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Treaties on Domestic Economy

Treaties on Domestic Economy

Treaties on Domestic Economy
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by Catharine Esther Beecher c.1841 Reprinted 1970 Source Book Press

The discussion of the question of the equality of the sexes, in intellectual capacity, seems both frivolous and useless, not only because it can never be decided, but because there would be no possible advantage in the decision. But one topic, which is often drawn into the discussion, is of far more consequence; and that is, the relative importance and difficulty of the duties a women is called to perform.

It is generally assumed, and almost as generally conceded, that women's business and cares are contracted and trivial; and that the proper discharge of her duties demands far less expansion of the mind and vigor of intellect, than pursuits of the other sex. This idea has prevailed, because women, as a mass, have never been educated with reference to their most important duties; while that portion of their employments which are of least value, have been regarded as the chief, if not the sole concern of a women. The covering of the body, the conveniences of the residences, and the gratification of the appetite, have been too much regarded as the sole objects on which her intellectual powers are to be exercised.

But as society gradually shakes off the remnants of barbarism, and the intellectual and moral interests of man rise in estimation above merely sensual, a truer estimate is formed of women's duties, and of the measure of intellect requisite for proper discharge of them. Let any man of sense and discernment become the member of a large household, in which a well-educated and pious women is endeavoring systematically to discharge her multiform duties; let him fully comprehend all her cares, difficulties, and perplexities; and it is probable he would coincide in the opinion, that no statesmen, at the head of a nation's affairs, had more frequent calls for wisdom, firmness, tact, discrimination, prudence, and versatility of talent, than such a women.

She has a husband, whose peculiar tastes and habits she must accommodate; she has children, whose health she must guard, whose physical constitution she must study and develop, whose temper and habits must she must regulate, whose principles she must form, whose pursuits she must direct. She has constantly changing domestics, with all varieties of temper and habits, whom she must govern, instruct, and direct; she is required to regulate the finances of the domestic state, and constantly to adapt expenditures to the means and to the relative claims of each department. She has direction of the kitchen, where ignorance, forgetfulness, and awkwardness are to be so regulated, that the various operations shall each start at the right time, and shall be in completeness at the same given hour. She has the claims of society to meet, calls to receive and return, and the duties of hospitality to sustain. She has poor to relieve; benevolent societies to aid; the schools of her children to inquire and decide about; the care of the sick; the nursing of infancy; and the endless miscellany of odd items constantly recurring in a large family.

There is no one thing, more necessary to a housekeeper, in performing her varied duties, than a habit of system and order; and yet the peculiarly desultory nature of women's pursuits, and the embarrassments resulting from the state of domestic service in this Country, render it very difficult to form such a habit. But it is sometimes the case, that women, who could and would carry forward a systematic plan of domestic economy, do not attempt it, simply from a want of knowledge of the various modes of introducing it. It is with reference to such, that various modes of securing system and order, which the Writer has seen adopted, will be pointed out.

A wise economy is nowhere more conspicuous, than in the right apportionment of time to different pursuits. There are duties of a religious, intellectual, social, and domestic, nature, each having different relative claims on attention. Unless a person has some general plan of apportioning these claims, some will intrench on others, and some, it is probable, will be entirely excluded. Thus, some find religious, social, and domestic, duties, so numerous, that no time is given to intellectual improvements. Others, find either social, or benevolent, or religious, interests, excluded by the extent and variety of other engagements.

It is wise, therefore, for all persons to devise a general plan, which they will at least keep in view, and aim to accomplish, and by which, a proper proportion of time shall be secured for all the duties of life.

In forming such a plan, every woman must accommodate herself to the peculiarities of her situation. If she has a large family, and a small income, she must devote far more time to the simple duty of providing food and raiment, than would be right were she in affluence and with a small family. It is impossible, therefore, to draw out any general plan, which all can adopt. But there are some general principles, which ought to be the guiding rules, when a women arranges her domestic employments. These general principles are to be based on Christianity, which teaches us to "seek first the kingdom of God", and to place food, raiment, and the conveniences of life, as secondary account. Every women, than, ought to start with the assumption, that religion is of more consequence than any worldly concern, and whatever else may be sacrificed, this shall be the leading object in all her arrangements, in respect to time, money, and attention.

Many persons imagine, that, if they violate the laws of health in performing religious or domestic duties, they are guiltless before God. But such greatly mistake. We as directly violate the law "thou shalt not kill", when we do what tends to risk or shorten our own life, as if we should intentionally run a dagger into a neighbor. The life and happiness of all His creatures are dear to our Creator; and He is much displeases, when we injure our own interests, as when we injure others.

