Buttons caused quite a dust-up recently on the Catholic Mom Blog corner of the internet. Calah Alexander (whom I don’t know) wrote about domestic life in her house and what’s important to her and her family. She also wrote openly and vulnerably on her insecurities about her occasional lack of home economic perfection. As far as I can tell, a lot of women received this well, either coming away with a new perspective or identifying with Calah and her struggles. Others focused on Calah’s admission that she couldn’t sew a button. You’d think she’d said she couldn’t turn a doorknob or spell her children’s names. This turned into several discussions about domesticity, millenials, and the role of certain tasks in the home.
Not being a mom myself, I mostly watched this from the periphery. However, although I’m not a mom, I DO have a blog which qualifies me to talk about things on the internet. So, I’d like to spend a little time here talking about the history of what we call “domestic arts,” their decline in our society, and how and why we might reexamine them.
Millennials did not abandon the domestic arts
One common accusation in the various threads (that’s a pun because sewing. Get it? Great!) was that my generation abandoned the domestic arts. This is patently false. [Sidenote: defining “generations” by year and assigning them pithy monikers is an absurd practice. But that can’t be helped. So, I’ll say millennials are people born between 1980 and 2000] Sure, many of us don’t know how to sew or cook. But this isn’t because we smugly turned up our noses at these skills, preferring instead to play with our Gameboys and slap bracelets. No, it’s because we weren’t taught these things by our parents. Yes, of course there are exceptions to this rule. But personal anecdotes do not an argument make.
The slide away from the domestic arts happened over many years. But the nail in the coffin of domesticity was driven home during the 70s. This was when the majority of women finally entered the workforce. Some analysts cite the Pill as the reason for this. Finally widely available, women could prevent pregnancy and build careers instead. This is insightful but I think the real roots of domesticity’s end begin much further back in history.
The “Cult of Domesticity” arose here in America just as the industrial revolution was taking shape in the 1820s. This was no coincidence. Before industrialism, America’s economy was chiefly agricultural. Men worked at or near the home either farming, cutting timber, or at some other enterprise nearby. Most of their tasks contributed directly to the economy of the home.
When factory jobs became prevalent and cities began to grow, men left the home and became wage earners. This happened slowly, especially in more rural areas like the south. But, as men left the home, the role of the wife as keeper of the home grew into the Cult of Domesticity. Superficially, this might seem like a positive thing for domestic arts but really it was the beginning of their end. Why? Because the home was no longer the main economic unit of society. Suddenly, the man economic unit was much larger; the factory, the building project, etc. These endeavors did not directly contribute to the family, they provided wages. The home and the tasks that supported it became cheaper to subcontract, so to speak.
If a man spends most of his daylight hours earning money somewhere besides his home, then two things are true. One, he doesn’t have time to perform tasks he used to and, two, he has the money to purchase what those tasks used to produce.
All of this paved the way for consumerism to triumph in the last century. The flames of consumerism were fanned by technology, of course, as well as increased production and falling prices for manufactured goods. I’ll blame television, too because why not? But, the main source of the change began long before when men left the home to work elsewhere.
The liturgy of the Cult of Domesticity was last practiced in the fifties and sixties. By that point, the housewife was no longer the chief producer of the home. Housewives were still supposed to cook, clean, and sew. But they were also often relegated to the role of shopper. That is, consumer and not producer. Advertising played a huge role in this, of course. So did increased demands on their time. And, perhaps most importantly, the vital role of the home was increasingly trivialized. Couples had fewer children. So on and so on. And then, over a century after most men had made their exodus, women left the home as well. Or, at least, their daughters did. A generation or two later, here we are.
So, it was men who set off what would eventually lead to the abandonment of the domestic arts. Millennials simply inherited this state of things. But there’s lots of evidence that we may be the ones to resurrect these arts as well. My generation is returning in droves to small farms. We’re the ones reviving the art of knitting, smithing, and traditional woodworking. Farm-to-table restaurants, artisan butchers, and craft breweries. The younger generations are leading these endeavors despite being continuously dismissed as hipsters or idealistic fools. And it’s our generation that is opting to stay home with children.
Hopefully some of this signals a return to an economy centered around the family (I’m letting my Catholic social teaching colors show here but I don’t care). But, even if we give up these pursuits and remain entrenched in consumerism, my generation still shouldn’t shoulder the blame for the decline in sewing machine sales.
You can’t render lard? OMG you must be a terrible mom
But what are the “domestic arts” anyway? In the discussions I saw recently, no one seemed to mention anything beyond cooking and sewing. Is that really all there is?
Haley and I once bought a pig with another couple. It came from just east of here and was raised beneath our North Florida pines. The farmer slaughtered it for us and had it skinned and gutted. My buddy Ted picked it up in a gigantic cooler and I got my knives and a hacksaw and went over to his place to butcher it. Neither of us had done this before so we watched videos online to help us figure out what the heck to do. It took a good six hours of sawing through bone and carving up fat and muscle. We packaged it up and filled out freezers.
