A Celebration of Women Writers

"Household Economics." by Mrs. Laura S. Wilkinson (1843-).
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. 233-237.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 233] 



When the woman's branch of the World's Congress Auxiliary was formed, and a committee was appointed to take charge of Household Economics, I was asked to act as chairman. I am here today to report what has been done in our short history, and what are our hopes and aspirations for the future. The National Columbian Household Economic Association is a direct outgrowth from one of the committees of the World's Congress Auxiliary.

The objects of this association are, as the constitution announces, "To awaken the public mind to the importance of establishing a bureau of information, where there can be an exchange of words and needs between the employer and employed in every department of home and social life. Second, to promote among its members a more scientific knowledge of the economic value of the various foods and fuels, a more intelligent understanding of correct plumbing and drainage in our homes, as well as need for pure water and good light in a sanitarily built house; also to secure skilled labor in every department of woman's work in our homes."

The work of the association was to be done through seven committees. It was not our intention to confine our work to Chicago, and for this reason we adopted the name of "The Columbian Association of Housekeepers." Since, the word "National" was added to it, and by the end of the first year, our secretary's book showed that we had members all the way from San Francisco to Boston, and Texas to Duluth.

The Columbian Association of Housekeepers has held meetings regularly since its organization in 1891. No special program is prepared beforehand; but the secretary announces on her postal what will be the most interesting feature of the meeting.

Essays have been read, plans discussed, in hope of solving the vexed question of "domestic service." We had one small excitement, when at one of our meetings it was announced that all women who belong to the Columbian Association of Housekeepers were to be boycotted by the hired girl. Exactly why, we never have been able to understand. But, in point of fact, we could not find anyone who had refused to work for a member of the association.

The one thing that has been most persistently discouraged in our meetings has been that of relating of personal experiences with the family domestic. As some one has most wittily said: "We have avoided those experience meetings where each one [Page 234]  is eager to relate her own personal grievance, and never willing to listen to another's tale of woe."

Our aim has been to consider the condition of the girl at service, her limitations, her hours of labor, and constantly to ask ourselves if we, in her place, without a special training, could do as well. Failing in our efforts to improve the intelligence offices, we next turned our attention to what could be done toward establishing schools where instruction could be given for housework, and to see what could be done to induce girls to take a three months' course of training before she went out to service.

We found that there were no such schools. To establish one would demand trained teachers, salaries, buildings. etc. And then, where could we find the girl to take this preparatory course when every kitchen is open to her to learn at the employer's expense?

We have brought the topic before the association, committees have been appointed; but the fact is slowly but surely being impressed upon our minds that the fault lies with the housekeeper. Recognizing this, we decided to have a course of lectures on domestic service. These lectures were given by Prof. Lucy M. Salmon, of Vassar College, who brought before us, in a most historical and scholarly way, the condition of domestic service as it now is and has been since earliest time. This was a most valuable course of lectures for those who had made a sociological study of the question, but few women and fewer housekeepers realize the importance of adjusting themselves to the condition of the era they now live in.

Not succeeding in arousing enthusiasm for our school of household science, we next turned our attention to what could be done in the way of establishing a housekeepers' emergency bureau, which is, as its name indicates, to supply temporary help, the employe returning to her home each day. A committee of ladies have charge of this work, look up the references of those who apply for the work, and a book of registration for employer and employe is kept at the office.

On these books are found women wishing and willing to do all kinds of work; sewers, menders, housekeepers, teachers, stenographers, caterers, nurses, scrubwomen and daily governesses, etc.

The monthly reports for the housekeeper's Emergency Bureau constitute one of the most interesting features of our regular meetings, and we have many testimonials testifying to the ability of those who constitute a corps of workers for the Bureau, and we have also had many complaints because we cannot find trained girls. But who will give the time to the work? We need more helpers in our work.

Owing to a continual storm, the attendance was not large at any one meeting; but it was a most enthusiastic audience, and it was voted that another convention should be held the same time and place the next year, it being the sense of the meeting that the Conventions of Housekeepers should be a yearly occurrence.

Early in 1893 the chairman of the food supply committee began her market reports. When these reports were read at our regular meetings, they proved so acceptable that it was voted that the association print them in pamphlet form for distribution. These reports make a general survey of the condition of the markets, both East and west, and contain many valuable hints in regard to purchasing food, as well the most practicable suggestions all the latest improvements in prepared foods are mentioned; and it is usually the case that these preparations have been tested by the one who prepares the report, so that they go out with the recommendation of the association.

The question of what is the advantage of becoming a member of the National Columbian Household Economic Association, is constantly asked.

The first is, because it brings those women who are most interested in the real study of economic problems in closer relation with each other. We aim to put everything upon a scientific and hygienic basis, to understand what is the true economy of time, material and strength, to find out the best ways of performing our daily routine of housework, and to thoroughly understand what is good housekeeping. It is not to be learned in any one course of lessons in cookery. [Page 235] 

While the cooking schools have played a most important feature in the revolutionizing of the preparation of our daily food, still, they have not solved the problem. They have rather added to the complications. However, we wish to do full justice to the work that these schools have done.

The difficulty in this department of women's work is that many of those women who are the best housekeepers do not join with us and give us the benefit of their long years of experience.

