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The working wife

Food For Thought

It has not been too many years since the “lady of the house” spent her mornings shopping for the day’s groceries. She would visit the butcher shop and the fishmonger to buy the meats for the day’s meals (often dinner, served in the early evening hours), and perhaps sausages, bacon, or a soup bone which might end up as an element in breakfast, lunch, or one of the dinner courses. Her rounds would probably include a visit to the greengrocer where she picked out the day’s fruits and vegetables, fresh, dried, or otherwise preserved depending on the time of year and their availability. A stop at the dairy yielded fresh milk, cream, butter, cheese and (for some reason) eggs. The bakery provided a variety of breads and cakes, and the miller supplied flour, corn meal and other grain products.
If she was lucky, there would be a general grocery store in the area that combined a limited number of products from all or most of the above, plus such “imports” as sugar, coffee, tea and spices. Many households supplied at least part of their grocery needs by raising gardens, keeping chickens for eggs, and even a cow or goats for milk, and it was not uncommon to raise a pig or two, fed partly on kitchen waste and to be butchered to provide pork chops, bacon, and lard for cooking and baking. Housewives frequently made their own butter and fresh cottage cheese. What fruits and vegetables they did not raise at home, they were likely to buy from a farmer and preserve for winter by drying, canning or pickling. With hired help or daughters old enough to help, the average homemaker would have included, in her busy morning, such daily chores as dusting and cleaning, making beds, sewing and mending, with special days set aside for weekly chores like laundry and ironing.
The more enjoyable projects such as embroidery, knitting, quilting, keeping in touch with relatives and friends through letters, and creating decorative touches to beautify the home were considered amusements and activities for her leisure hours and didn’t count as work at all. Depending on where she lived and her husband’s standing in the community, there were certain standards and behavior expected of her. For instance,one did not “go calling” during the morning hours when she should be occupied with shopping and housework, but one should be available to receive visitors or to go visiting in the afternoons. This included, beside strictly social events, such things as club and church women’s meetings and charitable work. Certain standards of dress were required for these occasions, and at one time, the wearing of gloves was imperative.
We all agree that gloves make sense during cold weather, but the necessity for “little white gloves” that survived well into my lifetime had little to do with comfort, health or even fashion—they were the remnant of a particular type of vanity and denial that existed among our mothers and grandmothers.
It seems that in putting on a show of gentility, it was necessary to pretend that one did not stoop to doing one’s own menial chores. Housework was below the dignity of the proud women who were the wives of community leaders, and was to be relegated to hired help (or must appear to be.) The woman with rough, work-worn hands was happy to be able to hide them under gloves. And in summer, only thin, little white gloves were tolerable. Thus it became the norm to wear gloves at all times when one appeared in public. In a misguided attempt to imitate the habits and behavior of the “elite” women of the community, single women and young girls adopted the “little white glove” habit, and it evolved into something that had never been intended.
Today’s homemaker has a much less grandiose view of the importance of grocery shopping. She may stop off on her way home from work to pick up a few things for dinner or tomorrow’s lunchbox, or she make devote an hour to cruising the supermarket, list in hand, to stock up on the ingredients for meals for the next week or ten days. She selects fromseveral brands and varieties of just about everything on her list, in a sometimes wide range of prices. All in the same store, she can pick up a prescription, order a wedding cake, buy champagne for a party, get cleaning and first-aid supplies, mail packages, get the latest book of crossword puzzles, buy fresh or frozen meat and seafood, restock her pantry, send flowers to a sick friend, and take home a complete, ready-cooked meal. And she can attribute this convenience to an idea first implemented in the United States by a man named Michael Cullen. Cullen is credited with originating the first supermarket, which he called King Kullen, in New York City, in 1930.