For the next couple months, Haley and I learned how to brine hams, cook unusual cuts, and cure bacon. One afternoon, I came home to find Haley rendering huge quantities of lard in our crock pot. It. Was. Awesome.
Surely, butchering animals is one of the most basic “domestic arts.” We humans have been doing this long before we’d even invented buttons. Buying a whole animal locally and cutting it up yourself is much cheaper than going to the store every week. You can get the cuts exactly how you want them. The meat is healthier, free from preservatives, and tastier than store-bought meat. The list of reasons for butchering your own meat is long. Yet, if a woman admitted she didn’t know how to render lard, no one would berate her for her ignorance.
What’s happened here is that our view of the domestic arts has become strangely narrow. Just two short centuries ago, both men and women took part in an incredibly wide variety of domestic tasks; gardening, animal husbandry, preserving food, making soap, tanning hides, spinning wool, saving seeds, the list goes on. But, as America moved away from agrarianism and manufactured goods became cheaper, all of the arts that had traditionally produced these goods were slowly abandoned. When we built our new domestic idols back in the 50s, the remaining arts were few. I’m sure this is quite helpful for entrepreneurs like Martha Stewart who can publish magazines about two subjects and call it “housekeeping” instead of having to print massive tomes detailing everything from candles to head cheese.
Husbandry is half of home economics
Another interesting thing I noticed in the button discussion is that everyone seemed to focus on women. This may simply be because a lot of women on this corner of the internet (how many corners does the internet have, anyway?) stay home. Of course, this isn’t true for most women these days. Yet we all still seem to assume that domestic tasks belong to women. But this is an oddity of our modern perspective.
Husband comes to us via Old Norse and is made up of the words “hus” for house and “bondi” for someone who tills the soil. So, originally, “husband” referred to someone who owned a house and cared for and managed the land around it. That is, a landowning farmer. Eventually, husband and husbandry shifted in meaning. Husbandry still refers to someone who manages land but can also refer to a manager of many other things. Most husbands were also married men and so, from the 13th century onwards, husband began to mean simply a married man.
The husband’s role as farmer and house manager continued until relatively recently. They often built the whole dang house. The distribution of tasks has varied widely from culture to culture. But the husband always played a role. Which is why it’s curious that today, domestic arts are usually associated with women. This is mostly due to the fact that men abandoned their domestic posts before women and the tasks that are now left over from a more self-sufficient time are the ones that women continued to perform longer. Still, there’s no reason we can’t redistribute some of these. I happen to love cooking and my wife and I split that task fairly evenly. I also love to sew. I don’t do it very often or very well. But I think handsewing a simple project is one of the most relaxing ways to spend an evening. So, if my wife doesn’t want to sew a button back onto a shirt, I don’t see any reason why she should have to. Her vocation is wife and mother, not seamstress.
I also think it’s curious that we are usually willing to give men a pass on not possessing traditionally manly skills. I’ve never seen a man publicly scold another man for not knowing how to change the oil on his car or smoke meat. We might be impressed when a man DOES possess woodworking or other “manly” skills but we seem to accept these skills as nonessential to the office of father or husband. A man could easily save his family money if he built all their furniture, a traditionally manly task. But no one would fault a man for not doing this.
Parenting and housekeeping are not the same thing
I can’t remember ever seeing my mom sew something. I’m sure she knows how to mend things and fix buttons. But she never made me a little sailor hat or anything. Cooking wasn’t her favorite thing to do either. She DID cook. But it wasn’t her favorite. Plus, she and my dad both worked and were really busy with church stuff. So we went out to eat a lot. I actually have lots of great memories of my family together, eating out at different places. I can’t name all the restaurants but, as I type this, images of specific meals are flying through my mind.
My parents’ practice of eating out as a family fostered my love of food and greatly contributed to the way Haley and I approach meal time. We don’t go out to eat as much but we do always eat together and we eat lots of different kinds of things. Meal time is quality family time for us. This, I believe, is more important than any culinary skill I possess. And that comes from my mom.
So, my mom wasn’t a queen of the domestic arts but she was (is) an amazing mother and I will punch anyone in the face who suggests otherwise. Because being a parent is about loving your children, fostering their development, teaching them, and guiding them. You can do all of this without fixing a single button or putting up a single jar of green beans. Being a good spouse involves self-sacrifice, patience, and understanding. You can do all of this without ever making curtains or learning to bake macaroons. Sure, learning a new skill might help you love your spouse or take care of your children. But there’s no way you can look at someone’s life and make that decision for them.
Now, I happen to think everyone should learn how to cook, preserve, brew, garden, churn, sew, tan, carve, and harvest. I think they’re good skills to have, can save you money, create a better home, and help us fulfill our role as sub-creators (that’s another post). But I won’t conflate these skills with motherhood or fatherhood.
Still, I am glad some people are beginning to reclaim the domestic arts and I think this will be good for families. Not just because it will save a family money or return us to the golden age of the fifties. Instead, I hope that a return to the domestic arts will shift focus back to the family as the foundational unit both economic and social.