Economy in Hired Labor

This is the fourth article in October of the School for Housewives 1909 series published on October 31, 1909, and is the final article of Marion’s series on economy.

Marion’s views related to hired help do not surprise me as her opnion is reflected in her previous writings on the topic. The same can be said of the educated and working girls of America. It was the matron’s belief that all girls should be taught how to run a home before anything else.

Transcribed from the Sunday edition of the The Buffalo Sunday Morning News.

Economy in Hired Labor

The fourth of a series of articles on the necessities for economy in the time of high prices is presented today. Previous articles were: “A Stubborn Fact,” written with a view to awakening housekeepers to the present necessities for economies; “Economy in Buying” and “Economy in Cooking.”

Marion Harland will welcome letters and suggestions from readers of these articles. Every idea may be a help to some one who wants help.

If I were required to indicate the chief source of wastefulness in the average American household, I should say, without hesitation, “The Hired Domestic.”

The reason thereof is patent. It is older than the Christian era. “Whose own the sheep are not.” The principle of self-preservation informs human motive. It would be folly to expect the hireling to take as good care of our possessions as we do. This is especially true in a country where she is a recognized nomad, here today and nobody knows where tomorrow. A high order of conscientiousness is needed to move one to absolute fidelity to neighbor and employer. And the antecedents of our paid employe do not tend to the cultivation of the finer virtues.

Forbear we, then, to throw the blame of extravagant mismanagement of our property and finances upon the foreign peasant, or the descendant of an enslaved race whom we have promoted to a place upon our domestic staff.

The monumental fact stands fast that she is the most expensive of modern luxuries. A stranger to the responsibilities of the property owner, she knows little and cares less for the value of what has cost the employer more money than she has ever seen in her life. How could it be otherwise? A pearl to a child is no more than a glass bead. Old family silver weighs less in the mind of Bridget-Thekla-Dinah than the gaudy plated ware she gets by hoarding trading stamps stripped from the soap her nominal mistress lays in by the box. Like ignorance of values, fostered by the sight of plenty that is wealth to her unaccustomed eyes, makes her leave the cake of soap to melt in the tub or dishpan when there is a boxful in the storeroom.

A Necessary Evil.

But why waste time and space in proving what is an ever-present and fretting sore in the housewifely soul? Each of us knows that her servants cost her annually so much more than their nominal wages that she dares not allow herself to compute the amount in calculating family expenses. Each of us recalls the calm satisfaction that pervaded her being when, during an interregnum in the domestic dynasty, she did her own work and wondered with exceeding admiration at the way “things” lasted; moreover, how servants contrive to consume so much time in performing the tasks she got out of the way in season to have whole hours of the day for other occupations.

“Granted!” I hear the chorus from a thousand fellow-sufferers. “But we can’t do without them. They are necessary evils.”

The object of this sympathetic talk is to reason together among ourselves as to this necessity. Let me premise that reasoning and talk are not intended for women whose incomes are entirely adequate to the expense of keeping one, two or three of the “evils.” Nor yet for those who have stated occupations and professions sufficiently profitable to warrant remitting housework to competent hirelings. I have in view—as usual—the Mighty Middle Class who must watch the outlay of every dollar and make the dollar do the work of 100 cents. I aim especially to reach families where the daughters have sought situations in shops and factories, leaving the mothers to the mercies of third-rate maids-of-all-work. Call the class, if you will, by the apt title we learned last week from a clever magazine article, “the half-way poor.” The father’s income provides house rent, food, fuel and plain clothing. Florence and Gladys would dress better than the family means warrant. They are fond of a “good time,” and don’t fancy gallery seats at the theatre; and, above all, they like to have money of their very own to spend as they please and no questions asked.

A Strange Preference.

