A Celebration of Women Writers

"The Evolution of Home." by Miss Juliet Corson.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 714-718.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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Through the oldest race-records we may trace the origin of home to the hearth-fire kindled by women. Today, among the races remote from civilization in the South Pacific Islands, we find women making fire by the friction of dry wood. In the United States Government Building the Indian fire-drill is shown in the Ethnological exhibit, which was the usual means of kindling flames in all the tribes of our continent. It is the same implement as the fire-drill used by the Brahmans of Asia in lighting the sacred fire. Its use is so ancient that its origin is not recorded, but its Sanscrit name, Pramatha, which means "to bring forth by friction," is the root of the word Prometheus, and the story of that immortal thief is but a new version of the myth of the god Agni; the heavenly fire forced to come to the service of man. Women have always been the custodians of the precious element. Nearly every early religion had its fire cult, the most beautiful virgins being its ministers; our own generation has found them in Tasmania, and the Onondaga Indians have the women make the fire of the White Dog feast with the fire-drill, a little rod twirled within a disc of dried wood until both burst into flame. Well might a woman's cunning hand have achieved that miracle of patience as she brooded her young in some rude shelter of a desolated world, racked by the rage of elemental storms; torn by some furious destruction, some such tremendous cataclysm as is recorded in the earliest traditions of every race. The Asiatic traditions say that such cycles of destruction occur every six thousand years, and that another is now nearly due. The Aztec writings specify four such catastrophes when the human race was almost blotted out; their greatest religious ceremonial was a solemn sacrifice and supplication to the supreme God that his people might be spared the awful fate that had befallen their ancestors; and the relighting of the sacred fire was the visible token of their present immunity.

Women, as priestesses, formed a conspicuous part of this imposing ceremony as they did in all national functions. To them the relighting of the fire of promise was an office of memory and hope–memory of that fearful time when the little children were torn from the shelter of their mothers' bosoms, while the heavens seemed falling upon the earth, and in the faint reflection of the far-off "morning star," that burning mountain of terrible death, they taught them the first words of that passionate cry for mercy; that agony of supplication, which echoes in the prayer raised from trembling [Page 715]  lips, while the prostrate people watched for the fire-drill's tiny thread of smoke which meant another generation of safety.

Plato's "One Dreadful Night and Day" is an echo from the other side of the world of this terrible terrestrial overturning which is described in the Central American sacred books, and possibly in our Old Testament's oldest book, fearful pictures of a broken and blasted humanity wandering, heartsick, about a ruined world. Such terrors as they must have suffered confront us, written upon primeval rocks in characters of fire, to be read by the eye of science after the meaning of these prayers is lost to the race that has preserved the words of supplication. Despairing of saving even life amidst this wreck of the world, the dying souls uttered this cry to their gods for rescue from the tempest of fire and molten stones that seemed pouring upon them from Heaven; the very abode of God–"the God by whom we live; who knoweth the thoughts and giveth all gifts; one God of perfect perfection and purity, under whose wings we find repose and a sure defense." Sorely tortured souls, they poured out their agony for refuge as we today would beseech our God for protection should some awful convulsion of nature shake these white shining walls down upon our devoted heads.

Mothers, you who have little children at home, go presently through the stately avenues of our White City, from this Memorial Hall of the women of today to another, dedicated to the memories of our vanished American civilizations, and regard their relics; poor shreds and patches of humanity, and yet so eloquent of mother-love, for who but a mother would have swathed those small bodies in softest feather cloth, and placed in the little hands food for that last long spirit-journey upon which no mother compassion can brood over the infant soul. From the cañon of the Mancos, through the temples and palaces of Yucatan, wife-love and mother-love can lead us back to ocean-buried Atlantis, the plains of Aasgard and the Islands of the Blest, which Poseidon planted in the midst of his watery realm for his mortal love. Always woman, and always motherhood, for this was the cradle of the race hidden within the dark and misty Mare Tenebrosum. Veiled in the mist of ages, save for these fleeting terrible echoes, still we may read the mother's tortured heart. Where there had been a fruitful earth, brilliant with the light of fair and tranquil days, and where were safe and happy homes, she saw only desolation and ruin, "little children perishing with hunger and none to give them consolation or caress, suffering for the sins of their fathers." This cry was cruelly wrung from the broken spirit, "Death is Thy messenger, so powerful that none may escape. But, O most pitiful Lord! at least take pity and have mercy upon the children!"

