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Uncollected Essays

Every-Day Work

Sarah Orne Jewett

     There are a great many women nowadays who are sadly dissatisfied with their work and their position in life. Things seem unequal to them, and they envy not only the greater freedom of their fathers, their brothers, and their husbands, but the better pay these receive sometimes for doing exactly the same work as themselves. Their own lot in life seems to them an inferior one; they begin the race of life lame-footed and hindered; they believe themselves to have no chance to win from the very nature of things.

     Some women are subjected to a sad oppression, and I am willing to confess that they are apt to be the losers in many contests, but I am willing also to confess, with shame, that it is more apt to be their own fault than anybody else's. Again and again one is reminded of Daniel Webster's wise counsel to the young lawyer, that he would always find room enough at the top; for, in other things beside a lawyer's business, work is too often half done instead of well done, and good workmen and work-women in any art or industry are so rare that it is hard to find them, and the aim of every overseer is to keep them and to reap the advantage of their satisfactory way of doing things.

     A great trouble is one that will, I fear, be a trouble always. Most people wish to do the least possible work for the highest possible pay. It is not the question "Have I done this right?" but "Have I done this well enough to pass?" that they ask themselves. There is a constant shirking, and cheating and snarling at employers, as if the workman were a slave, whose hard toil a cruel master claimed without giving thanks or reward. To be handsomely paid for doing nothing, comes close to many a workman's idea of his rights. It is all luck, many people say; but the older and wiser we grow the surer we are that good luck is apt to be well earned, and that fortunate people are in some way or other the hardest workers, and have sometime or other set the traps which secure for them the wary game which their neighbors expect to come to them at their whistle.

     Every year there are more women who are fired with an ambition to be teachers, and clerks and preachers, physicians, and lawyers and artists. In every occupation and profession they have won renown, and have become useful and successful and honored. Yet it seems a pity that there should not have been more improvement in the way of doing the every-day work which is the province of nineteen out of twenty women. It is certainly worthy of the best thought and care. We are always making the mistake of thinking that dissatisfaction and ambition are the same thing. True ambition is a motive power; dissatisfaction is nothing in itself, unless it is either making us do our work better or leading us to some other work better in itself, and claiming our successful exertion. Because a woman is tired and cross over her every-day affairs, and is careless how she attends to them, it is no credit to her. If she cannot be certain that she ought to do something else -- if she knows that she is face to face with duty just where she is, she is to be most bitterly reproached if she is not in every way putting her whole thought and heart into her daily life. Having some work and liking it is the truest satisfaction this world can give; all the real pleasure and happiness of life follow in its train, and are linked with it. The minute you shirk your rightful work and try to escape from the place where you belong, you have blocked your machinery and you are worse than useless. If you wish to take a higher and better position in the world's sight, you must earn your right to it; for whosoever climbs up another way is a thief and a robber.

     Many young women think that to be called a teacher or an artist is much more honorable than to be called a seamstress or a cook -- if they are earning their own living; but a perfect seamstress and an admirable cook are far more to be respected and get far better pay than the teacher who has no gift at communicating the few ideas she has, or the artist who makes at the best poor daubs of copies, and half freezes and starves herself -- depending upon stray classes of pupils in country villages. It is no glory to do anything unless you do it well; it is better to do something well, than to do it ignorantly; a handsome rug on the floor is a thousand times better than a wretched picture on the wall. It is on the same principle that a writer prides himself on using grand and high-sounding words, and has really no ideas worth anybody's notice; or, you might have a most dainty and elegant bill of fare, and a horrid dinner to go with it. It is melancholy to hear a person say she will be a teacher or an artist because it sounds better than to have people told she means to be a seamstress or a cook; the disgrace is not in the occupation, but in the failure to make it respected.

