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Cartoon depicting women's household work from the Grain Grower's GuideTraditionally women’s primary job has been the household chores. During the early pioneer years, this job was not small by any degree, since before homes were equipped with indoor plumbing, electricity and major household appliances, chores involved much time and energy. Women needed to haul in water and collect coal and wood for the fire.  One chore that took up the majority of women’s time was food preparation because many of the subsistence foods needed to be made from scratch. Women baked their own bread, milked cows and churned cream to make butter. They collected eggs from chicken pens and berries from the fields in summer. Vegetables were grown in the gardens women kept by their houses and many fruits and vegetable were canned, thus preserving them for the winter. Once an animal was butchered, women were responsible for the preparation of the meat, which could involve salting or smoking to preserve it.

Another household chore was sewing. In many instances, women sewed her own and her families’ clothing. In a large family with many children, this could mean that women spent much time making and mending clothes. She was also responsible for cleaning the clothes. Laundry was apparently one of the most dreaded tasks, as it involved a great amount of energy scrubbing the clothes in hot water, hanging them to dry and then ironing them. Cleaning was also one of women’s main tasks. In many of the rudimentary homes, with dirt floors and sod roofs, cleaning could prove to be one the most frustrating tasks, but women learned many methods of keeping the dust levels down.  The final task that fell within the realm of women’s household work was caring for the elderly, sick and children.  Before the arrival of health-care professionals, women developed their own home remedies for caring for the elderly and sick. Children, especially when they were in their infant stages, took up a large portion of women’s time especially if women were also responsible for educating them. Children, however, were quickly given chores, especially daughters who, when older, were expected to work alongside their mothers in performing the household chores. If a family could afford it, a domestic servant could also be hired to help out wives in their numerous tasks.

Despite the sometimes tedious and lonely nature of their work, it is evident that many women took great pride in their household duties.  Opportunities to show off their work at fairs and community gatherings by bringing baked goods, homegrown vegetables and crafts were often seized.  During threshing season, when men in a community would group together and move around to each farm to perform the threshing, women had the opportunity to show off their cooking.  When the crew came to her home, a woman would attempt to outdo her female neighbours in making the largest and best meals.  For some, the stress of this season was too much, as one stated:

“In Alberta, as in Illinois, each housewife vies with the others in demonstrating her ability as a cook, and I was almost in panic.  I finally decided that I would give them plenty of good food, but would not compete with other women around in a line of work in which I did not excel.” 1

Also, despite the rudimentary nature of their homes, which were sometimes no more than "soddies" or shacks, women attempted to create clean, comfortable and pleasant living environments. Items, such as tablecloths, printed curtains, pictures and vases, which were outside the realm of necessity but nevertheless contributed to the aesthetics of homes, were introduced to achieve this goal. Women, more than any other family member, spent the majority of their time inside the home; therefore, she was improving mostly her own living and working environment. However, this attempt to make the home attractive and comfortable – that is moving it beyond the merely functional use of space – was also seen as essential to the civilization of the West. By reducing the crudeness of her home, a woman was taking an important step towards reducing the primitive nature of the Western frontier.

Sources:

  • Dodd, Dianne.  "Women and Domestic Technology: Household Drudgery, 'Democratized Consumption,' and Patriarchy."  Framing Our Past.  Eds. Sharon Cook, et al.  Montreal: McGill University Press, 2001.
      

  • Gagnon, Anne.  " 'Our Parents did not raise us to be independent:' The Work and Schooling of Young Franco-Albertan Women, 1890-1940." Prairie Forum 1994 19(2): 169-185.
      

  • McManus, Sheila.  "Gender(ed) Tensions in the Work and Politics of Alberta Farm Women, 1905-29."  Telling Tales.  Eds. Randi Warne and Catherine Cavanaugh.  Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2000.
      

  • Millar, Nancy.  Once Upon a Wedding.  Calgary: Bayeux Arts, 2000.
      

  • Wetherall, Donald and Irene Kmet.  Homes in Alberta: Building, Trends, and Design 1870-1967.  Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1991.

 

 

  
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