Some persons endeavor to systematize their pursuits, by apportioning them to particular hours of each day. For example, a certain hour is given to devotional duties; after breakfast, certain hours devoted to exercise and domestic emploments; other hours for sewing, or reading, or visiting; and others to benevolent duties. But in most cases, it is more difficult to systematize the hours of each day, than it is to sustain some regular division of the week.

In regard to the minute of domestic arrangements, the Writer has known the following methods adopted. MONDAY, with some of the best housekeepers, is devoted to preparing for the labors of the week. Any extra cooking, the purchasing of articles to be used during the week, and the assorting of clothes for the wash day, and mending such as would be injured without; - these similar items belong to this day. TUESDAY is devoted to washing, and WEDNESDAY to ironing. On THURSDAY, the ironing is finished off, the clothes folded and put away, and articles which need mending put in the mending basket, and attended to. FRIDAY is devoted to sweeping and housecleaning. On SATURDAY, and especially the last Saturday of the month, every department is put in order; the castors and table are regulated, the pantry and cellar inspected, the trunks, drawers, and closets arranged, and everything about the house put in order for SUNDAY. All the cooking needed for Sunday is also prepared. By this regular recurrence of a particular time for inspecting every thing, nothing is forgotten till ruined by neglect.

Another mode of systematizing, relates to providing proper supplies of conveniences, and proper places to keep them. Thus, some ladies keep a large closet, in which are placed tubs, pails, dippers, soap-dishes , starch, bluing, clothes-line, clothes-pins, and every other article used in washing; and the same or another place are kept every conveniece for ironing. In the sewing department, a trunk, with suitable partitions, is provided.

The full supply of all conveniences in the kitchen and cellar, and a place appointed for each article, very much facilitates domestic labor. For want of this, much vexation and loss of time is occasioned, while seeking vessels in use, or in cleansing those used by different persons for various purposes. It would be far better for a lady to give up some expensive article in the parlor, and apply the money, thus saved, for kitchen conveniences, than to have a stinted supply where the most labor is to be performed.

Another important item, in systematic economy, is the apportioning of regular employment to the various members of a family. If a housekeeper can secure the cooperation of all her family, she will find that "many hands make light work". There is no greater mistake, than in bringing up children to feel that they must be taken care of, and waited on, by others, without corresponding obligations on their part. The extent to which young children can be made use useful in a family, would seem surprising to those who have never seen a systematic and regular plan of securing their services. The Writer has been in a family, where a little girl of eight or nine washed and dressed herself and little brother, made their beds before breakfast, set and cleared the tables at meals, with a little help from a grown person in moving tables and spreading clothes, while all the dusting of parlors and chambers was also neatly performed by her. A little brother of ten, brought in and piled all the wood used in the kitchen and parlor, brushed the boots and shoes neatly, went on errands, and took all the care of poultry. They were children whose parents could afford to hire this service, but who chose to have their children grow up healthy and industrious, while proper instruction, system, and encouragement, made these services rather a pleasure than otherwise to the children.

Some parents pay their children for such services; but this is hazardous, as tending to make them feel they are not bound to be helpful without pay, and also as tending to produce a hoarding, money-making spirit. But where children have no hoarding propensities, and need to acquire a sense of the value of property, it may be well to let them earn money for some extra services, rather as a favor. When this is done, they should be taught to spend it for others, as well as themselves; and this way, a generous and liberal spirit will be cultivated.

There are some mothers, who take pains to teach their boys of domestic arts which their sisters learn. The Writer has seen boys mending their own garments, and aiding their mother or sister in the kitchen, with great skill and adroitness; and at an early age they usually very much relish joining in such occupations. The sons of such mothers, in their college life, or in roaming about the world, or in nursing a sick wife or infant, find occasion to bless the forethought and kindness which prepared them for such emergencies.

The Writer has known one mode of systematizing the aid of the older children in a family, which, in some cases of very large families, it may be well to imitate. In the case refered to, when the oldest daughter was eight or nine years old, an infant sister was given as her special charge. She tended it, made and mended its clothes, taught it to read, and was its nurse and guardian through all its childhood. Another infant was given to the next daughter, and thus the children were paired in this interesting relation. In addition to the relief thus afforded to the mother, the elder children were thus qualified for their future domestic relations, and both older and younger bound to each other by peculiar ties of tenderness and gratitude.