     The whole level of things must rise like the great tide of the sea before the world will look with favor upon certain new rights and privileges being given to women. It is of no use to urge the plea that there are no more ignorant and unprofitable women than there are men. Women have been called inferior, and they are ranked so; the only way to gain equality is to deserve it, and to show such advance in good sense, in far-sightedness and liberality of mind, in usefulness and steady putting aside of all shirking, in literally making the best of themselves, that the right of deciding certain public business matters will be a right unwise and impossible to be refused. It is of no use to fight the question with platform speeches and petitions to the legislatures of the different States, since suffrage will not come until it comes by right and not by favor. But the world in general has never been ready for reforms, and in a certain sense the great changes come about independently of ourselves, by the working of the great laws of existence which we can help or hinder only to a limited extent at any one point.

     But it is not questions of this kind -- which are so far from being every-day concerns with most of us who live quiet lives -- that we ought to think of most; and it is not necessary to prove that women may be great physicians and great poets and great astronomers and artists. The crests of the waves may dash very high, and the spray of this sea lift itself as if it would put out the stars, but it is the rising of the tide, the coming up of the whole sea that carried the waves and the spray. We do not value half enough the great importance to the world of women's every-day work, or care half enough for an improvement in their way of doing it. That is in their hands to be managed; that is their duty, whether voting and legislating or not. There is no doubt that we do not do half well enough the work that is ours already -- first from lack of proper education for it, and secondly from lack of pride and ambition. There is more and more attention continually being given to the subject of industrial schools, but very little good has been done by them until within a short space of time, and their influence has not had time to become generally felt. Our public schools are all constructed with the idea that everybody is, or should be, a scholar, when the truth is that nature designed very few of us for scholars, and we might have spent our early years to much better advantage as to study. Most children learn in a parrot-like way, drilling their memories to the slighting of other powers of the mind. The dull ones are either dragged forward beyond their minds' natural gait by their bright companions, or these are hindered and kept back by having to keep pace with the dunces. Many of the studies are utterly useless in themselves, like grammar, which not one child in fifty ever understands, and might be replaced by others which would give them all the discipline of mind in connection with more interesting subjects. Most of the boys in a city grammar school will not go to school at all after they are fit for work and can earn tolerable wages, and it is the same way with the girls. Surely since most of these will always be poor, will keep house for themselves, will sew and wash and cook and take care of children and sick and old people, it would be better to teach them while they are little things how to do all this in the quickest way and the best way. They should not be studying, since they have so little time for study, anything which will not be of practical service to them.

