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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Good Housekeeping & Bad

Today we tolerate a wide range of domestic arrangements. Most families are simply too busy to sit down and eat together regularly, much less clean, dust, or do the laundry according to prescribed standards. In fact, most of us would object to having any authority try to tell us when and how we ought to perform our household chores.

But 100 years ago, conforming to public expectations about such matters was crucially important -- so important, in fact, that housekeeping standards were imposed on recent immigrants and ethnic minorities as requirements for being truly American.

Milwaukee's Lizzie Black Kander defined the "Household Rules" for recent European arrivals in The Settlement Cookbook: "When one course is finished, take the tray in the left hand, and stand on the left side of the person you are waiting upon, and remove with your right hand the spoons, knives and forks. Then remove the plate and small dishes, never piling them on top of each other, but removing them one at a time..." Her sub-text throughout these culinary and domestic instructions is about helping recent immigrants adjust to mainstream American culture.

Paradoxically, the most American of all Americans were subjected to the same treatment. In the manual Some Things That Girls Should Know How To Do..." the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs attempted to guide teachers on reservations and in boarding schools how to help Native American girls behave like middle-class white ones: "LESSON XXXIV. Tea: How to buy. Cost. Place to keep it so that the flavor will not be lost. Care of the teapot. Hot water for tea. Pouring off the grounds before absorption of tannin. Not good for babies or young children. Make and serve."

To be fair, each of these works provides much advice that could be usefully followed in my own house, if only I could find the time in between work, the 8-year-old's play dates, driving the teenagers to part-time jobs, and balancing two careers. If you have time, you can read both of these short works, as well as learn about the assimilation or preservation of ethnic culture, at Turning Points in Wisconsin History - - just don't get so absorbed in them that you forget to dust and vacuum.

:: Posted in Curiosities on June 26, 2008

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