Have you ever lost yourself in the library? Have you ever felt curious about something, looked up a book on that topic, which led to another and another, and then you went to the shelves and found not only the books you were looking for, but something else fascinating and unexpected? Part of the fun of a library is following all the threads of your interests, and sometimes finding yourself with books that somehow found you, instead of the other way around.

Recently I was telling a friend how much I was enjoying a book that I had happened upon, called The Illustrated History of the Housewife 1650-1950  by Una Robertson.  This author explores each household activity in turn, such as cooking, heating the home, doing the laundry, etc., and describes exactly how it was done. In the chapter on Lighting, she finally explained to my satisfaction the confusion around the verb “to snuff” a candle. Back when everyone knew all about using candles, to snuff a candle meant to straighten and trim the wick, to adjust the flame.  Every household had candle snuffers, which had tongs on one end and scissors and a tiny receptacle for burning wick ends on the other, and everyone knew how and when to use them. When candles became less common, people no longer had the implements, and “to snuff” began to be understood as “to extinguish.” And, nowadays, none of us knows what to do when the wick gets long and the flame shoots way up!

My friend then recommended a book that she was reading, which takes a scholarly, yet light-hearted, look at the history of  cleaning house, titled Biting the Dust: The Joys of Housework, by Margaret Horsfield. The photo of a magazine advertisement from the 1930s which shows a woman pouring a  cleaner down her toilet, dressed in an evening gown, pearls and orchid, just to show you how easy it is to be antiseptic, is compelling. Both of these books sparked my interest in the home making standards of yesteryear, and so I searched on the library catalog under the subject “Home Economics.”  Naturally, I got a list of hundreds of titles, most of them fairly recent, on all sorts of household hints. But since I was not interested in how Heloise plans meals or how Joey Green polishes his furniture with panty hose, I limited the list to only titles published before 1935 (if you don’t know how to do this, just ask the librarian—we’d be glad to show you!).  Now this list looked fascinating, so I immediately placed holds on a few of them. 

The Labour-Saving House by Mrs. C. S. Peel was published in London in 1917. Electricity was not yet available in the average home, and home makers had to spend a great deal of time and labor to cook, heat water, and keep their home lighted and warm. The author envisioned a time soon to come when electricity would be available just like water, by turning a tap, and the work done by housewives would be easier, cleaner and take far less time.  Doesn’t that make you appreciate your appliances?

Home Labor Saving Devices by Rhea C Scott,also published in 1917, is full of simple gadgets a handy person could build, for various useful purposes. One was called a “cellarette” and was used to keep perishable food cool through a constant evaporation process. How easy it is nowadays to toss something in the freezer or refrigerator, but what a challenge to keep food from spoiling in those days! Another of her projects is one that people today still use, called a “fireless cooker.” It was very handy to use in the summer so that you would not have to heat up your kitchen for hours with a fire in the cookstove.    

There were many more amazing books, some of which had not circulated in decades. It was like time travel, reading about the practical advice given to homemakers of the past, and imagining the simple details of everyday living. Your entire library is waiting for the spark of your curiosity to reveal volume after volume of the unexpected. Come on in and let a book (or 10 or 20) find you!  ~ Karen S.

3 thoughts on “Housekeeping”

  1. Hello, John,
    I heartily recommend “Never Done” also–that was a fascinating book. I will place a hold on “Perfection Salad”–thanks for the recommendation!

  2. Oh yes “Never Done was incredible. As much social history as a history of “housework,” I remember being astonished when it first came out. I had no idea that housework was worthy of historical treatment. And then I had to laugh when a few years ago (1999 I think) “Home Comforts – the art and science of keeping house” by Cheryl Mendelson hit the shelves. It was like reading a mirror image of these histories of housework. I guess some people still measure themselves by the perfection of their clean house. I’d never dare invite them over for dinner.

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