Then, when after the whirlwind and the tempest of fire came the deluge and the icy rains, can you not see the stricken fragment of humanity huddled in some cavern, perhaps sore pressed by equally terrified beasts in the mad rush for refuge; or beneath some overhanging rock-shelter, striving to maintain the vital warmth? Do not believe that man, the creature of God's sunlight, was first a cave-dweller from choice. The cavemen who carved the reindeer's figure upon the animal's horn, and etched the portrait of the mammoth upon one of the creature's tusks, were too deft of touch, too certain of skill to be habitual dwellers in the dim light of caverns. If archaic art means anything more than accident it means that men and beasts, without conflict, were rushed into the nearest shelter from terrible and sudden peril that admitted of no choice in the chances of escape. It means that the cave-dwelling was of long continuance; and, taken with other circumstances familiar to the student of pro-glacial history, both in the record of the rocks and in the traditions of the earliest religions, it implies a decided civilization already flourishing. The ancient British record says: "The patriarch distinguished for his integrity was shut up, together with his select company. * * * Presently a tempest of fire arose. It split the earth asunder to the great deep * * * and the waters covered the earth." All this overthrow of the foundations of nature in consequence of the profligacy of mankind. That very evil state implies a knowledge of the luxuries of life. There could not well be profligacy [Page 716]  in a state of Spartan simplicity. From the safety of a luxurious home to the wild front of the cyclonic storm in the twinkling of an eye the woman was borne with her children. If ever it were her province to comfort and console now would come the test. Well might the strongest man sink under profound discouragement, since from the apparent sovereignty of nature he had fallen to be its slave, the very sport of the elements. Then indeed was woman's task pre-eminently to soothe and cheer; to rouse his flagging vigor, to claim his utmost efforts, to send him forth to seek through the waving elements the scant sustenance still afforded by the desolated earth half buried under the débris of celestial and terrestrial wrack. And although the outside world seemed on fire, in those cavern recesses, dark and gloomy depths within the earth, fire seemed the first necessity, the treasure most desired, the sole reminder of those lost blessings, the light and warmth of home. Then it must have been that the fire-drill was invented or remembered? For who shall say through how many such cataclysms this earth has passed? The Aztec records say the next will destroy the world of existing civilizations. For the direct connection of the last with the relighting of the Sacred fire of the Aztecs we are indebted to Mme. Alice Le Plongeon, who has translated from the Maya language the story of the destruction of the land of Mr. Plato's Atlantis. Geology shows more than one such convulsion; and the falling of Java head, and this year's terrible Persian earthquake give proof of the activity of the internal fires.

In the bed of the Atlantic Ocean, near where the twenty-fifth meridian from London crosses the equator, there exists a submarine volcano or earthquake belt, the explosions or shocks of which agitate the waves to such an extent as to seriously menace all vessels sailing near. What the evidence of today has verified must have been terrific in its effect. In those desolated margins of the world which had escaped destruction the first faint flame upon the rude cavern-hearth must have been cherished as the thing most desired. And when the earth gradually became staple, and the scant gleams of light returned across the sky, when the hollow in the rock could be moss-lined, and sheltered by a pent-roof of reeds, it was the woman's hand that gathered at the fireside the fruits of the long day's search or toil. When the scarred earth once took on the aspect of life renewed from the invisible source of things, hers it was to foster the germs of vitality outcoming from the war of the elements. As the gloom of the primeval storm was pierced by the shining lances of the sunlight she might dare to venture from the shelter of rock or cave to search for some edible root; or, following the trail of the few animals or birds that had strayed within her racked borders from the confines of some undestroyed land, to gather the seeds they might let fall or the eggs they might nest, or perhaps to find the young of this returning life. Some spoil of the chase surviving its wounds, and fostered by her, might become the firstling of her domestic flock, from whose hair or fleece her cunning hand could contrive a garment as boon inestimable. A few seeds falling to the ground and flourishing might grow into the first new harvest. Let us consider. As the woman grows helpful she grows strong; her old spirit returning. She bears her share of the cultivation of the soil, the building of the house, the clothing of the family. She is again the helpmate and co-worker with man, as she is fabled in the Golden Age pictured in the legends of every country.

The hearth-fire built, the harvest garnered, the game brought to the fireside, the next step in the evolution of home is the development of the art of cookery. The first traces which we find of man's efforts as a cooking animal show that he has progressed only in detail. The pre-glacial man laid hearth-stones, broiled and boiled his meats, and had used tiny scoops to extract the marrow from the bones in ages that have left us but the cave deposits for history. But we know from his own etchings that he drove reindeer, had horses, and carved the handles of his hunting knives; even scenes are rudely depicted, reindeer thrown down and entangled in their harness, and a man driving horses bitten in the heel by a serpent.

