must be responsible for the domestic comfort of her husband and children. It is important to our concerns, that my husband should give all his time to his own department of business, but he is every day interrupted by some domestic necessity that I don not know how to supply, or some petty embarrassment that I cannot relieve. I feel that I am not a help-meet to him. He has no home comforts. He is most kind and forbearing, and I am doing what can be done, at my age, to rectify the errors in my education.
"I shall not regret my miserable experience, if it induces you and some other of my dear friends in town, to think seriously on this subject. The result of such reflection, I am sure, will be that it is essential to the well-being of your girls, that they be thoroughly instructed in domestic economy."
Injustice to the writer of the above, I shall give a short extract fro a letter written by her after a residence in "the west" of some four or five years.
"You who were informed of all the domestic difficulties in which I was involved by my ignorance, when I fist came, would be delighted now to see how comfortably I get on. I thought for some time it was impossible to have any domestic comfort in the west, but 'impossible,' if not, s Napoleon said, 'the adjective of fools,' is that of imbeciles. I was determined, as far as I could, to make my husband and children comfortable, and resigned myself to being a household drudge for the rest of my life.
"Household work cannot, as some imagine, be done extempore, nor is there a royal road to domestic economy, any more than to any other art or science. I applied my strength, my mind, and my conscience, to the business. I often failed, but I learned from failure as well as from success. Practice mad that easy which at first seemed impossible. I can now dispatch a bit of work work in the time I at first consumed in sighing over it, and I often find my hands are performing their work like machines, while my mind is wandering over earth, sea, and skies. What a wonder-worker is habit! When we cannot obtain domestics, we do not now suffer. Such occasions are however, rare. We can get rough Irish or Germans, and I now know how to direct them, what to require of them, and where to assist them. They are well called 'hands,' their employer must be 'head' to them. And now, my dear friend, those branches of my education which in my first despair, I thought utterly lost upon me, have assumed their right position, and household drudgery takes its subordinate place.
"When I know that the material wants of my family are provide for, I devote myself to the intellectual education of my children; and here, far away from schools and master, I pour into their minds the knowledge I acquired in my youth.
"Conscious that I do not neglect their domestic education, I feel that I have a right to impart to them my accomplishments, and those accomplishments that when I first came here, seemed to me a mockery, somewhat like an imperial robe to a wretch starving for bread, are now the solace and delight of my family. Surrounded as you are by all the luxuries of civilization, I will venture to say, apt you can have no conception of the enjoyment of a piano in 'the west.' It is a social blessing. I cannot believe that an Italian opera ever gave more genuine delight, that do our little family concerts. Kate plays duets with me on the piano, an my husband accompanies, with his flute, little Molly's guitar. Of course, my girls have had no teacher but myself. You, who can see every day fine pictures and engravings, can hardly imagine our excitement, when one of my girls has made an accurate sketch from Nature, or copied a wild flower well. As to books, from the bible, first and best, down to the last periodical which the blessed post brings us, you must be cut off from the civilized world, as we are, to know there foul value. Think what it is, during our long days and evenings of unbroken leisure, to be in intimate communion with such spirits as Shakespeare, Milton, Dante, Petrarch, Fenelon, and Cervantes. How often do I bless the education which enabled me to make acquaintance with these authors, and to introduce my children to them.
"And now I feel the full value of my late domestic education, which enables me to enjoy with a quiet conscience, the high and elegant pursuits for which my early instruction alone qualified me. This domestic knowledge, believe me, my dear friend, is the sine qua non."