In offering these examples of various modes of systematizing, one suggestion may be worthy of attention. It is not unfrequently the case, that ladies, who find themselves cumbered with oppressive cares, after reading remarks on the benefits of system, immediately commence the task of arranging their pursuits, with great vigor and hope. They divide the day into regular periods, and give each hour its duty; they systematize their work, and endeavor to bring every thing into a regular routine. But in a short time, they find themselves baffled, discouraged, and disheartened, and finally relapse into their former desultory ways, with a sort of resigned despair. The difficulty, in such cases, is that they attempt too much at a time. There is nothing which so much depends upon habit, as a systematic mode of performing duty; and where no such habit has been formed, it is impossible for a novice to start at once into a universal mode of systematizing, which none but an adept could carry through. The only way for such person, is, to begin with a little at a time. Let them select some three or four things, and resolutely attempt to conquer at these points. In time, a habit will be formed of doing a few things at regular periods, and in a systematic way. Then it will be easy to add a few more; and thus, by which it would be vain to attempt by more summary course. Early rising is almost a sine qua mon to success, in such an effort; but where a woman lacks either the health or the energy to secure a period for devotional duties before breakfast, let her select that hour of the day in which she will be least liable to interruption, and let her seek then strength and wisdom from the only true Source. At this time, let her take a pen and make a list of all the things which she considers as duties. Then let calculations be made, weather there is time enough in the day or week for all these duties. If there is not, let the least important be stricken from the list, as what are not duties and must be omitted. In doing this, let a woman remember, that though "what we shall eat, and what we shall drink, and wherewithal we shall be clothed," are matters requiring due attention, they are very apt to take a wrong relative importance, while social, intellectual, and moral, interests, receive too little regard.

It is impossible for a conscientious woman to secure that peaceful mind, and cheerful enjoyment of life, which all should seek, who is constantly finding her duties jarring with each other, and much remaining undone, which she feels that she ought to do. In consequence of this, there will be a secret uneasiness, which will throw a shadow over the whole current of life, never to be removed, till she so efficiently defines and regulates her duties, that she can fulfill them all.

And here the Writer would urge upon young ladies the importance of forming habits of system, while unembarrassed with multiplied cares which will make the task so much more difficult and hopeless. Every young lady can systematize her pursuits, to a certain extent. She can have a particular day for mending her wardrobe, and for arranging her trunks, closets, and drawers. She can keep her workbasket, her desk at school, and all her conveniences in proper places, and in regular order. She can have regular periods for reading, walking, visiting, study, and domestic pursuits. And by following this method, in youth, she will form a taste for regularity, and habit of system, which will prove a blessing to her through life.


A greater amount of exercise is needed in this country for women. It is found, that owing to the climate and customs of this Nation, there are no women who secure so little of this healthful and protecting regimen. Walking and riding and gardening, in the open air, are practiced by women of other lands, to a far greater extent, than by American females. Most English women, in the wealthier classes, are able to walk six to eight miles on a stretch, with out oppressive fatigue; and when they visit this Country, always express their surprise at the inactive habits of American ladies. In England, the regular daily exercise, in the open air, is very commonly required by the mother, as a part of daily duty, and is sought by young women for enjoyment.


In past ages and in aristocratic countries, leisure and indolence and frivolous pursuits have been deemed lady- like and refined, because those classes, which were most refined, patronized such an impression. But as soon as ladies of refinement, as a general custom, patronize domestic pursuits, then these pursuits will be deemed lady-like. But it may be urged , that it is impossible for a women who cooks, washes and sweeps, to appear in the dress, or acquire the habits and manners, of the lady; that the drudgery of the kitchen is dirty work, and that no one can appear delicate and refined, while engaged in it. Now all this depends on circumstances. If a women has a house, destitute of neat and convenient facilities; if she has no habits of order and system; if she is slack and careless in person and dress;-then all this may be true. But, if a women will make sacrifices of costly ornaments in her parlor, in order to make her kitchen neat and tasteful; if she will sacrifice costly dishes, in order to secure such conveniences for labor as to protect from exposures; if she will take pain to have dresses, in which she works, made of suitable materials, and in good taste; if she will rise early and systematize and oversee the work of family, so as to have it done thoroughly, neatly, and in the early part of the day; she will find no necessity for any such apprehensions.

Every American women, who values the institution of her Country, and wishes to lend her influence in extending and perpetuating such blessings, may feel she is doing this, whenever, by her example and influence, she destroys the aristocratic association, that would render domestic labor degrading.


There is no period, in a young ladies life, when she will not find such knowledge useful to herself, and to others. The state of domestic service, in the country, is so precarious, that there is scarcely a family, in the free States, where it can be affirmed, that either sickness, discontent, or love of change, will not deprive them of all their domestics, so that every female member of the family will be required to lend some aid in providing food and the conveniences of living. Every young lady is the member of some family, which will need her aid in such emergencies, and the better she is qualified to render it, the happier she will be, herself, and the more she will contribute to the enjoyment of others.

