"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Nova Scotia Connections: A Day in the Life of Great Village: Home-Made, Domesticity

Housecleaning is perennial universal endless, according to housewives the world over. The ladies in Great Village have long ago finished the intensive whirlwind called spring cleaning, when every carpet is hung on the line and beaten fiercely to discharge as much winter's dust as possible; when every quilt, blanket, sheet and pillow slip is washed; when every corner of every room, high and low, is scrubbed and swept; when ever cupboard is cleared of every dish and cup and everything is washed; and often a fresh coat of paint is applied to sills, frames, doors, even floors, and new wallpaper is hung on the walls to spruce things up after the accumulation of smoke from lamps and stoves lit continuously through the long, cold, dark winter. At spring cleaning time, which stretches from April into May, houses in Great Village all along the shore, in Truro, across the province hum. On lucent early spring mornings the percussion of the carpet chore sounds like a military march.

Spring cleaning is a very serious matter, a major operation. Women prepare for it all winter, just as the farmers prepare for the spring ploughing and planting they plan their strategies, repair equipment and lay in supplies. Like the planting, spring cleaning is a time regarded with resolution (or resignation) and anticipation. However, unlike the farmers and their planting, women have been housecleaning all winter, so the resignation is stronger. Still, it is something which must be done and most of the ladies say, “The sooner the better.”

By this first day of summer the spring cleaning is well past, though this is often the time when men decide to start the big jobs of building: a porch, a verandah, an ell. The women think of all the mess that it will create, workmen tracking in dirt. But all the ladies say that is the nature of housework, “It is never done.” Death and taxes might be the two certainties of this world, but ask a woman and she will add, “So are dirty dishes and laundry.”

Housework has its own conventions and rhythms, followed more or less by Great Village ladies. Monday is wash day a rainy Monday is a frustrating day indeed. On a clear windy morning the village clotheslines are adorned with blouses and skirts, shirts and trousers, towels and tablecloths, bibs and diapers and pinafores the flapping, slapping clothes are festive and heartening. A good line of laundry, hung just right (everyone has a theory about which items to hang where) is a matter of pride for each laundress. Indeed, Great Village ladies casually or deliberately assess each other’s laundry achievement, offering critical admiration or disdain, as if it is a work of art. There is a rivalry among them in the same way as there is a rivalry among the horse owners in the village: friendly but exacting. This rivalry extends to house cleaning in general. Keeping a clean house is an aim or a burden for all housewives. The ladies of Great Village are so often in each other’s homes that they have many opportunities to assess each other’s successes or failures. Some say too many opportunities.(1)

Laundry is one of the most physically exacting chores. Kettles of water are heated and poured into large wash tubs. Scrubbing is done on washboards with large cakes of soap. The hardest part is wringing out the heavy wet clothes. A few of the village ladies have wringers which attach to the tubs, a roller machine through which the clothes are fed, which squeezes out the water. These ladies are the envy of the others.

Monday being wash day, Tuesday and Wednesday tend to be devoted to ironing. This chore is the most tedious and tiresome, but one of the most necessary. In the summer, when starched linens are most necessary, ironing is a wearying task. Flat irons have to be kept hot on the stove, and on the sticky, close July or August days having the stove fired up, standing for hours over frills and hems, creases and lapels is monotonous. The stove tends to be fired up all summer anyway, for cooking and baking. Many village homes set up summer kitchens, rooms or ells which are more airy than the closed in winter kitchens. Even so, most women try to do their baking and cooking as early in the morning as possible during the summer. The end of the work week (Thursday or Friday) is when the ladies do most of their baking for the week: bread, rolls, biscuits, pies, squares, cookies, cakes and cooking the roasts of beef, lamb, veal, pork or chicken. Winter cooks offer steaming hot soups, stews and casseroles, summer cooks offer cold sliced ham or chicken salad. Even at the dining table summer meals tend to be picnics, unlike the more formal feasts of winter's piping bowls. Already, because the late spring weather has been so pleasant, the young folks have begun picnicking. The ladies have put out their chaise lounges and little tables on verandahs and lawns and look forward to the less hectic afternoons when the serious indoors cleaning is done (before the tea time tasks must be started) and they can sit down and take up their sewing.

