A few years ago Caleb bought me a collection of vintage housekeeping books. I love everything about them. The titles, the language, the illustrations, the design. I love revisiting an era when sewing, cooking, gardening, and needle crafting were implied in a well rounded education. I love that there is so much to know about the topic of housekeeping that one could read book after book and still have something to learn. And most of all, I love that there are so many of these books.
Heloise's Helpful Hints is helpful and hilarious, with chapters entitled, "Out, Dratted Spots!" and, "So, Sew!" Heloise is sassy and informative and adorably reflects all of the complexity and simplicity of the 1960's.
Chapter 1, "Kitchen Corner", begins:
"To be surer of saving on grocery bills, never go to the market hungry! Always shop immediately after breakfast or lunch. With your stomach filled, you will not be nearly so tempted to buy condiments, luxury items and fancy foodstuffs...it's all psychological, but it works as a moneys stretcher, instead of a tummy stretcher."
And let's be honest - nobody wants their grocery shopping to be a tummy stretcher, except maybe between the months of November and January when we throw caution to the wind and go ahead and buy the summer sausage and Irish cream and Dubliner cheese we avoid during the rest of the year. I'm still trying to recover. My clothes and scale say otherwise; the point is, we're with Heloise! We don't want shopping hungry to could our judgment and stretch our tummies.
After a bit (and I mean it in the comedic sense) about whether or not you should tell your husband how much you paid for the ham he's enjoying, she says, most insightfully, I think, "Why should you? Your husband won't feel guilty. He will leave the table, his tummy will be full, he will read his paper or watch TV. You will be doing dishes. Think about that wonderful slice of ham then. It helps!"
Further on the subject of grocery budgets, Heloise tells us, "If it is agreed that $30 a week is your allowance for groceries...be sure it's really spent for food. Cigarettes, school supplies, aspirin, beer and cough syrup are not food." Sound advice. I'll have to remind myself in the future that school supplies, while important, are not nutritive.
Can I tell you how much I love the fact that Heloise included a personal care chapter in her housekeeping book? As if personal care and housekeeping are not, as many of us are busy and harried and overwhelmed enough to believe, mutually exclusive?! Heloise says, "Sure, you have time for a manicure! I suggest that women break up all their backbreaking jobs around the house into three or four sessions and work in a little beauty treatment too! Then everything will get done without any strain...Between the jobs of answering the telephone and doing the laundry and dishes, take the old polish off. Later file one hand or both according to the amount of time you have. Then, later, use that cuticle remover and get the hangnails...Eventually, you will have a complete manicure."
The Better Homes and Gardens Decorating Book is one of my favorites. In addition to priceless photos of amazing 60's home design, the book contains invaluable information about scale, balance, color, furniture arrangement. I think my favorite tip is to arrange furniture in a way that naturally directs the flow of traffic: traffic should move around furniture groupings, not through them.
Amy Vanderbilt's complete Cookbook, published in 1961. Oh yeah, with drawings by Andrew Warhol. For real. This copy is full of newspaper clippings on various housekeeping topics, like "How to take care of woolens" and "Hints are given about paint rolling".
If you need a recipe for Bacon And Liverwurst Canapes, this book has got it. Tuna Rice Casserole, too.
Ahhh, Betty Crocker. Where would be without her to teach us how to bake bread and chocolate chip cookies and handle poultry? My sister-in-law gave me this edition, published in 1937. Looking through the worn leaves and reading recipes that call for ingredients the FDA no longer approves of is like going back in time. And it's my favorite favorite color.
Each of these books holds a history lesson all its own. Somewhere between the Walt Disney version and the Mad Men version of the midcentury housewife is the real thing - women like my grandmothers, who raised 5 and 6 kids, women who held onto their personhood in the midst of tragedy, hardship, joy, and success. Women who made Barbie clothes for their granddaughters and taught their daughters how to make a great pot roast and the perfect mashed potatoes. Women who were artistic, and creative, and who exercised their ingenuity to make their families' lives more beautiful. Women like me who shopped on a budget, tried to find some time to paint their nails, and needed to be reminded that smoking in bed is an extreme fire hazard. Okay, maybe not that last one.
But it is nice to remember, on those days when I feel invisible and wonder if all these little things I'm doing will add up to anything, that, across decades and eras and miles, ladies like Heloise and Elinor and Amy and Betty and Mildred and Cleone and Dot and me ... we're all in it together.