Keeping house

Christine Hennebury
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Use ideas from the past to make housework go more smoothly

Most people today have a neverending to-do list, and adding housework to it seems impossible. It leaves modern housekeepers to wonder how people in the past managed to get everything done.

Agnes (Aunt Dot) Heffernan, 85, who was the youngest girl in a family of eight growing up in Colliers, makes an important point about the difference between housework in the past and housework today.

Most people today have a neverending to-do list, and adding housework to it seems impossible. It leaves modern housekeepers to wonder how people in the past managed to get everything done.

Agnes (Aunt Dot) Heffernan, 85, who was the youngest girl in a family of eight growing up in Colliers, makes an important point about the difference between housework in the past and housework today.

"Back then you really were a homemaker, that's for sure. Everything was homemade. But that was their life. They didn't have much of a social life, they went to church on Sunday and in the summer, a garden party was the social event for the community."

So, doing work around the house wasn't fitting extra tasks into a busy life, it was the main work of a given day. In the subsistence economies of the past, almost every job was important to a family's well-being, whether it was fishing, cooking or creating warm quilts from scraps of cloths. And all the work had to be scheduled and organized to make the most of time and (often limited) financial resources.

Work around the house was generally divided by gender, and the whole family was expected to contribute. As Heffernan notes, "Boys did outdoor work and looked after the animals. Girls did housework, made beds ... did dishes, and were responsible for younger siblings from a very young age. Depending on the time of year, you also had to look after the vegetable garden, or help make hay."

Schedule

The household followed a schedule that made sense for the week. Everything had to be clean for Sunday, a day of rest, so the week was planned to accommodate that.

Generally, there were specific tasks allocated for each day. For example, in Heffernan's family, like in many others, laundry was done on Mondays.

"Laundry was done on Mondays because there was always enough food cooked on Sunday for lunch on Monday, so you had a 'free' morning."

With eight kids in her family, laundry required a lot of water, which had to be hand drawn, brought to the house and boiled in an enormous pot. The clean laundry would then be ironed on Tuesday.

HildaxChaulk Murray, author of "More than 50 per cent: Woman's Life in a Newfound-land Outport," recalls that her mother was a little more flexible about when laundry was done, preferring to wait for a fine day. But she still had a regular schedule for the week, washing the kitchen floor and porch on Wednesday and Saturday, for example. And she would get Murray to help, asking her to clean the floors upstairs on Fridays after school.

"I don't recall using a mop; I used a cloth and bucket. And I rushed through as fast as I could so I could read a little bit."

Winter projects

In winter there was some downtime, when outside work was limited; women took advantage of that time to make some important household goods such as quilts and mats.

And since they wouldn't dry properly in winter, cleaning the quilts and mats was a major project for the spring.

Murray says, "You took all the mats you had down to the bridge. You would dip up water in a bucket, and use sunlight soap and a brush to scrub mats on both sides. Then you would take them to the beach, dip them into salt water. The salt water would set the colours. (Then the mats would be) hung up on fence or laid flat on a flake."

Homemakers also had a plan for meals. Families usually ate a large meal at noon and a smaller one in the evening. In Heffernan's family, like in many others, the evening meal was based on leftovers from dinnertime which would save both money and preparation time.

"You cooked dinner, and made sure there was enough left over for supper. If you made salt-fish for dinner, you had fish cakes for supper. If you had Jiggs' dinner, you had hash for supper. Two meals were cooked in one."

Past is passed

Murray notes that people these days tend to be worried about getting housework done. But, she says, the flow of life was different in the past, and people can't get caught up in trying to recreate it.

"I remember my mother used to bake beans on a certain day of the week. Of course, in an iron pot they were in the oven all day. I bake beans, it takes 40 minutes. I use a pressure cooker.

"We really have to take stock of things. They had the heat on anyway, so meals could be made slowly. But that's no longer convenient."

Instead, we should enjoy the fact that we can use a different type of multi-tasking.

"I'm one who will embrace change; if there is a quicker or more efficient way of doing things, I'll do it," Murray says.

"In the old days they didn't have all the quick ways of doing things, now you can have your clothes washing while you do ironing or reading."

Murray takes a relaxed approach to keeping house, laughing at her own habits. "Two or three things done for you and still I never get housework done.

"My belief is ... try to keep on top of it, but don't worry if you don't manage to get done what you ought to have done. Everyone is in the same boat."

My belief is ... try to keep on top of it, but don't worry if you don't manage to get done what you ought to have done. Everyone is in the same boat.

Hilda Chaulk Murray, author, "More than 50 per cent: Woman's Life in a Newfoundland Outport"




Tips from the past?

Modern housekeepers might want to take a step back to see where they can simplify things by using the past as a guideline:
Could the household tasks be organized by day and by season?
Scheduling tasks means they will get taken care of in good time, and housekeepers don't have to worry about when they will get done. And it is a lot less overwhelming to break the tasks down day by day than trying to tackle them all at once.
Can everyone have a group of tasks that they manage?
Since gender is no longer an automatic dividing point (luckily!), housework can be divided according to the preferences of household members.
Could meals be planned in advance (even in a vague way) so supplies are on hand when needed?
Grocery shopping is a lot cheaper when a list is made with specific meals in mind.
Would it be possible to cook groups of meals by ingredients, possibly freezing an extra portion to use another day? For example, if you double a spaghetti recipe, it is no more trouble to cook, and you can use the rest another day. Or if you were to cook a double batch of ground beef, you could use half for spaghetti and freeze half for chili another day.

Geographic location: Colliers

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