Most women in the village still make most of their family’s clothes, and sewing is another of those endless tasks. By the first day of summer the seersucker suits and the cotton frocks have already been made or mended and spruced up with new buttons or a new lace collar. That work is done during the winter. At this time of year women are thinking about fall and winter garments, taking out each flannel and worsted, each vest and chemise, each coat and cape, and deciding what new is needed, what can be repaired. Since summer is a time for weddings, not a few women in the village are also busy putting final touches on trousseaus and bridal gowns.

Of course, not every woman in Great Village makes her family’s clothes, or makes all of them. There has always been a tailor and several seamstresses in Great Village. They are patronized sufficiently to earn quite a decent living. More and more women are choosing to order from the Eaton's catalogue or to buy ready made clothes at Layton's, or drive into Truro to the specialty shops. Still, sewing is one of the most pressing chores women in the village have on their housework plate. Girls learn to sew as soon as they can hold a needle and thread, and many ladies in the Village are experts at seams, hems, darts and button holes. Many have their own Singer sewing machines (they are almost as common as pianos). The ladies of Great Village also excel at the needle arts: crochet, embroidery, needlepoint, knitting, rug hooking and quilting. One of the favourite gatherings for women is the quilting bee. The Great Village Sewing Club has been around for years and many a lass received her total immersion in the fine needle arts amidst the gossiping ladies around the quilting or hooking frame, or in a circle with the knitting needles clicking. The war has added another layer of work to this part of daily life. The village ladies are prodigiously productive in making surgical gowns and knitting socks, mittens ad scarves. The older and younger ladies tend to do most of this work because wives and mothers still have to attend to torn overalls and wee ones growing too fast out of their jumpers. Yet just about every woman in the village contributes at least a bandage to the Red Cross Knitting and Sewing Society.

While the farmers are off ploughing and planting the big fields of grain, most homes in the Village have kitchen gardens. The men often help with the planting and tending of these vegetable and flower plots, but the housewife is mostly responsible. Children are often conscripted to do the endless weeding. Though too early in the season for most crops, already there has been lettuce, and the fine weather is bringing along the seeds and seedlings, especially for those who guessed right and got a start of planting. Some village farmers use cold frames, starting plants as far back as March. And window sills throughout the village have also been sprouting herbs and tomatoes, as well as flowers, for months.

The ultimate work of these kitchen gardens starts later in the season when the pickling, preserving and canning gets underway. Even this early in the growing season thoughts have turned to these tasks. What everyone loves of the first strawberries, cherries, raspberries and vegetables is the freshness. The jars and bottles of preserves in cold cellars have dwindled and the anticipation of fresh produce is keen for everyone. Yet the ladies cannot indulge only in providing the first tender beans or peas. They must prepare for next winter. Canned goods might be more plentiful in the general store, but most folks still want home-made. And every cook in Great Village has some specialty which is regarded as the best version. Preserving season is still some time away though, and for now, fresh fruits and vegetables are on the menu.

Besides all the cooking, washing and sewing for their own families, village women also keep busy year round baking and sewing for society meetings, bake sales, fund-raising dinners, bazaars. Invariably, when baking or cooking for their own tables there is an event coming up to be supplied, so an extra pan of squares or a second casserole is made. More often than not the ladies are meeting in someone’s parlour or having ladies in of an afternoon to discuss some pending activity (a party, a wedding, a fair, a concert). Afternoon is the time for calling on neighbours anyway. All these are reasons to have a tidy house. Every hostess wants to serve at least a ginger snap with tea.

The celebrations surrounding Dominion Day will be given extra attention this year, as several organizations will be raising money for the war effort: a bazaar with a pie sale and fancy tables, an auction and strawberry supper have been organized. So the ladies have been and will be busy. The missionary lecture this evening will offer tea and a sweet table, and donations will be accepted in support of the work of the Mission Bands.