If one has found a better way of doing some part of housework, why not share this knowledge with those who are wasting their strength and time by going on in the old way? It is the little things that count in the wear and tear of housework, and the trouble is, so many have not the time to give to the investigation of some shorter and easier way. It is the reporting of these small items which add to the usefulness of an association like ours.

We do not endeavor to suddenly change the existing order of things in our kitchens. The work of the association is not in any sense revolutionary. We do not establish, or try to establish any set rules as to how this work should be done; but, what we do hope to bring about is a more intelligent understanding of the existing condition. First, we must fully understand the case before we can suggest any changes, or make any efforts to remove the cause of dissatisfaction. Each woman in her home, not comparing her method with that of another, has little or no chance of getting out of the dull routine. That there is this routine we think no one will question.

Spasmodically, in our newspapers and in our magazines comes up this outcry of what can be done to obtain a better class of domestic service in our homes. This wave of inquiry goes over the country periodically; but dies down with little or no satisfactory answer.

The justice of the remarks, the correctness of the criticisms made upon the queer way women conduct their household affairs is justly merited. Occasionally, remedies are suggested; but, very little advance is made, and the interest dies down at the end of the year to be taken up by another set of writers before the next ten months have run their course.

It is the hope of this association that the next ten years will bring about quietly and steadily a better state of affairs. For this reason we have adopted the constitution and by-laws. We have carefully considered every line in this long constitution and by-laws, and we feel convinced that no one can question the importance of the objects for which we are organized.

This is said to be an era of women's clubs. But we find it would be easier to organize art clubs, Browning clubs, classes in the study of mediæval art, or even the study of Sanscrit, than to start housekeeper's clubs in our various towns and villages.

The explanation for this state of affairs is, women are willing to let housekeeping drift along in the old way, not recognizing that housekeeping is one of the fine arts, and can only be acquired by study and patient work.

In summing up the year's work last October, one thing which we had pledged ourselves to take hold of, was to establish a school for household science. We had made a study of the plans outlined in the Pratt Institute, of Brooklyn, N. Y. We found this the best of any we had heard of, but with our limited means could do nothing to establish such a school; yet nothing short of that would be satisfactory to us.

In the meanwhile, Armour Institute was started on Thirty-third street, with Dr. Gunsaulus as president, and we soon learned that Armour Institute was to be modeled after Pratt Institute.

Dr. Gunsaulus has recognized the importance of a school of household science, and added that to their curriculum, and in their institute will be given the opportunity for our young girls to become fully instructed in scientific housekeeping. The Columbian Association of Housekeepers is recognized on their advisory council. [Page 236] 

We know what has been taught in the domestic department of Pratt Institute, and will be in Chicago in the Armour Institute.

Those of us who remember all the opposition when training schools for nurses were started take heart, and ask why not do for domestic service what has been done for the sick?

We must stand by our own convictions, and ask women to come forward and furnish the money for the dormitories, where the girls can live while receiving instruction.

When we recognize the fact that the girls in domestic service need the same thoughtful consideration as the girls in shops and offices, then shall be found college settlements springing up to help the servant girls, by establishing clubs and study classes.

It will not break up our homes to have our cooks and our maids come at regular hours to do their work and depart. But it will occasion a more systematic arrangement of all housework, and will ultimately end in establishing a system of co-operation differing from those plans of co-operation which have been tried and found wanting; because, in this new era of co-operation, skilled labor will be demanded in each department, and the work will be done by those who really like the work. Each department will be filled by the workers choosing the work.

Women, as a rule, do not object to housework, but to its many complications; and to be mistress of one occupation demands a long training, while in every home the woman at the head must know how to do fifty things equally well. In point of fact, she does not, and becomes discouraged. She cannot do the things she likes to do, and has to waste her time and strength in doing those things for which she has no aptitude.

It is my conviction that two-thirds of the trouble in having housework done is because the majority will not make a study of the dainty ways of doing the work. There is always a great enthusiasm to receive lessons in cooking; but few or any are willing to learn to wash the dishes and cooking utensils in the most skillful and artistic way.

Artistic way of washing dishes I know will cause a smile; but still, it can be done, and if the methods are carried out it is not drudgery, but a delightful occupation. The simple rules embodied in the kitchen garden manuals, if put in practice in our kitchens, would establish a new order of things, and housework would be done with the least possible friction.

When business methods shall have been established in the kitchen as in the shop, none will be selected for any line of labor save those educated in that line.

A bookkeeper in accepting a situation in a store takes no thought of the duties of a porter, and as little should a person employed as cook those of a chambermaid.

[Page 233] 

Mrs. Laura Starr Ware Wilkinson is a native of Deerfield, Mass. She was born June 20, 1843. Her parents were Edwin Ware and Harriet S. Ware. She was educated in Deerfield schools and Mrs. David Mach's school, Belmont, Mass. She has traveled in England, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and America. She married John Wilkinson, Esq., of Syracuse, N. Y.. November 20, 1867. Her special work has been in the interest of domestic economy. During the World's Fair she was chairman of the Congress of Household Economics, and organized the National Columbian Household Economic Association, which proposes to have a vice-president in each state, and a chairman of Household Economics in each county in each state. In religious faith she is a Unitarian. Her postoffice address is No. 482 La Salle Avenue, Chicago.


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
Mary Mark.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom