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- A Domestic Problem - 9/12 -

great part of their sewing work consists in fabricating "trimmings" which are worse than useless, even considering beauty a use, which it is. Let these simplify their cooking and their dressing, and time for culture will appear, and for them our problem be solved. We preach against the vice of intemperance, and with reason. Let us ask ourselves if intemperance in eating and in dressing is not even more to be deplored. The former brings ruin to comparatively a few: by means of the latter the whole tone of mind among women is lowered; and we have seen what it costs to lower the tone of mind among women. We must remember that not only is the condition of the mother reflected in the organism of her child, but that the child is taught by the daily example of its mother what to look upon as the essentials of life. "I feel miserable," said a feeble house-mother, just recovering from sickness; "but I managed to crawl out into the kitchen, and stir up a loaf of cake." Now, why should a sick woman have crawled out into the kitchen, to stir up a loaf of cake? Was that a paramount duty,--one which demanded the outlay of her little all of strength? This is the obvious inference, and one which children would naturally draw. A lady of intelligence, on hearing this case stated, expressed the opinion that the woman did no more than her duty. Said this lady, "If her husband liked cake, it was her duty to provide it for him at whatever sacrifice of health on her own part."

Now, it seems reasonable to suppose that an affectionate couple would have a mutual understanding in regard to such matters. It seems reasonable to suppose that an affectionate husband would rather partake of plain fare in the society of a wife with sufficient health and spirits to be companionable, than to eat his cake alone while she was recovering from the fatigue of making it.

Speaking of inferences, it is obvious what ones a child will draw from seeing its mother deprive herself of sleep and recreation and reading-time in order to trim a suit _ la mode_. And these inferences of children concerning essentials have a mighty bearing on our problem. Some ladies defend the present elaborate style of dress on the ground that it affords the means of subsistence to sewing-girls. There is something in this, but I think not so much as appears. Go into the upper lofts where much of this sewing is done, and what will you find? You will find them crowded with young girls, bending over sewing-machines, or over work-tables, breathing foul air, and, in some cases, engaged in conversations of the most objectionable character. Their pay is ridiculously small,--a dollar and a half for doing the machine-work on a full-trimmed fashionable "suit." I learned this, and about the conversations, from a worker at one of these establishments. Clothes, especially outside clothes, they must have and will have; consequently the saving must be made on food. Some, too poor to pay board, hire attic rooms, and pinch themselves in both fire and food. They often carry their dinner, say bread, tea, and confectioner's pie, and remain at the store all day. They are liable to be thrown among vile associates; they are exposed to many temptations. They enrich their employers, but not themselves. In dull seasons their situation is pitiable, not to say dangerous. A great number of them come from country homes. Of these, many might live comfortably in those homes, and others might earn a support by working in their neighbors' houses, where they would be considered as members of the families, have good lodging and nourishing food, and where their assistance is not only desired, but in some cases actually suffered for. They prefer the excitements of city life. (Of course, these remarks do not apply to all of them.) Fashionable ladies may not employ shop-girls directly or indirectly, but their example helps to make a market for the services of these girls. Another consideration is, that the poor seamstress who is benefited directly by the money of fashionable ladies is taught as directly, by their example, false views as to the essentials of life; so that what helps in one way hinders in another. All this should be considered by those who bring forward "sewing-girls' needs" as an argument for an elaborate style of dress. Even were this argument sound, it fails to cover the case. A very large proportion of our women have not money enough to hire their sewing done, and it is upon these that the wearisome burden falls. To keep up, to vary with the varying fashion, they toil in season and out of season. Day after day you will see them at their work-tables, their machines, their lap-boards; ripping, stitching, turning, altering, furbishing; complaining often of sideache, of backache, of headache, of aching all over; denying themselves outdoor air and exercise and reading-time,--and all because they consider dressing fashionably an essential of life. With them, what costs only time, health, and strength, costs nothing.

Think of this going on all over the country. Think of the sacrifices it involves. In view of them, it really seems as if those who can afford to hire their sewing done should give up elaborate trimmings just for example's sake. To be sure, this is not striking at the foundation. To be sure, this is not the true way of bringing about a reform. But, while waiting to get at the foundation, would it not be well to work a little on the surface for the sake of immediate results? You would refrain from taking a glass of wine if, by so doing, you made abstinence easier for your weaker brother or sister. Why not consider the weakness of these toiling sisters? It is not their fault that they do not see what are the true issues of life. They have not been wisely educated. If the wealthy and influential would adopt a simple style of dress, their doing so would be the means of relieving many overburdened women immediately, and of helping them to solve the problem we are considering. It is not wicked to dress simply, and no principle would be sacrificed. Neither would good taste. Indeed, the latter is opposed to excessive ornamentation, whether in dress, manners, speech, or writing. Long live beauty! Long live taste! Long live the "aesthetic side"! But simplicity does not necessarily imply plainness, nor homeliness, nor uncouthness. There can be a simplicity of adornment. I am aware that acting for example's sake is not a sound principle of action; but it is a question if it be not duty in this particular case. A lady physician of large practice once said to me, "I see, among poor girls, so much misery caused by this,"--meaning this rage for excessive trimming,--"that I can scarcely bring myself to wear even one plain fold." If it be asked, Should we not also relinquish costly fabrics, and the elegant appointments of our dwellings? it may be answered, that "poor girls" commonly give up these as being entirely out of their reach. They buy low-priced material, and call the dress cheap which costs only their time, their strength, their sleep, and their opportunities for reading and recreation.

