Tag Archives: Homemaker

The Life of Anna Mary Robertson


Books Bygone: The life of Anna Mary Robertson Moses
Marica Bernstein

“I, Anna Mary Robertson, was born back in the green meadows and wild woods, on a farm in Washington, Co. in the year of 1860… . Here I spent the first ten years of my life with Mother, Father, Sisters and Brothers, those were my happy days, free from care and worry… . 1870, now came the hard years… where twelve years of age I left home to earn my own living as then was called a hired girl.”

There is a quote I’ve always liked in a little old book about books: “There are three services which books may render in the home: they may be ornaments, tools, or friends.” Here at Books Bygone I’ve introduced several of my friends, many of which are also handy tools. Today I’d like to introduce to you a beautiful ornament, one that often sits open on the coffee table, waiting to be leisurely perused. The book is Grandma Moses, and it presents not only Anna Mary Robertson’s remarkable life story, but also an enormous number of her paintings. (Wikipaintings.org has some Grandma Moses paintings. When you have a minute, take a look.)

Until I found this old book, I’d forgotten all about Grandma Moses, the American folk artist who took up painting when she was in her 70s. What a remarkable woman! The quote above is from her autobiographical sketch written in 1945. She tells the story of keeping house for a family and of “being very proud in those days, could get up such fine dinner.” And “when the minister came and I could bring out the fine linen and china tea set, and the heavy silver, them with hot biscuits homemade butter and honey, with home cured dryed beef, I was proud.” Her career as a hired girl ended in 1887 when she married Thomas Solomon Moses. For several years they lived in “that beautiful Shenandoah valley” where she left “five little graves.” In 1905 she, Thomas and their five children moved to New York State, bought a farm, and “went into the dairy business selling milk, and doing general farm work. … Here Jan. 15, 1927, my husband died, my youngest son and wife taking over the farm, leaving me unoccupied, I had to do something so took up painting pictures.”

The subject of most Grandma Moses paintings is life on the farm. “Wash Day,” “The Spring in Evening,” “The Thunderstorm,” “The Meeting House,” and “A Quilting Bee” are a few of her 1100-plus works. “Rainbow,” painted in 1961 at age 101, was her last. It is a farm scene—men are working, animals and carts are near the barn. A large tree is in the foreground and a church tucked into the hills in the background. Behind the tree and over the church is a pale rainbow that she had intended to make bolder but never did. An art critic wrote after her passing, “The pale rainbow … will never be strengthened now. … No matter. It will remain a strong enough span for those looking at it—or indeed, any of her pictures—to be able to reach her simple, peaceful, idyllic nineteenth-century world from their own frantic world of today.” President Kennedy mourned her by saying, “The directness and vividness of her paintings restored a primitive freshness to our perception of the American scene.” Another tribute said, “We cannot think of the life, now concluded, of Anna Mary Robertson Moses without cheerfulness.” Simple. Fresh. Cheerful. All of the makings of a treasured ornament!

Grandma Moses. Otto Kallir. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York. 1973. Available at Maben, Starkville, and Winona Public Libraries, and MSU Mitchell Memorial Library. Also available at online booksellers.

Originally published February 6, 2014 in the Webster Progress Times.

Leave a comment

Filed under American History, Biography, Farm Work


Books Bygone: Wash Day
Marica Bernstein

My library contains a lot of old books by Great Thinkers addressing life’s most profound questions. What does it mean to flourish as a human being? How can we believe in a benevolent God in the face of brutish evil? What is the proper relationship of the state to the citizen? Why is Tuesday becoming preferable to Monday as wash-day? Thankfully, that last one is a bit easier to answer than the others.

Early in the 20th century, Mary Brooks Picken founded the Woman’s Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences. The Institute was a trade school with a large correspondence component. Homemakers across the country signed up, received books and other materials in the mail, and learned about the properties of various textiles, the history of lace, how to alter a dress pattern, and—if they were good in the domestic arts and sciences—how to open their own profitable dressmaking shops. Picken authored nearly 100 books and pamphlets distributed by her Institute, and among women at the time, was a household name.