It is rare to find Elizabeth Bulmer on a weekday morning sitting in her rocking chair by the widow. The breakfast dishes are done and the kitchen swept, though she needs to make a pan of biscuits and tidy up the everyday parlour, finish straightening up the bedrooms. All the ironing was done yesterday, a long session of it to get Gertie’s clothes ready. Gertie is so fond of her nice clothes. They weren’t sure how many dresses Gertie would be able to keep with her at the hospital, but they got as many ready and packed as would fit in one of the small steamer trunks. Will and the girls were up early and off to Londonderry Station. Mary went off early too, fishing with her friends. It will mean some work upon her return, to clean the fish. Elizabeth knows Mary will bring an ample supply for she is almost as good a fisherman as Art. But it also means that tea is taken care of, nice fresh pan-fried trout, a lettuce salad (her leaf lettuce is good this year), and the fresh biscuits. Lunch time will be some egg salad sandwiches, which reminds her that she must go check the hens. As she rocks in her rocking chair, Elizabeth stares out the window at the busy street. Everyone coming and going. She’ll sit there, she thinks, until Elizabeth comes back from Chisholm's pasture and they can do some gardening together. The wee child loves to dig in the earth, and is so proud of the little patch all her own. Elizabeth doesn’t really want to go to the lecture tonight, but Will says they should try to do it. He’s so hopeful that Gertie will be home soon, but Elizabeth sees the sorrow in his eyes, behind his gentle smile. Like her, he is worried. Elizabeth doesn’t want to use the word doubt. Nobody knows, she thinks, picking up her knitting, watching the road up Scrabble Hill for her granddaughter. God’s will is so difficult to fathom. It is not up to us to do so, she thinks.

 Panoramic view of Great Village

When Will arrives back he stays outside busying himself with the wagon. Elizabeth serves the sandwiches on the verandah, a treat her granddaughter delights in like a picnic. In the afternoon Will goes off to Glenholme with Arthur and Billy and two of the Spencer boys, to install a furnace. It is hard to convince the child that she must stay home, hard to say no; but the men will be too busy to tend to her. Elizabeth convinces her granddaughter that it is better to remain with the promise that she can help clean the fish Mary will bring home. Elizabeth marvels at the curiosity of her wee granddaughter, always full of questions, and she's inherited the family's fascination with fish and fishing. Besides, Elizabeth tells her, she needs to fetch Nelly, who would be lonely without her company on the walk home from Chisholm's pasture.


1. Elizabeth Bishop remembered the keen commitment of her Aunt Mabel Bulmer’s housekeeping, in a memoir about her Uncle Arthur Bulmer, “Memories of Uncle Neddy.” In this memoir she called Mabel, “Aunt Hat”: “Mondays, Aunt Hat energetically scrubbed the family’s clothes, summers, down below, out back. On good days she occasionally burst quite loudly into song as she scrubbed and rinsed:

Oh, the moon shines tonight on pretty Red Wing,
 The breeze is sighing,
 The night bird's crying.
Oh, far beneath the sky her warrior's sleeping
 While Red Wing’s weeping
 Her heart awa-a-y...

This song is still associated in my mind not with a disconsolate Indian maiden and red wings but with a red blouse, red hair, strong yellow laundry soap, and galvanized scrubbing boards (also sold in Uncle Neddy’s shop; I forgot them). On other weekdays, Aunt Hat, as I have said, cleaned house: it was probably the cleanest house in the county. The kitchen linoleum dazzled; the straw matting in the upstairs bedrooms looked like new and so did the hooked rugs; the ‘cozy corner’ parlor, with a red upholstered seat and frilled red pillows standing on their corners, was never disarranged; ever china ornament on the mantelpiece over the airtight stove was in the same place and dustless, and Aunt Hat always seemed to have a broom or a long-handled brush in her hand, ready to take a swipe either at her household effects or at any child, dog, or cat that came her way. Her temper, like her features, seemed constantly at a high temperature, but on bad days it rose many degrees and she ‘took it out,’ as the village said behind her back, in cleaning house. They also said she was ‘a great hand at housework’ or ‘a demon for housework’; sometimes, ‘She’s a Tartar, that one!’” (Collected Prose  239-40).

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