     There is nothing that will have such good results flow from it as an alteration for the better in the various branches of housekeeping. It is because every-day work, the commonplace interests of every-day life are not made the subject of more care and thoughtfulness, that many a family has gone to wreck and ruin. The housekeeping is done simply because it has to be, and not because women like it and see that they are put to no mean work. It is a shame that American women do not know how to keep house better. It is something to be mourned over that the people of this country spend more money on their living and fare worse than any other, when one looks at the cooking and at the houses in comparison with the expense. Tent-life or cave-life, according to their cost, are really more comfortable. People will say that foreigners notice our neat villages and widespread farms, and New England carries off the prize for its thrift and well-being. But the average housekeeping is, after all, far below what it ought to be; and who has not been in houses where unwholesome dishes have been served day after day, the same uninviting bread is made this year as last, and nothing is ever done any better, the housekeeper does not care to know that the same materials might make the breakfasts and dinners and suppers far more pleasant both to look at and to taste? There is no ambition about it; she gets as tired of making the same old things over and over, and of eating them, as anybody does, but it never occurs to her to try to improve. She might read the recipes in the almanacs for bread of various kinds, or find the appetizing account of a cheap French soup in the weekly newspaper, but it would not occur to her to banish the greasy stew, and she goes on in the same beaten track year after year, sick of housekeeping and growing more and more of a sallow monument to the saleratus she has eaten. Everybody knows that the way to all our hearts is through our stomachs, and there is a great moral profit in being well fed. New England people are hard workers, and need good food, well cooked; and there is hardly a family which cannot afford to buy what food is really necessary. But how few women can be called superior cooks, and how few take it in that a table well served and nicely arranged, is not only refining and inviting but a real pleasure. [no question or exclamation mark] To see the dishes shoved on at the end of the table nearest the stove or the kitchen, with no order or care, is a great pity. There is nothing that shows the standard of civilization in a family like the every-day dinner table. There are a thousand ways of making a house and its home-life attractive without spending an extra cent of money. It is only with the personal care and the eager seeking for suggestions that will find in one's own home a proper place to be carried out, that every-day living can be made better. I was much struck at noticing the other day a sentence in a foreign book on insanity. The chapter was given to the causes of insanity, and under the head of drunkenness the truth was laid down that intoxication was the effect of unhappiness and misery of an already unbalanced mind, rather than the cause. My thoughts flew at once to some poor creatures whose homes had been made uncomfortable, and who, taking refuge in the dulling and comforting powers of liquor, had at last died from the effects of it. It was not drunkenness that made a wretched home, but the wretched home that had made drunkenness. No wonder that some minds crave an anęsthetic -- a deliverance for the time being from the fretting and discontent, moral and physical, of their daily life. If a woman is the head of the family, or if she is living at home, spending her time in ordinary household work, she ought to see the great danger that will come from her not doing it just as well as she can. It is as much her work, and it is as honorable work, as anything can be. If she is not distinguished and celebrated because she does it that is her fault, not the work's, for nothing has greater capacity for usefulness and pleasure. It is no glory to be called a poet if one's rhymes are only silly doggerel.

     But there are many women who are earning their living in other ways, and it is these from whom and of whom one oftenest hears complaint. A woman who lives at home often envies these because they are earning money, while she works as hard and only has her living and what money her father or her husband may choose to give her. She ought to be treated fairly and not denied her rights and her freedom in money matters; but she ought to remember that God often gives us work to do for which we are paid a different sort of wages, and it is something to grow rich in love and gratitude and confidence of the household to which we belong.

     I wish that it were in my power to persuade young girls who wonder what they shall do to earn their living, that it is really better to choose some business that is in the line of a woman's natural work. There is a great repugnance at the thought of being a servant, but a girl is no less a servant to the man who owns the shop where she stands all day behind the counter than she is where she waits upon the table or cooks the dinner in a pleasant house; and to my mind there would be not a minute's question between the two ways of going out to service. The wages are better, the home is better, the freedom and liberty are double in one what they are in the other. If, instead of the sham service that is given by ignorant and really over-paid servants to-day, sensible New England girls who are anxious to be taking care of themselves and earning good wages would fit themselves at cooking schools, or any way they found available, they would not long wait for employment and would be valued immensely by their employers. When one realizes how hard it is to find good women for every kind of work in our houses, and what prices many rich people are more than willing to pay if they can be well suited, it is a wonder more girls are not ready to seize the chances. It is because such work has been almost always so carelessly and badly done, that it has fallen into disrepute, and the doers of it have taken such low rank. Nobody takes the trouble to fit herself properly, but women trust to being taught and finding out their duties after they assume such positions, not before.

