November 12, 2013

Child: true economy of housekeeping

Lydia Maria Child had only been a wife for about a year and a month when, on November 12, 1829, she published The Frugal Housewife (later renamed The American Frugal Housewife). The book was a huge success and was republished in dozens of editions over the next few years. It was dedicated "to those who are not ashamed of Economy." That purpose begins in the first sentence of the introduction:

The true economy of housekeeping is simply the art of gathering up all the fragments, so that nothing be lost. I mean fragments, of time, as well as materials. Nothing should be thrown away so long as it is possible to make any use of it, however trifling that use may be; and whatever be the size of a family, every member should be employed either in earning, or saving money.

In the pages that follow, Child offers tips on removing stains, on cooking, common injuries or illnesses, and "how to endure poverty," all in a world without running water. Her writing is almost stream of conscious, quickly shifting from one scrap of advice to another without particular attention to theme or organization. This lack of organization drew the attention of critics, including Sarah Josepha Hale, but what really bothered Hale was the book's obsession with money — or, more accurately, with its implication that women should be obsessed with saving money. As she wrote:

Now we do not think that either in earning or saving money consists the chief importance of life... Our men are sufficiently money-making. Let us keep our women and children from the contagion as long as possible.

Hale went so far as to suggest that Child was underqualified to write such a book as she did not yet have children. Nevertheless, the book went into at least 35 editions and was later reissued in a modern version which remains in print in the 21st century. Perhaps Child would have answered her critics with this quote from page 6:

The writer has no apology to offer for this cheap little book of economical hints, except her deep conviction that such a book is needed. In this case, renown is out of the question, and ridicule is a matter of indifference.

For some of the information in this post, I am indebted to Carolyn L. Karcher's work The First Woman in the Republic: A Cultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child (1998).

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