Main Contents & Search


My Friend the Housekeeper.

Sarah Orne Jewett

     It was such a funny little house! People who went up and down the street used to wonder what it could have been built for. It wasn't large enough for a family of even two to keep house in. It did not look like an office or a workshop; besides, the house close by which it stood was too handsome to have a workshop on its lawn. The door was on the side, and instead of a high porch, there was just one stone step before it. There was a window on each side of the door, and in the end toward the street was a little bay-window.

     My friend the housekeeper's name is Nelly Ashford. I think I am safe in saying that there never has been a happier housekeeper since the world began; and now I will begin at the very beginning, and tell you all about it. I never knew how Nelly first got the idea; but she says she remembers thinking, when she was very small, that a doll's house ought to be a real little house, - not a room or part of a room in a large one. Once, when she was ill with scarlet fever, - she was not very ill, it was rather a good time, on the whole, - her Aunt Bessie read to her that dear book of Mary Howitt's called "The Children's Year." Perhaps you have read it, and have not forgotten that Herbert and Meggy used to play in a little house in the garden, and make believe that a naughty woman, whom they called Mrs. Gingham, came and upset their playthings. That is a charming book. I read it every little while myself, though I am quite grown-up.

     The winter before the house was built, one evening Nelly was very still, sitting in front of the library fire, on the rug. Her mother was writing letters and her father was reading; but presently Mr. Ashford heard her laugh a little, and looked up and saw how busily she was thinking. So he said, "What is it, Nelly?"

     "Oh, I suppose you will laugh, papa!"


     "I was telling myself a story about what I would do if I had a cunning little bit of a house, all my own, to play in, in the day-time. It would have a little parlor, with a table in it large enough to have the girls come to tea-parties; and another room back of the parlor for a kitchen, where there could be a fire in a little stove, with an oven to bake cake in and make candy. I wouldn't make candy in the oven, but on the top, you know. And I was thinking about the fun Mrs. Giddigaddi had in her kitchen. It tells about her in 'Little Men.' Do you think when I get older I could really have a house out in the garden somewhere? I would be so very careful not to get it on fire. It needn't be near this house, so if it should burn down, or anything, it wouldn't do harm. I have always thought about having it, ever since I was a little girl."

     "Yes," said Mr. Ashford, laughing, "I think I have heard you speak of it before. Should you stay out there altogether, or make us an occasional visit?"

     "I wouldn't dare stay there after dark," said Nelly, "I should be afraid. But, you know, I shall be ever so much older next summer; and, papa," - this very eagerly - "when I am grown-up it would make such a pretty study, and I could learn my lessons there."

     "How very sensible!" said mamma. "I don't see how any one can say no to that; but I shall expect to see it blazing up to the skies the day after you move in." Then Mr. Ashford laughed and took up his book again, while Mrs. Ashford said, "This is a large house for three people, and I think the little girl can find room enough for the dollies."

     Now this was not encouraging; but Nelly went back to her seat on the rug, and went on "telling herself stories" for a while. She enjoyed very much an imaginary visit from her cousins. They came at night, and the first thing in the morning after breakfast she took them out into the garden, and they were so surprised to see the lovely play-house; and then she was to have a whole ring full of keys, like her mother's, and take these out of her pocket, choose the right one, and unlock the door.

     You see by this that Nelly was very fond of castle-building, - telling herself stories, she called it, and I think that is a very good name. It is a very pleasant thing to do, only we must be careful to build as well as dream. I wish we all dreamed of the right kind of castles, and instead of thinking of useless or selfish things, we were planning kind things to be done for our friends; that we told ourselves stories about being very good girls and boys always, instead of being lazy and cross and naughty, as we all are once in a while.

     After Nelly went up to bed that winter evening, Mrs. Ashford said, "I wonder why she couldn't have a play-house? I know she would enjoy it, for I remember I used to wish for one myself."

     "I was thinking about it," said Nelly's father. "I don't think it would be much trouble. I will draw a little plan myself, and go down to see Mr. Jones, the house-builder, to-morrow, and ask him about it."

     "We will send Nelly to Boston when he is ready to build it, and surprise her when she comes home," said Mrs. Ashford.

     Mr. Jones was consulted not long after, and promised to send some men in May. So, just before the appointed time for laying the foundations, a letter came from grandmamma, who lived in Boston, asking Nelly to come immediately to make her a visit. She often had such invitations as this, and was always willing to accept them. She never suspected that she could be sent away from home for any reason; and do you think, as she drove down the street to the station, she met one of Mr. Jones's men driving a load of lumber! Wouldn't she have jumped out of the carriage and followed him home, if she had known what interesting boards those were!

     I can't stop to tell you much about the visit in Boston, for that would make a long story by itself. Nelly's Aunt Bessie was much younger than her sister, Mrs. Ashford, and everybody thought her a most charming young lady. She was very fond of Nelly, who was her only niece, and Nelly often said she was just as good as a little girl to play with. You see she hadn't forgotten the way she thought and felt when she was a child, as I am sorry to find a great many people have.

     Grandma was always as good as gold, and the house was very pleasant; and Nelly knew several nice girls about her own age, so she never thought of being homesick.

     Grandma and Aunt Bessie were very much interested in something Nelly did not know about, and they had a way of talking busily, and stopping suddenly when she came near. Aunt Bessie was hemming some small napkins and table-cloths, and her niece was much surprised, for she wasn't fond of sewing. She said that a friend of hers was going to housekeeping, and Nelly thought it queerer than ever, for Aunt Bessie did not often make that kind of present.

     One morning, grandma came down-stairs dressed for a drive, and told Nelly she was going shopping, and she might come, if she liked. This was always a great pleasure, for she could choose between sitting in the carriage and going into the shops; and grandma almost always stopped at a candy shop before she came home.

     Just as Nelly was beginning to grow a little tired, they stopped before some great windows full of carpets, and grandma said she wished that she would come into this shop, because she was going to choose a carpet for the room of a little friend of hers. If it had been anything else, Nelly would have thought it might be for herself; for grandma and Aunt Bessie often made her choose her own presents in this way; but only a few weeks before she left home a new carpet had been put down in her room. Such a beauty it was, too! They found another almost as pretty, and grandma gave the man a card, with the address to which it was to be sent, and they went away. It was such a pretty carpet. I saw it myself, and I know: very soft, with dark gray for the ground color, and little bunches of wild roses and dark green leaves for figures, with little blue flowers and yellow and white field-daisies mixed into the dainty little bouquets.

     "Now, Nelly," said grandma, "what would you like for a present?" And Nelly thought of a picture she had seen of a child dressed in black, with fair hair, and some lovely dogs. The name of it was "Her only Playmates," and it was in the picture-store where they had been that morning. So they drove back again, and grandma liked it as well as Nelly did, and told the man to frame it; then they went to a candy shop and bought so large a box full of candy that Aunt Bessie said, when they brought it home, it would last till Christmas.

     "Not if you eat it so fast," said Nelly, laughing.

     Soon after this a letter came from Mrs. Ashford, who said Nelly must come home, for they missed her so much, and she had already made a long visit. She wished to see her mother, of course, but she was sorry to leave Boston; and Aunt Bessie saw she looked a little troubled, so she called her to her desk, where she sat writing letters, and pointed to the candy pigeon-hole for consolation, while grandma said: -

     "Nelly, I think Aunt Bessie and I will go home with you and make a visit. It is so pleasant in the country now."

     Nelly reached home the next evening, and being very tired, she went to bed soon after supper.

     Next morning, at breakfast, she noticed that they were all very smiling, as if something nice was going to happen. Mr. Ashford pushed back his chair from the table without waiting for either his second cup of coffee or his newspaper and cigar, and said: -

     "I want you all to come out into the garden with me, to see some improvements I have been making."

     Just as they went out of the door, Nelly thought there might be a surprise coming, and in another minute she saw the play-house. Oh, my friend the housekeeper! How she half laughed and half cried; and when her father had given her the key, how she ran to put it into the key-hole!

     I wish you knew Nelly, so you could go and see that house for yourself. The door opened into a tiny square entry, and right in front of you was the funniest little hat-stand and umbrella-rack, and on either side were the doors which led into the parlor and kitchen. The parlor was just as pretty as it could be. The bay-window was a delight that Nelly never had thought of in all her planning, and there were pretty curtains, and the canary bird's cage hung by a new gilt chain in the middle, just over a small table holding the rustic basket of ferns and vines. In the middle of the room there was the larger table which Nelly had wished for. It was covered now by a bright cloth; but she found afterward that she could make it larger by putting leaves in, just as they did the one in her mother's dining-room. It was exactly right for tea-parties. Then there were three or four folding chairs with bright carpet seats, and one nice little rocking-chair, - just the thing to get the dolls to sleep in, - and a small sofa covered with dark blue. You will know that the carpet Nelly had chosen was on the floor, and the picture grandma had given her was hanging on the wall, with several others, - a pretty one of Red Riding Hood among the number. Besides these, there were some walnut brackets, with little vases and statuettes, and on the mantel-piece a little black clock was ticking away with all its might. All the big dolls sat round in their chairs, and seemed to feel quite at home. The very small ones were standing on either side of the clock in a long row. There were some book-shelves on the wall, and some of Nelly's books had been brought out to fill them. There was a closet with shelves and drawers, where the dolls' clothes or anything of the kind might be kept.

