A Celebration of Women Writers

"Woman and Household Labor." by Mrs. Mary Hess Hull.
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. 609-611.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 609] 




Labor is getting thoughts into things; subduing the earth; gaining dominion over matter. The commission to do this was given to man–male and female. God labored; at least brought forth, produced the earth about us. He then gave it to us to be completed by "the sweat of the brow." The brute labors, but it is by instinct, or when harnessed to man's thought. The brute works without thought. But man's labor, to be real labor, must be intelligent and it must be free. It must be skilled and wise and true; differing in kind, as individuals differ, as nations and sexes differ. The home has done everything for the world and its civilization and industry, but somehow the working powers of the home have not received their share of attention from either man or woman. It has, however, held its own, and proved its mighty right to life through wars and pestilence, famine and neglect. But its running machinery is all out of keeping with the times. The burden is simply immense, and "will not down." It can upset all the tranquillity and power and the blessing of the home. We want to entertain our friends, we want to enjoy our books, we want to eat our food under spiritual social artistic conditions, but it all costs labor, skilled labor, real labor, yet there seems to be no real place for it; no time for it; nobody wants to do it; and today it is the only labor in all the wide world of industry that goes begging. Every other field is overcrowded, while men and women are begging for work. Somehow there is friction, lack of skill, no right division of housework, no regular hours; it is not a profession, it has no name, not even a trade. It is really the only labor left over from barbarous times which is done by so-called "servants" instead of laborers.

All American life, all true life, is or should be a service from the President down, but we speak of street-car drivers, diggers, statesmen, coach men, teachers or preachers, but "servants" in household labor. Somehow this is all wrong; it seems there ought not to be any housework at all; we don't like to see it, nor hear of it, nor do it; a man or woman can work in a shop or in the field, and not feel the same friction and worry and pinch that he does at real work in the home. Home seems to be the one place to love and live in; is this why work is an intruder? Husband and children do not like to have mother forever at work; hence the rule has been for her not only to be sure to do it and to do it all, but also not to annoy others with it. She must always have it out of the way, and her slippers and smiles on, and by some magic appear unto men not to fast or to suffer, nor to be tired or worried like other folks. There must be some [Page 610]  way to overcome all this friction. The same science and thought must be brought to bear upon this peculiar problem that is brought to bear upon other problems.

Women are in need of training; they have been drudges and slaves from time immemorial, but they have never been laborers, skilled and respected as men; that time is only at hand. Women will find, as men have, that the very best way to get work out of the way is to do it in the very best way, and before we know it, the very doing of it in the best spirit, we have grown in wisdom and in stature. We have become educated in body, soul and spirit–"we kiss the rod" and thank God and work. How familiar that man of Nazareth was with the smallest details of labor in the house, and out of it. How well he knew the miracle of the yeast, the leaven in the lump. He knew the light of the house couldn't shine if it was under a bushel, or any other sort of a smothering lamp-shade, but instead it must be on top of things and shine out. There was the salt, worthless if it had lost its savor; there was the garment not worth patching, and the wine bottles too old to be used.

And how the daily bread problem must have pressed upon this family of Nazareth! There was the carpenter's bench which must have helped that out. How strange to think of how this Master of material things so conquered that He brought the very kingdom of Heaven into them. There was ministry and service and capability, and love in labor, not that which must be ministered unto. Only Mary can ever know all that must have taken place in that wonderful home. So dignified was the patient labor of love there that our homes can never be the same since the labor problem was taken up by this Son of Man, and conquered. Christian civilization has brought more labor into our homes than it has taken out. According to short-sighted people, it would seem as though so much had gone out that our homes ought to be eased of much of their labor. Spinning, weaving, threadmaking, grinding of wheat, tailoring, have all had birth in the home, and gone out, and it would seem that the home might be thus relieved. Life and industry are alike, always begetters of more and more of their kind. The object of life is more life, and so it is with industry. The home has been the cradle of almost every industry, and it does not seem as though the cradle was as yet ready for the garret. Industry and trade grow and thrive on the wealth of the human wants, and we must get away down into the "whys" and "wherefores" of the present day life before we can begin to understand what most troubles us as women and as housekeepers.

