Saturday, November 21, 2009

OT: This is Outrageous!!! (and a note on my hiatus)

I came across a book on housekeeping in the Google online library one day. A copy of the title page is appended herewith:

All well and good, except for the notorious "tenement flat" reference that suggests fierce crowding and degradation in New York during the period of heavy immigration from Europe c. 1900. Indeed, this book was copyrighted in 1911.

The implication is of course that tenement dwellers were incapable of keeping house without stern instruction from The Association of Practical Housekeeping Centers. Given some of the conditions of tenement living documented by people like Jacob Riis "keeping house" must have been an oxymoron for the multitudes crammed into the festering tenement slums.

But, that aside, comes now Mabel Hyde Kittredge to put things to right and to teach the poor unfortunates how to furnish a flat appropriately and how to do the work necessary to keep it neat and tidy.

My doG.

Let's skip the furnishing for the moment and get right to the work.

All right, then. I'm not sure anyone in the modern world of America Today has ever considered what an absolute chore it was just to get the stove going in the morning not so very long ago, and what an ongoing chore it was to keep the fires burning, without also burning down the whole block and burning your hands and any trailing bits of fabric that happened to be on your garments, let alone burning the food (and laundry -- we'll get to that) you put on the stove to boot.

We have an older gas stove at Casa Ché that requires a match to light the oven. Much work involved, compared at least to the modern ranges with all their piezo thingsamabobs and computer readouts and so forth. But compare that with the process involved in understanding let alone in firing up a coal range in a tenement in the early 1900's.

OK. Got that? You have your damper, your draft, and your check. You do not have a knob that you turn to set the temperature of the top burner and/or the oven. No sir. You have to get a fire burning in the firebox, then you have to adjust all these various gizmos to get the cooking temperature that you want -- more or less. Furthermore, the entire range is heated to approximately the same temperature. Oh joy. And it stays at that temperature throughout the cooking process. Mm. Must have been warm in the kitchen, eh? But then, in many cases, tenements didn't have "kitchens" per se. They had a center room that had a stove and a sink. Sometimes. The toilet was out in the hall. The tenement "kitchen" also served as a bathroom, laundry room, and -- usually-- an eating room besides. Work room, too, when the household had to bring in piecework to make ends meet. And keep the children busy and productive. But that's another story.

Back to the mysteries of the coal range.

Simple, eh? Didn't thing so. But that's just the operational basics once you've got the thing going. There's plenty to do before you even get to that point. To wit:

Thus the origin of the term "ashcan" which I always thought was synonymous with "trash can". It had never occurred to me that one actually had to sweep and scrape out the ashes in the stove every morning before starting ones day.

Sweep the ashes from every part of the stove. Every morning. Though it isn't let on in this passage (don't want to scare the students), apparently what this means is that you have to open up the whole damn thing, for there are ashes everywhere, not just in the firebox, and you have to sweep like a demon to get them all. But stay! You actually want some ashes on the top of your oven, but you don't want any below, for that would interfere with the circulation of hot air, by which you are meant to cook things. In your oven. Once you get it hot enough.

Of course, as you're busily sweeping out your ashes -- still with crusts in your eyes and scratching at your bedbug bites -- you're getting coal dust and ashes all over everywhere. But you'll clean it up later, so it's ok.

Next you have to build the fire and light it. OK. First paper, newspaper that you've kept for the purpose. Then kindling sticks, arranged just so. Then a thin layer of coal. Check. Well, you know what I mean. You open the drafts and the damper, but you close the check. Then? Light the paper with a match, and tend the fire until the coal is showing some red when you add more coal, but not so much that you pack the coal or make the fire come too close to the top of the range. Skill is required.

Oh but wait! You have to black the stove. Don't light your fire yet. Black your stove top first. Wipe off the dust and ashes with newspaper (ah, that you will crumple and put in the firebox after? Hmm. What a concept!)

Apparently stove blacking was quite an art back in the day. It's another thing I had no idea of. There were various stove blacking products, liquids and powders, mostly black-lead (oh, fine), mixed with other toxic or flammable substances, that you put on the top of the stove to keep it looking nice and prevent it from rusting. But you couldn't use too much or you'd get gucky-stuff all over everything, most especially you yourself, and you'd have to wipe it all off and start over. So. There was a stove blacking process involved.

You cleaned out your ashes from the day before, you wiped everything off with newspaper, you got your stove blacking out and you spread a little of that on the top of the stove, then you polished it furiously, with more newspaper, till none came off on you or your pots and pans, then you put your newspaper in the firebox, then you laid your fire, and then you lit it.

All before you'd properly woken up.

These are the things you have to have on hand:

And don't forget the coal. And the kindling wood. And the newspaper. Matches.

And that's just the beginning. Before anything else. You get your stove cleaned and going.

Then what? Well, you make your morning cocoa of course!

Here's how:

That's just getting ready. Before you begin. One thing to note is that there has to be lots of newspaper in the kitchen. For your fire, to wipe your stove with, and to spread on your kitchen table once you want to make anything. Like cocoa.

Let's continue.

After you've made your cocoa, and drunk it we suppose, you have to do your dishes.

Which in those days was a chore and a half.

By now you're exhausted, bewildered, hot, wet and cross.

But you've only just begun. There are many more lessons to get you through your tenement day. I'm sure that further episodes will appear here. Life wasn't easy, was it?

(Note: I've been away from my own blog for quite a while. This time of year is always difficult for me. Depression stalks me as the days grow shorter, and one of the coping mechanisms I've learned over the years is to change my routine, sometimes radically. Cutting back on blogging is one of changes I've made, and as you can see from the off-topic post here, subject matter may change radically, too. For now, anyway, politics is desultory. I may comment on the happenings of the day from time to time at other places (Digby's and Glenn's, primarily), but here posting will be light, and subject matter may be quite different for a while. Bear with me. Thanks.)


  1. ah, I wondered where you were, Ché. I well understand the short-days effect. November, December and the first part of January I usually hide from the doorbell and telephone. By the end of January, the days are noticeably longer, and then February becomes a brightness. I've seen buttercups bloom along south-facing protected places in February (I live way north, not far from Cannukistan, so it is always a welcome radiance to see them.).

    As for you being "off-topic".... I love it when you go "off-topic." That's when things get really interesting here. Politics is so sour in this country, this country is heading down the shitter, and I'm trying to think it is interesting to watch it descend. So, on to tenements, Craftsman houses, and assorted historical references!

  2. Oh hey there!

    Sorry to be so pokey replying; I got distracted, as will happen from time to time. Heh.

    Politics="sour", I agree wholeheartedly. I mean, come on. There is now a struggle over the utterly irrelevant and powerless position of Lt Gov of California. Ahnuld wants Maldonado (I think he was mayor of Santa Maria one of the times I lived there), but both the Dems and the Rs in the State Senate are up in arms about it; Dems maybe don't want anybody (not that it matters!) and Rs hate Maldo because he voted for higher taxes to get past the first part of the continuing budget catastrophe.

    "Sour," indeed.

    I think I'll stick with the tenement story for the time being.

    Happy Thanksgiving!