The Ways of Her Household by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Ulrich argues that housekeeping can be a challenging, complex task requiring real skill and intelligence. How so?

At the beginning of the essay, Ulrich sets out the details of some of the daily chores that women in Colonial America performed each day. Unlike the electronic amenities and appliances available to women in modern times, the colonial era was not technologically advanced. As a result, apparently simple activities such as cooking and cleaning took up lots of time and energy. And contrary to common beliefs, these tasks required real skill and intelligence. For example, colonial housewives were experts who understood the “ticklish chemical processes which changed milk into cheese, meal into bread, malt into beer, and flesh into bacon.” (Ulrich, p.48) Further, “preparing the simplest of meals required both judgment and skill…The most basic of housewife’s skills was building and regulating fires – a task so fundamental thtat it must have appeared more as habit than craft. Summer and winter, day and night, she kept a few brands smoldering, ready to stir into flame as needed.” (Ulrich, p,47) Simple as these activities might sound, one becomes an expert in them through long and arduous training during their formative years. Often times, women use intuition and common sense to supplement the skills they leart from their mothers and aunts to carry out these complex and challenging household tasks.

Given that the colonial society was an agrarian society, the housewife’s domain extended “from the kitchen and its appendages, the cellars, pantries, brewhouses, mikhouses, washhouses, and butteries which appear in various combinations in household inventories, to the exterior of the house, where, even in the city, a melange of animal and vegetable life flourished among the straw, husks, clutter and muck”. (Ulrich, pg. 45) In order to handle all of these places on an everyday basis and single-handedly requires high skilfulness and presence of mind – both qualities women in colonial America possessed in abundance.

How did colonial American women participate in economic activities that helped sustain their families, even if they did not have a job outside the home? In other words, what sort of things did they do?

The importance and complexity of women’s contributions were not acknowledged due to the subordinate status assigned them by society and also due to the fact that their activities were confined within household limits. Whereas men, by virtue of involving themselves in more conspicuous labor activity in the open farms were easily recognized as the breadwinners and providers for their families. While men were the obvious bread-winners for their families, the role of women in Colonial America has conventionally been under-rated and poorly acknowledged. And also, while government bureau statistics took into account the economic activity of men, it does not take into account indirect and subtle economic contributions made by women. But a glimpse into the latter’s daily routines gives an idea about the economic worth of household work. For example, preparing breakfast and lunch for the entire family is a productive economic contribution, in that it aids and enables the men of the family to go out to their farms and work. After early morning milking, the choice for breakfast “featured prepared foods or leftovers – toasted bread, cheese, and perhaps meat and turnips kept from the day before, any of this washed down with cider or beer in winter, with milk in summer. Only on special occassions would there be pie or doughnuts.” (Ulrich, p.52)

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