See the good man of today; nothing so burdens him as his wife's housework. He stands by like a great gentle animal ready to lay down his life, pocket-book and all, on the altar of the labor problem of the home; he has the greatest task in the world on his hands, and it is killing him as well as her. See the difference between any butcher's shop and his home. The husband superintends one and the wife the other. The labor of one is systematically arranged, every sort of convenience put in it; it is made attractive in every way, the best tools are in it, and pleasantness and order reign. Why? Because of the money there is in it. The home is not systematically arranged, every sort of convenience is not put into it; order and pleasantness does not reign, for the woman is doing a hundred different things, and none of them thoroughly, skillfully. Why? Because there is no money in it, nothing is to be made out of it. The wife's work and care is looked upon as being a sort of nonentity; it is a small business; the sermons are all preached at him, not her. The work is not considered a trade or a profession; it has no commercial value, it has no name. If she signs her name to anything which asks her even what her occupation is, she has none, though we know she has worked fourteen or fifteen hours every day and Sunday since she has been homekeeping, so it goes, and what is to be done? The first thing to do is to elevate the work and in order to elevate it, it must be done well. In order to do it well, we must think well. The best methods invented by you or me, or by our grandmothers or by men, must come to the surface. Mr. Atkinson, the inventor of the Aladdin oven, says he spends most of his time overcoming "the inertia of women in using any new device," She blindly refuses to do anything but obey the old way, [Page 611]  even when somebody thinks it up for her. But it is fast changing; woman can think, and she is going slowly to get about it. Freedom and responsibility go hand in hand. Our liberty is going to cost us something. We must work; we must get the order of work; we must love the law of labor. Labor is the law of development, the law of progress, and we must work freely, without let or hindrance from any mortal source. This ugly labor problem in our sacred institution the home, is perhaps our first great problem. It ties us hand and foot–just now–we must first learn the great lesson of labor, its laws, its base of energies and its productive nature, its blessedness, and its mission to us.

We must capture its life, appropriate its strength by overcoming it; we must master it, make it a joy, reduce it to order and system. This takes study and time and opportunity, but every one of us can have a hand in it, each in her own way, in her own life. Think, plan, experiment, invent, investigate, get the best method. Support and organize training schools. Make our work what other work in the world is, a science and an art. There is a law and order method in housekeeping. It is a mark of most joyous hope for our future that what Frances Power Cobb said some years ago is fast coming true. Said she: "It is not high genius, but feeble inability to cope with domestic government, which generally inspires the women who wish to abdicate the throne of home and take to the homeless American boarding house, or to the continental pension." Our women of genius are not abdicating home, and our most highly educated women are the ones who are awakening to these facts. They study to make housework not a thing of drudgery, but the sacred intelligent foundation of all other arts, and that it is the "houseband" that keeps the home together. Home arts succor nourish, and bless mankind in every way.


The sweetest lives are those to duty wed,
   Whose deeds, both great and small,
Are close-knit strands of an unbroken thread
   Where love ennobles all;
The world may sound no trumpets, ring no bells,
The Book of Life the shining record tells.

Thy love shall chant its own beatitudes
After its own life-working. A child's kiss
Set on thy sighing lips shall make thee glad;
A poor man served by thee shall make thee rich;
A sick man helped by thee shall make thee strong;
Thou shalt be served thyself by every sense
Of service which thou renderest.

Mrs. Browning.

[Page 609] 

Mrs. Mary Hess Hull is a native of Ohio. She received her education in a Young Ladies' Academy. Under the direction of an educated Scotchman she studied and read extensively. She married young and is the mother of six children, to whom she is a close companion and a devoted mother. Her special work, outside of her home life, has been in the interest of temperance and purity. Her principal literary works are "Columbus and What he Found," for children, and "Lectures and Studies in Robert Browning's Poetry." She is director of the Department of Domestic Arts in Armour Institute, in Chicago, where she hopes to solve some of the domestic and social problems of the times. She is a member of the Congregational Church. Her address is Armour Institute, Chicago, Ill.


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.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Kelly McDonald.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom