Some historical downsides of having household help, American edition

  1. Infectious-licious!

    Unvetted servants carrying infectious diseases.  The above is the most famous example, but there are plenty of other examples to draw upon.  Because a reference wasn’t necessary to secure a position due to the chronic labor shortages of a growing, wealthy society with free right of travel for all whites (and many blacks), a lot of servants would turn up to work in a household and get everyone sick.  Usually it wasn’t lethal (even Typhoid Mary had fewer than 10% of her 50+ victims die, the rest recovered), but it still was a very real risk and concern.  Anonymity was an early feature of American society, even when housewives still needed domestic help, and this was one of the nasty little side effects of that

  2. Harder to present the image of a classless society.  Being the land of opportunity, America has always struggled with the fact that some people are going to be servants or employees to others for their working lives.  Instead of considering this a reason to keep working conditions for domestic servants decent, it was considered a reason to just not have servants.  Or lie about them.  A notable example can be found during the Eisenhower presidency of the 1950s.  His then Vice-President Richard Nixon’s wife spent years pretending she did not have a live-in maid (Swedish), a yard man (ethnic background unknown), and loads and loads of babysitters to watch the two children they had, even to the extent of demanding the help never be photographed or spoken to by reporters doing “A Day in the Life of the Veep’s Wife” fluff pieces.  Something to keep in mind when hearing about how housewives don’t need domestic help because appliances.  As early as the 1950s, American women had many of what we currently consider modern appliances except for the glorious microwave and front-loading washing machine.  But they also had maids and childcare help (which was exempted from wage laws, of course).  Well-off Americans have claimed for a long time that they just magically do it all themselves, especially but not strictly conservatives.
  3. They just wanted a ten hour workday.

    Violent responses to poor working conditions.  The above is a picture of the Papin sisters, who were French and killed their mistress and her adult daughter after years of 14 hour days.  While not American, working conditions for American domestics were frequently not better.  This is occluded somewhat by racial stuff, but Northern white women were quite as happy to leave a white female servant bleeding from a slap or the strop as Southern white women were with black female slaves.  This is, of course, memoryholed like whoa in American discourse on domestic help.  Domestic service is not necessarily lowly, and given decent working conditions, many women are quite all right with serving others even if the pay is not the toppiest of top-end.  American women ran from service because the conditions and pay were both pretty crummy (the Woman Homesteader of Wyoming I wrote a bit about a white back was willing to trade the conditions of working as a laundress in an urban area for the backbreaking work of homesteading in Wyoming.)  They didn’t run because they disliked serving others necessarily.  Some did, but others would have been happy to keep doing that as a job if they were treated like humans by their employers.  Things these days are not going in that direction, with the rise of “servant apps” where you just-in-time schedule your domestic help (“assistants”).  Meanwhile, the paternalism that drives our own hiring is sneered at for not being all-encompassing enough.  Vacation days, feh!  You don’t pay health insurance!  Health insurance?  Pah, you don’t put in a 401k!  Middle-class American women used to be able to afford domestic help not just because the wages were exempted, but also because it wasn’t considered a job, it was considered a relationship with pay at its best (and worst, of course).  Nobody wants to have human relationships anymore or accept the consequences of paternalism at its best (being responsible personally for those you employ) and in America part of that is being able to just up and move away from paternalism at its worst (Papin sisters, worst of chattel slavery).

 

The Amish have the highest living standard in the United States

If you define standard of living increases in terms of an individual having more opportunities to enjoy private experiences and consumption of individual goods, you get one kind of society.  If you define standard of living increases in terms of local-level collectives (families, towns, cities) having more opportunities to enjoy shared experiences and consumption of individual and collective goods, you get a whole nother kind of society.

If technological benefits are communally shared and not solely focused on individual gratification, you get a very different picture of improved living standards over time.

To put it another way, a four bedroom, two bath house of 2000-2500sq ft is considered just right for a family of four, but it’s not at all unpleasant or crowded to have eight people living in such a large home.  But the relentless march of progress always portrays the choice as “cram 20 people in” or “have 3-4 people knocking around a giant house” when one could have an intermediate situation where one enjoyed the benefits of modern technology with the benefits of accountability due to living with what has typically been a bit more than nuclear family in your home.

Related, this family lives “off the grid” in terms of energy use, but is very much tightly interwoven and connected into the grid of real community:

http://waywardspark.com/on-homesteading-off-grid-living-and-money/

That couple is raising their children with teachers and adults they knew and liked, among people who know their parents, among blood kin and friends who also have long-standing multi-generational roots in that particular region.  They aren’t nearly as isolated despite their lack of public utilities as the modern SAHM living in a suburb far from both sets of relatives, in a town nowhere near even distant kin or college friends.  A lot of people think it’s limiting or provincial to spend your life living among multiple generations of blood and soil, but it’s natural, it’s normal and just because it’s not American* doesn’t mean it’s not something to be pursued in America.

*American: traditional American living is this, if there’s no religious aspect as with the Amish.  For all the right wing vitriol towards that kind of music and, uh, black people, that’s the real American essence, distilled.  Money, money, money, getting wealth, getting a big chunk of land far away from other people to lord over, these are a few of (white) America’s favorite things.  One of the reasons the social institutions conservatives love are failing is because of that GetRich aspect of Core America (h/t one Mr. Sailer).  It combines with individualism to be ultimately not that predictive or productive of wealth in the amounts desired by nearly all the individuals, but it has created a nation with wealth that none will likely ever see again.

But the Amish and that couple have a higher standard of living than the people with bigger houses on giant lots with a car for mom and dad and junior and sally precisely because the former two are less traditionally American than the latter household.

 

Notes on Letters from a Woman Homesteader

So I got diverted from my original 2014 reading list by yet another bit of old writing that doesn’t quite match up to the myths around frontier and pioneer folks.

It’s some letters a homesteading woman from about 100 years ago wrote to a former employer she’d maintained cordial relations with.  She’d worked for the employer as a laundress.  What is fascinating about the letters is that yet again, she didn’t do all the work alone, but routinely had other women helping her, or she traveled to help them.  It is clearly normalized in these letters for the women to go around to each other and spend days or weeks assisting with, well, homesteading for each other, along with the demands of hospitality.  When parties and social events are undertaken, it’s just assumed that everyone (including men) will pitch in to help the individual household tasked with hosting duties.  There is, despite the fact that they all live ten and twenty and thirty miles away from each other, not actually that much rugged individualism.

Also, this woman’s body broke down having lots of babies (six, more or less, according to other information about her life elsewhere on the internet) and working hard.  The letters Mrs. Stewart writes detail multiple instances of being unwell and struggling physically due to pregnancies (and infant deaths/miscarriages) and the work of homesteading. Her marriage was a mail-order marriage, but it lasted and as noted above produced quite a few surviving little bundles of joy out of it.

Mrs. Stewart promotes homesteading aggressively, feeling strongly that however hard that labor is, it still beats being a laundress in an urban metro area in the early 20th century.  She really felt that women should get out there and grab a piece of land for themselves, with or without a husband.  That sort of feminine self-determination is American to the core, being in regular currency prior to the 19th amendment.  I continue to have my own preconceptions about traditional America rocked by the knowledge that everything old is new again.  And in this case what’s old is American women waving a flag of securing financial independence through earning income rather than marriage.

It’s a short read, plus she’s a capable and engaging writer.  There’s a reason her employer sent the letters to be published in a magazine.

Panglossian Chauvinism undermines normal living in America

Panglossian Chauvinism is how Americans continue to prop up and support disorder and abnormal beliefs as normal.  It’s also how conservatives unwittingly prevent any among them from developing robust and successful alternatives to the liberal status quo.

“Everything will work out in this, the best of all possible nations.”

This is why the right wing thinks voting will be useful under the current systems in place.  This is why we don’t have better alternatives to the current energy grid, or the current farming infrastructure.  It’s also why conservatives are not at the vanguard of making it less crummy to have children and grandchildren (and thereby great-grandchildren, etc.) even though they are among the few subcultures still bothering to bring said glorious blessings into the world at all.

Panglossian Chauvinism has people boasting in their frugality as they rely on astonishing advancements in container shipping and materials science but fancy themselves independent and self-sufficient.  The world of canning is but one example.

Panglossian Chauvinism also makes it impossible for Americans to understand how things work in other parts of the world.  It isn’t all crummy over in Western Europe, Canada and Australia/New Zealand.  But it’s not some technotopia of socialist love neither.  Panglossian Chauvinism is an American flaw, but I plan to come back to the specific manifestations of it among conservative-Americans.  Another day though.

ETA 2015: http://www.newworldeconomics.com/archives/tradcityarchive.html

That guy linked above is kind of weird, but he has some great insights about how to build real communities that are People First and not Stuff/Vehicles/Developers First.  In fact, I wish I’d stumbled across him a bit sooner, but his archive of city planning/history is worth reading and thinking about.  Overscaling appears to be part of America’s DNA.

Double Consciousness for SAHMs

Double consciousness, it’s not just a black thing!  It is a classic housewife problem, coming from servant classes but marrying well enough to afford servants yourself and not knowing what to do with them.  Chalk it up to another way to feel bad and a failure as a woman.

I think it doesn’t get enough real discussion among conservatives, because they are very wedded to the classless America myth.  But one of the conflicts with the idea of a “traditional America” is that America was peopled by folks who rejected proper authority and their proper place in existing hierarchies.  It was peopled by servant classes and third sons of gentry, people who would have been very low on their relative totem poles in the home countries.  Combined with the low population density and the love of technology, there’s always been a big conflict in “traditional America” over whether to have servants at all.  This was an added layer to slavery debates, incidentally.

Among the white ethnic groups who came over with strong traditions of sharing the labor out instead of having servants, Americans forgot or ignored that those ethnic groups relied on massive shaming and social pressure to spread the work around.

And so by the time we get to the modern era, the white-ethnic traditions that provided voluntary, unpaid support for housewives are nearly extinct and other forms of support are unavailable due to a mix of factors, including tolerance of disordered and sociopathic personalities in housewife-heavy subcultures.

This is incidentally why so many white American people are quick to claim they and their ancestors didn’t own slaves or benefit from slavery.  It’s a way to forget that lots and lots and lots of white people really really really wanted to have the wealth and subject labor that slaves represented.  There wouldn’t have been an entire industry peopled by those servantless whites around kidnapping free black people and claiming they were slaves with “missing papers” if slave labor was such a horrible financial drain to have and keep going *for the people who had slaves*. Having serfs is particularly nice if you don’t have to worry about your children dropping that far down the ladder because the serfs are an entirely different race.

Likewise, a small but influential number of women dismiss the idea of servants or household help as important, needful or useful because they are disordered and the wacky individualist strain in American culture provides cover for their madness, at the expense of having to deal with the fact that you just might not be “middle class” in origins or background and narrowly missed being the maid or nanny or housekeeper yourself.  It also is why there is such a belief, most particularly among conservatives, that the private household administered by a housewife is utterly essential but that household help is utterly improper as a social expectation for housewives.  Without that deranged, Randian individualism, conservatives could not gaslight women into believing that they must carry the full burden of maintaining a household with nothing more than a prayer book, a vacuum cleaner and a dishwasher.

There’s also the dismissal of the idea that life in domestic service could be a career with advancement and wealth-building opportunities.  This was even the case to a surprising extent (as in, it happened at all) in American chattel slavery.  If simply being a servant is the worst possible thing that could happen to someone, then having servants cannot be a moral or worthwhile thing.  This is an ongoing theme in American culture, that class and status conflict playing out decade after decade. But yeah.  Black Americans aren’t the only ones who’ve had to struggle with double consciousness as an artifact of their place in society.