To the question of why Tuesday replaced Monday as wash-day we turn to The Woman’s Institute Library of Dressmaking: Care of Clothing (1925). “Since time immemorial it seems wash-day was Monday and more often than not, ‘Blue Monday’; but of late years Tuesday has been growing in popularity… . This plan leaves Monday as a day in which the housewife can replenish the larder and put her house in order after the Sunday’s rest or entertaining.” She also has time on Monday to “look over her wash, mend the holes or tears that might become larger in the laundering, remove the stains that should have attention, prepare food with a view to having something for the next day, and in the evening place the washing apparatus and piles of clothes in readiness without infringing on the pleasures or quiet of Sunday.” So Tuesday it is!

You have no idea how much work was associated with doing the laundry in the 1920s. First, you must have a “room for laundry work” although the kitchen can serve that purpose provided it has a small closet in which to store the various tubs and boards and soaps. Choosing the right equipment is important. “There is no devise among those of the housekeeper which saves so much valuable time and takes out so much drudgery from housework as does the washing machine.” But beware! Not all washing machines are created equal. The dolly, cylinder, oscillating, and pressure and suction machines have advantages and disadvantages, as does the older washboard. A good clothes wringer saves time and money but be careful to not over-do the tension—that will make ironing more difficult.

You will also need clothes baskets, lines, and pins. And though “nothing is better than sun and air for the drying of clothes, there are times when these agents are not available” so you will also need a clothes dryer. Now, don’t get too excited. Picken isn’t talking about an electrical dryer; she’s talking about various contraptions that hang from the laundry room ceiling or sit on the kitchen floor. If you are lucky, however, your home will contain a “drying room fitted with heating pipes.” Be sure it’s well ventilated or your laundry may turn yellow from the steam.

Keep reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Homemaking

The Creeds

Books Bygone: The Creeds
Marica Bernstein

The Introduction to The Modern Family Cookbook (first published 1942, updated 1958) is addressed to “Mrs. Homemaker,” and begins, “this book is written for you in full appreciation of your problems of running a home. These problems would challenge a psychologist, an expert on child training, an interior decorator, a skilled seamstress, a trained nurse. … Unless you belong to the 10 per cent whose budget is not strictly limited, you are daily faced with the necessity of budgeting the income of one average husband– a problem to stagger a financier.”

Meta Given was the author of several cookbooks in the 1940s and ‘50s. Her Modern Family Cookbook was the most popular, with sales of over a million copies. For fun, do a search of the title to see how influential this “modern” cookbook remains.

Later in the Introduction, Given lays out the structure of her 600+ page book. “This book was planned to help you with your [three kinds] of food problems– planning, buying, and cooking. … We have three parts to this book, … each headed by a ‘Creed’ expressing the importance and dignity of the homemaker’s tasks.”

Most are familiar with ‘creed’ as a statement of the essential aspects of Christian Faith. Given, however, uses creed more generally, as a brief statement of belief. Thus, she presents The Meal Planner’s Creed, The Food Shopper’s Creed, and The Cook’s Creed. Of these, the first is my favorite.

The Meal Planner’s Creed

“The health of my family is in my care; therefore–
“I will spare no effort in planning the right kinds of food in the right amounts.

“Spending the food dollar for maximum value is my job; therefore–
“I will choose from the variously priced foods to save money without sacrificing health.

“My family’s enjoyment of food is my responsibility; therefore–
“I will increase their pleasure by planning for variety, for flavorful dishes, for attractive color, for appetizing combinations.

“My family’s health, security and pleasure depend on my skill in planning meals; therefore–
“I will treat my job with the respect that is due it.

The Food Shopper’s Creed repeats the themes of health, budgeting, and enjoyment of food and offers the following suggestions. “Make It Yourself! … it is poor economy to buy cooked meats, cakes, cookies…” and so on because you’re paying not just for the food, but also for the time and labor to make and package it.

Keep reading…

Leave a comment

Filed under Cookbooks