A pupil of the Writer, at the end of her schooldays, married, and removed to the West. She was an entire novice in all domestic matters; an entire stranger to which she removed. In a year she became a mother and her health failed; while, for most the time, she had no domestics at all. She was treated with politeness by her neighbors, and wished to return their civilities; but how could this young and delicate creature, who had spent all her life at school, or in visiting and amusements, take care of her infant, attend to her cooking, washing, ironing, and baking, take care of her parlor, chambers, kitchen, and cellar, and yet visit and receive company? If there is any thing that would make a kindly heart ache with sorrow and sympathy, it would be to see so young, so amiable, so helpless a martyr to the mistaken system of female education now prevalent. "I have the kindest of husbands" said the young wife, after her narrative of sufferings, "and I have never regretted my marriage; but since this babe was born, I have never had a single waking hour of freedom from anxiety and care. O! how little young girls know what is before them, when they enter the married life!" Let the mother, whose eye may rest on these lines, ask her self, if there is no cause for fear that the young objects of her care may be thrown into similar emergencies, where they may need a kind of preparation, which as yet has been withheld?


The person who decides what shall be the food and drink of the family, and the modes of preparation, is the one who decides, to a greater or less extent, what shall be the health of the family. In a healthy state of the body, as soon as the blood has lost its nutritive supplies, the call of hunger is felt, and then, if the food is suitable, and is taken in the proper manner, this sensation ceases as soon as the stomach has received enough to supply the wants of the system. But our benevolent Creator, in this, as in other duties has connected enjoyment with this operation needful to sustain our bodies. In addition to the allaying of our hunger, there is gratification of the palate, secured by the immense variety of food, some articles of which are far more agreeable than others.

This arrangement of Providence, designed for our happiness, either through ignorance, or want of self control, has become the chief cause of various diseases and sufferings that afflict those classes which have the means of seeking a variety to gratify the palate. If mankind only had one article of food, and only water to drink, they would never be tempted to to put any more into the stomach, than the calls of hunger required. But the customs of society, which present incessant changes, and great a variety of food, with those various condiments that stimulate appetite, lead almost every person very frequently to eat merely to gratify the palate, after the stomach has been abundantly supplied, so that hunger has ceased.

The health of the family depends, not merely on the quanity of food taken in; but very much, also, on the quality. Some kinds of food are very pernicious in their nature, and some healthful articles are rendered very injurious by the mode of cooking.

It is important to secure a proper proportion of animal and vegetable diet. Some medical men suppose that an exclusive vegetable diet is proved by the experience of many individuals to be fully sufficient to nourish the body, and bring, as evidence, the fact, that some of the strongest and robust men in the world, are trained, from infancy, exclusively on vegetable food. But, though this is not a common opinion of medical men, they all agree, that, in America, far to large a portion of the diet consists of animal food.


There is no practice, which has been more extensively eulogized, in all ages, than early rising; and this universal impression is an indication that it is founded on true philosophy. For it is rarely the case, that common sense of mankind fastens on a practice as really beneficial, especially one that demands self-denial, without some substantial reason.

This practice, which may justly be called a domestic virtue, is one which has a peculiar claim to be called American and democratic. According to this, the practice of rising between four and five, and retiring between nine and ten, in Summer, would secure most of the sunlight. In Winter, the constitution is more tired in cold than in warm weather. Early rising, is, indispensable to the systematic and well-regulated family. At whatever hour the parents retire, children and domestics, wearied by play or labor, must retire early. Children usually awake with the dawn of light and commence their play, while domestics usually prefer the freshness of the morning for their labors. If, then, the parents rise at a late hour, they either induce a habit of protracting sleep in their children and domestics, or else the family is up, and at their pursuits, while their supervisors are in bed. Any women, who asserts that her children and domestics, in the first hours of the day, when their spirits are freshest, will be as well regulated without her presence as with it, confess that, which surly is little for her credit. It is believed that any candid women, whatever may be her excuse for late rising, will concede, that, if she could rise early, it would be for the advantage of her family. A late breakfast puts back the work, through the whole day, for every member of the family; and if the parents thus occasion the loss of an hour or two, to each individual, who but for their delay in the morning would be usefully employed, the parents, alone, are responsible for all this waste of time.

The practice of early rising has a relation to the general interest of the social community, as well as to that of each distinct family. All that great portion of the community who are employed in business and labor, find it needful to rise early.

This article may be freely republished without permission. I ask that you leave the article in it's entirety. Gentle Hearth