Since I began to reflect seriously upon the subject of this paper I have made it my business to collect data as to the number of young women engaged in shops, officers and mills who are eking out the family income by their labor, and whose parents find the addition to what is made by the men of the household welcome, and even necessary, to a comfortable maintenance. My conclusion, after consultation with employers, superintendents and fellow-workmen, is that, at the lowest computation, one-fifth of these are thus employed from choice rather than from necessity. I have given a summary of the motives that lead them to prefer this kind of work to remaining at home and taking part in domestic duties.

There are large mills in the neighborhood of my country home, and I meet scores of operatives in the late afternoon. We all know the general type of these girls, loud and eager to attract the attention of the men they meet; decked in shabby finery, and all with “wide dispread” coiffures embattling their heads. It is natural that they should be gay and garrulous in the reaction from the routine of daily toil. It is neither natural nor decorous that girls from 15 to 20 should traipse in bonnetless gangs along the public thoroughfares at an hour when all the business world is “homing.” I know the stories of some of them—so many that my heart sickens in the recital—and my wonder grows that mothers of the class of girls represent do not take alarm at the frightful percentage and insist upon keeping them safe at home.

“But that is another story.” I wish to heaven it were less common!

The farmers’ and mechanics’ wives of a former generation never dreamed of other domestic help than they had in their sisters and daughters. Each family was a close corporation, as it is now on the European continent and in many parts of Great Britain. Even where the fever of emigration has unsettled the old order of things, there is always one stay-at-home daughter to take her share in toils for which increasing age is disabling the old mother. It is superfluous to add that Bridget and Thekla contribute steadily and liberally of their earnings in the new world to the support of “the old folks at home.” Witness the incredibly large sums that go through the mails over the sea from foreign servants on this side.

Florence and Gladys are not to be classed with “the foreigners.” They belong to native families; they were graduated from good public schools; they “go” with nice people, including nice young men, and each has the sure and confident expectation of “marrying well” when she has had her fling in what is to her a truly “Society,” with a tall capital letter, as the same word signifies “the best people” to the millionaire’s wife.

“Marrying well” implies the ability to “keep a girl” when the bride becomes a wife. For—and here comes the most pitiful side of the story—not one of the operative daughters, who might live at home if she would, know the rudiments of practical housewifely. A gardener whom I once employed had married a factory girl—a prettyish little doll, who could not broil a steak or make a biscuit to save her life. The husband did the cooking, and spent his evenings at the sewing machine cobbling clothes for the expected baby.

“Keeping a girl” (for Florence and Gladys have not quite attained to the “maid” nomenclature) stands with them for exemption from work they, with other shopgirls, have been taught to regard as degrading. If “Mother” has kept a third-rate specimen of the genus, her daughter will have a fourth-rate specimen of the costly luxury. She is always that! She wastes more of the food bought with honest John’s wages than would have sufficed to feed the Irish or German or Southern old folks and their progeny; and our whilom operative is exceptionally lucky if the girl does not pilfer as well as waste.

Would I “make a household drudge of a fine young creature who is capable of higher aims?”

That was the substance of a reply made by a professor in Hampton Institute to my application for a couple of girls who would work in a country house for good wages during their vacation. I represented, timidly, as I saw the gathering cloud upon the professor’s face, that many college boys are waiters in hotels in the summer, and thus help to put themselves through the course.

“Please recollect that our pupils have higher aspirations than domestic service!” was the opening sentence of the retort that quenched my desire to “lend a hand” to some ambitious and independent learner.

High-Sounding Heresy.

I had a similar, and, if possible, more crushing answer from a noted philanthropist who runs settlements and girls’ clubs in a metropolitan city:

“Our girls have higher ideals than housework!”

It is a marvel that Florence and Gladys should echo the high-sounding heresy? For heresy I hold it to be, in view of the truth that if women d not lean how to keep houses, the home will cease out of the land.

A mother whose bright son is expected to raise the family in the world, as a mechanical engineer, told me pridefully that she had not had a plumber or other mechanic in the house for three years. “Johnny mends all the locks and bells and puts in window glass, and actually takes the range and water pipes to pieces and set them right again. I told his father today that the boy had saved us literally hundreds of dollars in the last four years.

