by Rona Randall
First of all, let me say that olde-tyme etiquette books are awesome. It’s fun to get a look back at what was expected of you in polite society at different times in history, like reading really old versions of Ask Heloise or Dear Abby. This author made a study of that type of book and compiled a quick how-to in case you’re a woman who finds herself whisked back in time to the 1800s and need to catch and keep a man and keep your household from being talked about in the wrong sort of gossip.
One thought kept crossing my mind as I was reading: “how the hell did anyone get through that century alive?” The sheer amount of information every woman was expected to know, about social hierarchy and housekeeping and fashion – the type of gloves suitable to wear to dinner were not the same ones you’d wear to church, and certainly not the kind you’d wear to a ball – is mind-boggling. And let’s not even discuss corsets and petticoats and the sheer indecency of letting your ankles hang out for the world to see!
It was a woman’s place to help her husband look good and move up in the world, and any failings on his part were considered to be her fault. She had to keep him well-dressed and well-fed, and keep a tidy house to impress visitors, and host elegant dinners and parties in order meet the right people and move in the right circles to help him make connections and gain respect. I can’t imagine taking on that role today and trying to make sure my husband met the right people by schmoozing the right group of women so we could get into the right crowd. I don’t think I even like the right crowd.
There’s a big part of the book discussing the various household tasks a woman needed to be on top of, if she was to be a good housewife. She had to be good at stretching a dollar and know how to do the shopping without getting cheated by shopkeepers, whip up multi-course meals when hosting dinners, and make up home remedies to keep her family from dying of whatever latest plague was in town. She needed to be able to sew and repair her own clothing – essential because laundering some pieces of clothing required them to be taken apart first. And even if she was lucky enough to afford a staff of servants, managing that crew was a huge job. Apparently, there was a hierarchy amongst servants, and for a naive housewife to assign the wrong task to someone, or to greet the wrong person first in the morning, was a horrible faux-pas. I think I’m glad I don”t have servants!
I’ll stay in this century, thanks. I guess it’s as complicated now as it was then, but in different ways, so I’m used to it. I need to keep a budget and manage bank accounts and credit cards, cook dinner, do laundry, clean the house, make sure we’re never out of TP or shampoo or toothpaste… Not to mention working a full-time job! Yeah, we’re not ironing shirts with hunks of metal heated in a fire anymore, but instead we’re on the phone with Verizon arguing about our service… I think we’re even.