     Nelly said, with shining eyes, -

     "Oh, I never thought of anything half so nice as this! You are all so good!" And she told them over and over again that there wasn't anything she could think of to put in that parlor. They all sat down here a little while, and then Mr. Ashford said it wouldn't do for young housekeepers to stay in the parlor all the time, and she must give a little attention to her kitchen.

     Now, it had flashed through Nelly's mind a few minutes before that this play-house of hers was so daintily furnished that she couldn't have any of her favorite "clutters," as Bridget called all such amusements as making candy and washing the dolls' clothes, heading pins with sealing-wax, or "spattering." So you may imagine her satisfaction when she saw the other room.

     This was the kitchen, as I have told you, and here Nelly found a little stove, with an oven and a tea-kettle, which would hold at least a quart of water. Nelly was very fond of cooking, and here was a chance for her to do all she liked. There was a low table and some chairs, one of which - a little yellow one - had belonged to her grandmother when she was a child. What do you suppose she would have thought of such a play-house as that? If you had looked around, you would have seen all the things that one needs in such a kitchen: broom and dust-pan and brush, Nelly's little cedar tub, and a new clothes-horse about the size of a saw-horse, that Patrick, the coachman, had made. There were little tin pans, and - oh, dear me! - I can't begin to tell you everything. I think the greatest joy was when some one opened the door of a closet, and our friend found a new tea-set, - such a dear tea-set! with no end of cups and saucers and plates, - and a dozen very small tumblers, and some tiny teaspoons. The cream pitcher, and each of the larger pieces, was such a nice size and shape. On these there were blue and gold flowers, and a blue and gold stripe round everything. I wish every child I knew was as lucky as Nelly Ashford, and I wish you had seen what a hugging Aunt Bessie got on account of this tea-set and the table-cloths and napkins, which were recognized immediately, for these were all her presents. In the lower part of the closet Nelly found a store of provisions, and I must not forget to tell you that among them were a jar of raspberry jam and a whole box of very good little English biscuits, with which she instantly filled her pocket.

     Don't you think Nelly Ashford ought to have been one of the very best girls in the world? I do, and I think she tried to be. Who could be very cross when they were so fortunate as this?

     She asked her friends to stay and spend the day with her, but they were wise enough to refuse; and just now Nelly saw her best friend and crony, Alice Dennis, coming up the avenue, and shouted to her from the door. Alice had seen the play-house; she had been there nearly all the day before, so it was no surprise; but you will be sure that when the older people had gone, and they were left to themselves, there was no trouble in having a good time.

     Nelly kept open house for a week or two, and all her friends came to call. Mrs. Ashford said she had to go down the garden herself and make ceremonious calls, if she wished to see Nelly. She was always considerate enough to ring the bell. A person could not be mistress of a house like this without having a great many remarkable things happen.


"My Friend the Housekeeper" first appeared in St. Nicholas (1:650-653) in September 1874 and was collected in Play Days (1878). This text is from Play Days. "Marigold House" is a sequel to this story, also collected in Play Days.
     [ Back ]

scarlet fever: a bacterial infection related to strep throat, usually affecting young children and frequently fatal before the use of antibiotics.
     [ Back ]

Mary Howitt's ... "The Children's Year": Mary Howitt (1799-1888), author of The Children's Year (1847), was a pioneer in the writing of literature for children.
     [ Back ]

Giddigaddi ...'Little Men': Note that this text is not consistent in placing quotation marks around titles. Mrs. Giddygaddy is a nickname Jo gives to one of the girls at Plumfield School in Little Men (1871) Louisa May Alcott's (1832-1888) sequel to Little Women (1868).
     [ Back ]

Red Riding Hood: In various versions of this European folk tale, a little girl in a red hood takes treats to her grandmother, but stops in the woods to converse with a wolf.
     [ Back ]

Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.

The following illustration appeared in the St. Nicholas publication of the story. The artist has not been identified. The initials EW seem to appear in the lower left corner. Help crediting the artist would be appreciated.


Main Contents & Search