The housekeeper of the 1920s had it made.
No longer did she need to polish her stove regularly with black graphite. Treatments with special cleansing oil were all that were needed to keep her modern stove rust-free.
Her new refrigerator had a seamless lining, freeing her from the daily chore of scrubbing the icebox with boiling water so food wouldn’t accumulate in the seams.
Her linoleum floors needed only weekly waxing; her family’s mattresses, just a weekly turning.
Life was comparatively easy in the ’20s, or so it probably seemed to the readers of the 1924 book Good Housekeeping’s Book on the Business of Housekeeping.
Canton resident Charlene Poulos unearthed a copy in the 1980s, when she was cleaning out decades’ worth of accumulation from the home that had housed her grandparents and then her father. She was so intrigued by its antiquated advice that she eventually decided to make it the subject of a program that she presents to organizations, nursing homes and the like.
Poulos portrays the author, Mildred Maddocks Bentley, who started the Good Housekeeping Institute and was editor in chief of Good Housekeeping magazine. Bentley was the Martha Stewart of her day, a respected voice on cooking, housekeeping and other aspects of what was then considered women’s work.
And work it was.
The typical housekeeper of the era kept a strict schedule: laundry on Mondays; mending on Tuesdays; cleaning of the silver, pantry and icebox on Wednesday; and on and on. Those were just the weekly chores, which were added to an exhausting list of daily tasks that Bentley outlined this way:
• Open the doors and windows.
• Tidy up.
• Set the breakfast table.
• Sort the mail and put it in its proper piles.
• Serve breakfast promptly at 8 a.m.
• Wash the silverware after breakfast so it wouldn’t stain.
• Provide “routine care” of the living room, whatever that meant.
• Wash the breakfast dishes.
• Dust the living room floors.
• Water the plants.
• Fill the dog’s dishes.
• Dust the furniture.
• Use the carpet sweeper.
• Fill the flower vases.
• Go upstairs and tidy those rooms.
And that’s nothing compared to the springtime chore of cleaning the cellar, a filthy fiasco that included cleaning the furnace of soot, removing the pipes, coating them with asphalt paint for storage and whitewashing the walls, the furniture and all the other surfaces.
Luckily, many housekeepers weren’t forced to labor alone, Poulos said. Commonly the lady of the house had help — often a married couple, with the wife serving as the cook and laundress and the husband as the houseman.
Bentley was an advocate of modern conveniences, such as gas or electric ranges with temperature-controlled ovens and vacuum cleaners — an attainable luxury when bought on credit for $3 down and $2 a month, she noted in her book. She marveled that a phone call could be made from Los Angeles to New York, but at $26.17 for a 10-minute call, she suggested using an egg timer to keep the call to three minutes.
But modernity hadn’t quite reached the laundry room yet. Bentley’s recommended laundry routine involved removing stains, washing, rinsing, dipping clothes in bluing, starching, drying, sorting, mending, sprinkling and ironing — and that’s just if no one in the house was sick. Illness brought the added task of cleaning the patient’s handkerchiefs, bedclothes and other items by boiling them in a copper pot and stirring them with a stick.
Poulos finds all the rigmarole amusing, but she’s glad she gets to return to the 21st century when her programs end.
“A lot of people at the end of my talk say, ‘My goodness, I’m exhausted,’ ” she said with a laugh.
Their front loaders and dishwashers probably never looked so good.
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also become a fan on Facebook, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckenridge and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.