We all know that the right way is to so educate woman that she will be sensible in these matters. The external life is but the natural outgrowth of the internal. It is of no use cutting off follies and fripperies from the outside so long as the heart's desire for them remains. This heart's desire must have something better in its place,--something higher, nobler, worthier. This something is enlightenment; and to effect the exchange we shall have to begin at the beginning, and enlighten the mothers. Follies and fripperies, in cooking or dressing, will give way before enlightenment, just as do the skin paintings, tattooings, gaudy colors, glass beads and tinsel, and other absurdities of savage tribes; just as have done the barbaric customs and splendors of the barbaric ages. Woman is not quite out of her barbaric stage yet. At any rate, she is not fully enlightened. The desire for that redundancy of adornment which is in bad taste still remains. In the process of evolution, the nose-ring has been cast off; but rings are still hooked into the flesh of the ears, and worn with genuine barbaric complacency. When women are all wisely educated, our problem will melt away and disappear. The wisely-educated woman will, of her own accord, lay hold on essentials and let go unessentials. She will do the best thing with her time, the best thing with her means. She may conform to fashion, but will not feel obliged to do so. In fact, when women become enlightened, non-conformity to fashion will be all the fashion. Right of private judgment in the matter will be conceded. All women shall dress as seemeth to them good; and no woman shall say, or think, or look, "Why do ye so?" Those having insufficient means and time will be so wise as not to feel compelled to dress like those who have plenty of both.

Meanwhile, as an immediate measure of relief, suppose a dozen or twenty mothers in each town should agree to adopt a simple yet tasteful style of dress for themselves and their little girls. This would lighten, at once, their heavy burden of work, give them "time to read," and would be a benefit to those little girls in many ways.

Another way of immediate escape is by making the present race of husbands aware that their wives are being killed, or crazed, with hard work and care, especially husbands in the small towns and villages, and more especially farmers. In regard to these last, it is no exaggeration to say that their wives in many cases work like slaves. Indeed, this falls short of the truth, for slaves have not the added burden of responsibility. As things are now, the woman who marries a farmer often goes, as one may say, into a workhouse, sentenced to hard labor for life.

When these husbands permit their wives to "overwork," it is not from indifference, but from sheer ignorance. They don't know, they don't begin to conceive, of the labor there is in "woman's work." It is true that neither are merchant-princes aware of what it costs their wives to superintend the complicated arrangements of their establishments; to see that all the wheels, and the wheels within wheels, revolve smoothly, and that comfort and style go hand in hand; but let us consider now the farmers' wives, toiling on, and on, and on, in country towns, East, West, and all the way between. Their husbands, in not a few cases, are able to hire at least the drudgery done, and would if they only knew. A young woman from a New Hampshire village, herself an invalid from hard work, speaking to me of her mother, said, "She suffers every thing with her back. When she stoops down to the oven to attend to the pies, she has to hold on to her back, hard, to get up again." I said, "Why, I shouldn't think your father would let her make them."--"Oh," said she, "father don't understand. He's hard." One day I was sitting in the house of a young woman,--a fragile, delicate creature, scarcely able to lift the baby she was holding,--when her husband came in. He was a working man, tall and robust looking. He walked toward the pantry. "You mustn't cut a pie," the little wife called out laughing. Then turning to me, she said, with a sort of appealing, piteous glance, "He don't understand how hard it is for me to make pies." I know a young woman, not a strong woman, who, with a family of very little children, does her own work, and makes from one to two dozen pies at a common baking, "'cause hubby loves 'em." I know another, similarly situated, who gives her husband pies at breakfast as well as at other meals, because "he was brought up to them at home." Now, all these "hubbies" are loving "hubbies," but--they do not know. A friend of mine, an elderly woman lately deceased, came to her death (so her neighbors said) by hard work. "Killed with work," was the exact expression they used. She was a dear good woman; a person of natural refinement, of strict integrity, of a forgiving spirit, intelligent, sweet-tempered, gentle-mannered; everybody loved her. Her husband is a well-to-do farmer. He inherited money and lands, and has them still. His wife, who was every thing to him, whom he could not bear out of his sight, and for whom, if he had known, he would have sacrificed money and lands, is gone. But--he did not know. "Mother" never complained. "Mother" did the cooking, did the washing, scrubbed the floors. They had "company forever," the neighbors said. "Mother" received, with smiling hospitality, all who came. Help was hard to procure; still help might and would have been procured had the husband known the case to be, as it certainly was, a case of life or death. But--he did not know: so "mother" died of work and care.

A Domestic Problem - 9/12

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