The proud parent has two daughters, one of whom is a stenographer and the other a “saleslady” in a department store. A “girl” is hired to cook, do chamber and general housework and to assist in the washing.

I dare to assert, without asking any questions, that either Florence or Gladys could have saved as much in the four years as Johnny has done, had she remained at home to do all the housework except the washing and ironing and what part is assumed by the patient, white-haired mother. I learned, incidentally, that neither of the girls contributes anything to the family income beyond table board—$5 per week. She could save twice the sum by putting her shoulder to the domestic wheel. Furthermore, she could, by her companionship and care, cheer and prolong the afternoon of life for the parent who is now the sole homemaker.

Safe Doctrine.

I believe firmly, and I have advocated strenuously for 40 years, the doctrine that every girl should be taught some specific business by which she could maintain herself if need demanded. I believe, and maintain yet more warmly, that the acquisition of this knowledge should not hinder her from leaning what no woman can afford not to know; how to order her own house aright in every department. In a little work to which I referred last week, “The Distractions of Martha,” I tried to show that mere theoretical knowledge of cookery and marketing is as sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal in the march of everyday living and doing.

What an important part the study of practical economy plays in this daily walk I have striven to show in this series. What a frightful leak in household expenses is made by intrusting the management of materials, the preparation of food and the disposition of left-overs to one who is, at the best, indifferent to her employer’s interests I could not tell in full were I to write on until strength and space fail me.

“Bridget has a heavy hand with butter.” Yet her cake and puddings are not a whit superior to those her mistress makes when Bridget is off on her vacation or busy with the washing, although one-half of the butter goes into the composition of the sweet. Thekla throws into the swill pail the sour milk that would make enough cottage cheese for luncheon. Dinah “never heerd o’ nobody eatin’ cold cornbread,” and tosses it to the chickens. Her mistress (always and everywhere nominal!) would have toasted and served it, hot and crisp and sweet, for breakfast.

And so on, ad infinium and ad nauseam to the employer who cannot by using every effort, accommodate a non-elastic income to the rising prices.

“Then you would banish hired girls from the home entirely?” I am asked. I am sorely tempted to answer in the bold affirmative, when a tide of experiences and memories surges in upon me. For they, of all our laboring class, suffer least from the general increase in prices and the stand-still of salaries. Let me illustrate:

A cook who had been with me three years, and had her wages raised twice in that time, asked, tentatively, “what I thought” of giving her a third raise.

“Why should I do it?” was my reply.

“Why, you see, ma’am, everything is awful dear. My brother tells me rents are going up dreadful.”

“True. But that affects me—not you.”

She was slightly staggered, but rallied.

“And there’s coal, ma’am. It’s rising every day.”

“I have reason to know that. What difference can it make to you? I pay for heating and lighting my house.”

“But it costs so much to live! Do you know, you can’t get pork chops for less than 16 cents a pound? And they used to be 12.”

“Again, I can see that I am the poorer for the rise in meat. But you get as good board as when prices were down. You don’t have to pay for your food.”

She made a final stand: “At any rate, ma’am, I paid 3 cents a yard more for a gingham dress last week than I ever did before.”

Six months later she married a man, young enough to be her son, who drinks hard. She has now, for the first time, practical demonstration of the increased cost of living.

It is not strange, I repeat, that those whose own the income is not should care little how fast it goes. The responsibility and the suffering are ours. Ours, too, is the duty of lessening the suffering by every intelligent and honest means.

We cannot look for help to our hirelings. That is clear. The prodigal son merely stated an iron fact when he bemoaned himself that in his gather’s house the hired servants had abundance “and to spare.”

So ancient and so well established is the principle that we are ready to rank it among natural laws.

I incline to the suspicion that one unrecorded reason for Sarah’s hard dealing with the bondwoman Hagar was that the latter squandered the barbaric abundance of the wealthy patriarch’s tent.

Marion Harland

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