Protracted polishing of copper, brass or silver, needless ironing of starched ruffles, fussy, fancy cooking, puttering and pottering never become permanent adjuncts to home-making...
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Just as bustling used to be a term of praise for a vigilant housekeeper, so has efficient now become her laudatory epithet, which yet may prove itself in time as obnoxious as the earlier word, since noiseless efficiency can be even more aggravating than scurrying energy.
Still, as efficient is the current word of grace, many women like to regard themselves as economic factors in the disbursing of home utilities, instead of not thinking at all about themselves, but just doing their everyday best. Moreover, so constantly has it been reiterated that the way to keep a husband contented is through care for his appetite, and he has accepted the dictum so blandly, that it is forgotten he has other senses than the one of taste. So the blithe, economic efficiency of the girl bride is set off against the happy-go-lucky affection of the young wife, who wants to please and be pleased. But just as surely as the wife is too efficient, the husband gets used to being waited upon, while she, in turn, is surer than ever that he does not know how to take care of himself.
Of course, the variations in economic efficiency depend upon moods and incomes. But if trig apron, quick brisk step, slim waist, long hip lines and a well-blacked stove are indicative of a small income well handled,—the delightful ease of one who knows how to manage butlers and maids, apparently giving directions unconsciously but having them carried out implicitly, is as sure a presentation of of efficiency. Perhaps it is in reaction against an efficient toilette, and in prophetic knowledge of the eternal feminine, that “symbolical” French dresses are now having a short vogue, their color and material conforming to their names, as “Tangible Present,” “Thoughts of Strange Things,” “A Silent Appeal,” etc.
Just as long as time and strength are reckoned as the chief assets in efficiency, there will always be slips in calculation. The unexpected has to be taken into account, and averages are dependent on health and temperament. Successful matrimony, in affairs of the heart, is not addicted to co-operation, nor will a good balance at the bank take the place of enjoyment in being eternally very much in love.
Even if time spent in saving has fine financial results, as when a forewoman in a large factory said that, “in cutting out shirtwaists, by saving five-eighths of a inch in each one, the difference in a month amounted to several whole pieces of cloth,” the nervous strain in accomplishing that saving has to be estimated as so much physical and mental strength lessened. Thus is it that the middle-aged, economic housekeeper always looks tired, as if a computing machine were encased in her brain. Very likely she has daily saved a few cents (though she may have expended that amount in chewing gum to keep the baby quiet), but she herself has lost more than double its worth in the lessening of her potential value. She needs to learn the lesson of not wanting things, the possession of which she fancies would prove her economically efficient.
The economy of being all tired out, in trying to be efficient, is like the story of the man who gave the missionary a shilling for his work in the East and then a sovereign to get the shilling out there. Of course, slackness, the opposite of efficiency, brings desolution in its circuit, not leaving behind any respect for its memory as can efficiency. After all, it is only the decision as to what is permanent and what is transitory, which can adjust the balance between efficiency and slackness in housework. Protracted polishing of copper, brass or silver, needless ironing of starched ruffles, fussy, fancy cooking, puttering and pottering never become permanent adjuncts to home-making.
Perhaps the home efficiency most to be desired lies in the art of adaptation of old to young, of one kind of inherited tastes and convictions to another kind; —somewhat as an English maid in an American home considers a dressing table, even if made out of a shoe box, as essential to her racial dignity, or as an elderly mother wants to keep her furniture and bric-a-brac on straight lines, while her daughter wants to place it in slanting directions. When a housekeeper cannot give up or modify her wonted ways, she resembles the Frenchwoman who would not divorce her bad husband, saying, “I cannot insult him like that because I loved him once.”
Alas, moderation, the golden mean between extremes, has still to be sought in household efficiency as much as in organized industrial efficiency. Already there are protests against the over emphasis in industrial education, as depleting the value of education itself; as a penny-a-line, get-rich-quick scheme, and as a proof that labor was made for man and not man for labor. We have grown away from the tract charity of alms giving, as helping one to live, into that of providing work, even the tools of work. And, then, as we found that neither individual nor collective labor knew how to regulate itself, both were inspected, weighed, measured, cut and trimmed to regulation efficiency,—as, for instance, “if a design submitted for a garment required the stopping of an electric power machine for one second, it amounted to hours in a week” and thereby lessened industrial efficiency.
Whatever may be attained or has already been achieved by industrial inspection, at least the individual home should prove itself able to manage its own little kingdom in paths of pleasantness and peace, for while availing itself of general and specific knowledge to run its domain prudently, yet it will learn to be content without the ownership of things which only multiply cares.
Kate Gannett Wells (1838-1911), complicated feminist, writer, activist, moralist, anti-suffragist
see Mary M. Huth. “Kate Gannett Wells, Anti-Suffragist,” in University of Rochester Library Bulletin vol 34 (1981)