Housework by the book?

Excuse the mess, but we live here.” — Roseanne Barr

IMG_2347When we moved into our first apartment in 1980, my architect husband and I rarely discussed the delicate issue of housework. Newly married and devoted to our business careers, Doug and I left early for work every weekday morning, tripping over mounds of unfolded laundry and dust bunnies as we headed for the door. We rushed through domestic chores on Saturdays, never quite sure who was responsible for emptying the trash or disinfecting the toilet bowl.

All of this came tumbling back last summer, when I discovered some old books on housekeeping at a second-hand bookstore. Blowing layers of dust from their covers, I was rewarded with some fascinating glimpses of early Americana.

First published in 1924, Good Housekeeping’s The Business of Housekeeping, by Mildred Maddocks Bentley, was a veritable textbook on the domestic arts. Its mildewed, yellowing pages reminded me that household management was once taken seriously. Speaking to young brides, the book covered such topics as “Managing Servants and Housekeepers,” “Dishwashing Three Times a Day,”  “Sprinkling and Folding,” and “The Chemistry of Washing.”

As the book’s title suggested, Mrs. Bentley meant business:  “The good housekeeper must bring to her task of housekeeping every one of the qualities that make for a successful executive in the downtown business world.”


Another artifact, Housekeeping Made Simple (The Homemaker’s Encyclopedia, Inc.), was published in 1952, two years before I was born. Editor Miriam B. Reichl revealed that, after WWII, women had lightened up a bit and were looking for labor-saving methods. The average housewife, after all, no longer employed domestic help.

Reichl’s book contained some amusing black and white photo-illustrations. One showed a woman smiling broadly (and, yes, wearing high heels and pearls) as she demonstrated several ways to use a vacuum. Another shot featured an attractive woman doing laundry in a satin evening gown. Male models were conspicuously absent.

Back in the late ’70s, when I was single and rented my first apartment, books devoted to home economics (or “Home Eck” as my girlfriends called it) were rare — although my friends and I could have used a few tips on stocking a pantry or planning balanced meals. We left housework to the cleaning fairies.

Even today, few men or women admit they enjoy doing anything remotely domestic, unless it makes them as rich as Martha Stewart. Homemaking is messy business, after all — something we’d rather hire someone else to do if we can afford it.

“You keep a house, but you make a home,” observes anthropology professor Mary Catherine Bateson in Composing A Life (Plume/Penguin). “As we free the ideas of home and homemaking from their links to old gender roles, we can now also draw on metaphors of home to enrich our perceptions of the world.”  Home, after all, is where everyone begins.

Of course, I’d never welcome another era in which women have few career options beyond vacuuming. And I’d hate to see ironing raised to an art form. But I agree with Bateson when she suggests that we lose our sense of place — the foundation that keeps us grounded — when we neglect the home front. The driveway becomes a mere parking lot; the house exudes an atmosphere as impersonal as a chain motel.

Lately I’ve noticed a new crop of home-care guides in local bookstores. These books are saturated with a deep yearning for the comfort of roots and shelter. Unlike their predecessors, they’re refreshingly devoid of sexism, though women will most likely buy them. Whether or not younger Americans will embrace a homemaking revival remains to be seen. Right now, we’re still arguing over whose turn it is to clean the bathroom.

–Part of this essay is excerpted from my column collection, Writing Home, now available in Kindle and print editions on —