     There is an increasing demand for skilled labor of every kind, and there is no fear of the money's being thrown away that is spent in fitting one's self for the right performance of duties that are always to be done in every household. A woman must take into consideration the possibility of her being married, when she plans her career and sets up a certain goal for her ambition. If she studies law or fits herself to be a teacher of some speciality in the higher grades of schools, then, if marriage does fall to her lot, all her years of study and training are from many points of view seen to have been a waste of her time. But in following any business that is connected with housekeeping, and the personal interests and concerns of a family, she has spent her season of study and training to the very best purpose. And, as for looking at cooking and housework as monotonous drudgery, it is not half so much that as many other things are. It is capable of a thousand more variations and pleasures and experiments than running a sewing-machine in a noisy shop, or even selling buttons over a counter. And as for drudgery, the longer one lives in the world the better one realizes that if by drudgery is meant the patient toil which goes day by day to the building and finishing of our tasks, like the stones that are laid carefully one by one to build the castle, there is every day many hours' work of it to be done. We each think that our neighbor earns his money easier than we do our own. We are apt to judge by the results of work, and not see the labor, or dream of the thought, that were taken to bring them about. Whether it is a story to be written or a picture to be painted, a certain number of yards of cloth to be woven or a dinner to be cooked, success depends upon the careful provision for a hundred small details, and it is only much unrecognized effort and painstaking that brings the work to an end. Emerson says in Considerations by the Way, "Wherever there is failure there is some giddiness, some superstition about luck, some step omitted, which nature never pardons."


NOTES

"Every-Day Work" appeared in The Congregationalist, Thursday September 13, 1883 p. 309; the first page of this issue. After the notes below is a slightly edited excerpt from this essay that appeared in Ladies' Home Journal, June 1889, p. 10. This reprinting was discovered by Melanie Wood, during her research in the Fall 1998 ACM Newberry Library Seminar.
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Daniel Webster's wise counsel to the young lawyer, that he would always find room enough at the top: "Daniel Webster, b. Salisbury, N.H., Jan. 18, 1782, d. Oct. 24, 1852, statesman, lawyer, and orator, was his era's foremost advocate of American nationalism." (Source: Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia). The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (p. 807) confirms Jewett's attribution, but gives no print source for the quotation. Rand Hall has located a possible print source, but it differs from Jewett's wording and description:  "When Daniel Webster was a young man, commencing the study of law, he was advised not to enter the legal profession, for it was already crowded.  His reply was, 'There is room enough at the top!'" Bench and Bar: A Complete Digest of the Wit, Humor, Asperities, and Amenities of the Law, L. J. Bigelow, Harper & Brothers, 1871, p. 170.
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whosoever climbs up another way is a thief and a robber: See John 10:1.
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saleratus: potassium or sodium bicarbonate used as leavening, e.g. baking soda.
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Emerson says in Considerations by the Way: Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882). "Considerations by the Way" appears in Emerson's The Conduct of Life (1860). Typical of Emerson's ethical pieces, this essay emphasizes the importance of individual and independent effort to create a satisfactory self: "I wish not to concede anything to them [the masses], but to tame, drill, divide and break them up, and draw individuals out of them" (Centenary Edition, v. 6, p. 249). For Jewett's quotation, see pp. 276-7.
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Passage excerpted in Ladies' Home Journal, June 1889, p. 10.

     Material in brackets was added unless noted otherwise.

     I wish that it were in my power to persuade young girls who wonder what they shall do to earn their living, that it is really better to choose some business that is in the line of a woman's natural work. There is a great repugnance at the thought of being a servant, but a girl is no less a servant to the man who owns the shop where she stands all day behind the counter[,] than she is where she waits upon the table[,] or cooks the dinner in a pleasant house; and to my mind there would be not a minute's question between the two ways of going out to service. The wages are better, [the home is better, (this part is cut)] the freedom and liberty are double in one what they are in the other. If, instead of the sham service that is given by ignorant[,] and really over-paid servants to-day, sensible New England girls who are anxious to be taking care of themselves and earning good wages[,] would fit themselves at [the] cooking schools, or any way they found available, they would not long wait for employment[,] and [they] would be valued immensely by their employers. When one realizes how hard it is to find good women for every kind of work in our houses, and what prices many rich people are more than willing to pay if they can be well suited, it is a wonder more girls are not ready to seize the chances. It is because such work has been almost always so carelessly and badly done, that it has fallen into disrepute, and the doers of it have taken such low rank. Nobody takes the trouble to fit herself properly, but women trust to being taught and finding out their duties after they assume such positions[, cut comma] [-] not before. [-]

Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.


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Uncollected Essays