This definite character of the early form of cookery comes to us not only through [Page 717]  antiquarian sources, but the conditions of today in remote countries known usually through the works of travelers are shown here, in the World's Fair, by actual investigation of methods among the semi-civilized peoples located with all their native customs and appliances in the Midway Plaisance; they accord with the archæological remains shown in the Anthropological Building in the South Park. Dr. Mary E. Green and Professor Kinsie, with whom the writer was associated on the judges' committee for the examination of food-products, by Prof. W. O. Atwater, made exact investigation of the methods in operation at the native villages; their conclusions accorded with the writer's, which were formed after continued research among the records and relics of the progenitors of these and other so-called uncivilized races. The fundamental principles of cookery are the same among all peoples; those are the best fed who have adhered to slow, moderate heat, and the long-continued process now advocated by modern science. The woman seemed naturally to perform the culinary office; she is fitted for it in all ages and countries, and should comprehend its mysteries for that reason; if other were needed modern medical and sanitary science show how entirely by its agency she can mold the mental and physical condition of humanity. Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes said, thirty years ago, that medical curative treatment would resolve itself into modifications of the food and natural stimuli; and medical science today verifies his prediction. This same modern science repeats the lessons learned by man when he lived closest to the heart of Mother Nature. The stone-age man in the South Pacific still uses the earth-ovens of his forefathers, and the epicures of the Eastern seacoast cook their clam bakes in just such way. This is only one of the parallels afforded by the latest discoveries among the ruined civilizations of this great continent, whose re-discovery we are now celebrating with such pomp and circumstance.

In the last of the great American empires the domestic virtues of women were most highly esteemed. We have already seen that they were prominent in civil and religious capacities, and even the stern Franciscan, Torquemada, who came to Mexico before the conquerors had vanished from the scene of their glory and their shame, says that the Aztec women were an "admirable example for our times, when women are not only unfit for the labors of the field, but have too much levity to attend to their own households." These Aztec women became the mothers of some of Spain's noblest houses. While today we honor the children of Columbus and the memory of Isabella within the precincts of this our City Beautiful, shall we wholly neglect the homage due to merits so transcendent as to stir to enthusiasm that grave Franciscan's heart?

When we leave this Congress let us go to those sections of our White City which contain the sad mementoes of this dead and gone greatness, through the galleries of our Government Building, to the Central and South American sections of the Liberal Arts, to the exhibits of Mexico and Peru; above all, to that vast repository of our country's vanished glories, which overflows with relics of the oldest of the great civilizations of this changeful earth. Let us stand before the remains of this grandest of man's ruined supremacies, and yield the homage of a few short moments to the memories of those noble wives and mothers. A woman's hand will point us to the monuments of that noble wife and queen who raised to her murdered husband's memory one of the greatest mausoleums that ever weighted the bosom of Mother Earth with carven images of human grandeur. Let us follow where Madame Le Plongeon lets in the light of modern day upon the palace and tomb of the queen long dead, dust with the dust she lamented–work well worthy a place in our most beautiful of modern cemeteries. The colors, fresh as when laid upon the walls, show the beautiful queen weeping beside her dead lord; and the superb photographs of Mandsley bear out all that Madame Le Plongeon has written about the Tiger King's wife. These architectural links are no closer than the religious and ethical, which show a degree of enlightenment that will bear comparison with our own.

So far as women are concerned, if the test of their advancement be the degree of [Page 718]  influence they exercise upon their age and the part they play in culture and progress, we may seriously ask ourselves in what respect we have raised the standard of womanly usefulness? And whether we are not in danger of losing sight of the homely virtues of wifehood and motherhood in our strife for public equality with men? If our best and brightest are to be devoted to competition with men in the learned professions, may we not question where the home-makers are to come from to whom we must look for the motherhood of the next generation which shall create our rulers? Without doubt it is sweet and proper to serve one's country in public; but what will result if only dull-witted ones are left to maintain the elevation of the home? In what shall we have excelled the women whose memories we have traced among the relics of their lost civilizations? Shall we, with all the gains of the ages about us, do no more than they have done before us? And if, from the sacred precincts of the home, we can not hope to achieve greater blessings than they gained for their kind, upon what point of vantage shall we plant the lever with which we women hope to move the world?

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Miss Juliet Corson was born in Roxbury, Mass. Her parents were Mary Henderson and Peter Ross Corson. She was educated chiefly in the state and city of New York. She has traveled throughout the United States and British America. Her special work has been in the interest of Domestic Science, Social Economy and Hygienic and Sanitary Dietetics. Her principal literary works are "The Cooking School Text Book," "The Cooking Manual," "Meals for the Million," "Fifteen and Twenty-five-cent Dinners," "Family Living on Five Hundred Dollars a Year," "New Family Cook-book," "Practical American Cookery" and "Household Management." Miss Corson was the first teacher of cookery and the founder of cooking schools in America. She was the first lecturer on domestic economy and teacher of cookery in the public schools of the United States and Canada. She was chosen as director of the Cooking School Exhibit at the Columbian Exposition; was awarded a medal and diploma. Her postoffice address is New York City.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
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Mary Mark Ockerbloom.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom