Friday, September 14, 2012

Friday Reading Assignment: The Home-Maker

Dorothy Canfield Fisher is not so well known now, but she was a best selling author in the early 20th century.  One of her children's books, Understood Betsey, was one of my favorites.  This week I read The Home-Maker, which I assumed has been long out of print, but actually was reprinted in 1999 by Persephone Books, which has published a very interesting list of books by obscure women writers. They also use reprints of antique fabrics for their endpapers.

So, it's the 1920s and Eva Knapp is a respectable housewife with three children and a husband who has a low-paying white collar job at the local mercantile.  Eva is talented.  She has a natural sense of style, design ability, energy, superior organization and leadership skills and all of this talent has one avenue of expression: housekeeping. She is miserable. Her children and husband are terrified of her.  All of them suffer stress-related physical ailments except for the youngest child, who is a baby juvenile delinquent.  Then an accident happens and Eva is forced to get a job, while her husband, Lester, finds himself in the position of home maker.

It was the first part of this book, when Eva is still a home maker, that really grabbed me.  She can't rest until her house is immaculate. Cleaning and cooking are her only means of self-expression, and in this context a small domestic mishap (grease spilled on a freshly scrubbed floor) takes on tragic proportions.  How many of us have felt that way?  I know I did when I was at home full time with four children under six.  One wonders if it is frustrated talent and energy that has led to the almost unattainable standards of motherhood we face today.  Polyurethane has eliminated the need to scrub grease spots out of wood floors, but who in the 1920's was teaching Chinese to toddlers or throwing Goodnight Moon-themed birthday parties for infants?

The Home-Maker must have been a radical book in 1924, the way it acknowledges that full-time care of a house and children is not fulfilling for everyone and is not necessarily the exclusive province of women.  Still, the fact that it was made into a movie soon after it was published suggests that women responded to this concept even if it made them uncomfortable. The novel considers and rejects the idea that both parents can work, but Lester, conveniently, loves to stay at home with his children.  The point is not that homemaking is bad for everybody, just for some people.  But in the 1920s, the only acceptable reason for a man to stay home with his children was a disability.  It must also have shocked the readers of the 1920s that Eva ends up earning more than her husband ever would have.

The Home-Maker is not great literature by any means, and certain passages are almost unbearably corny and sentimental.  Still, it appears to be having a mini-revival and I can see why.


  1. I think I'd like this one. I find planning parties, cooking, decorating, shopping and menu planning tiresome and tedious.

  2. I think I'd like this one, especially after following your advice to read about Elizabeth and her gardens.

  3. Is it frustrated talent and energy that's lead to the unattainable standards or guilt that some mothers aren't staying at home like we used to?
    Sounds like an interesting read either way.

  4. Really TSB? You strike me as someone who would hate corny and sentimental.

    Becky, you are probably right. Actually, it's probably a little bit of both. At any rate, I'd feel more comfortable in the days when it was OK to kick your kids out of the house for the day while you sat at the kitchen table and smoked cigarettes.

  5. Oops, sorry.

    I should have typed "I like corn and Emmental"

  6. Wait, you're not supposed to kick your kids out and sit around smoking anymore? Whoops....