Keeping House

Thrift & The Button Box

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With first research around the theme of housekeeping completed individually, a pre-arranged Face Time conversation enabled the joint consideration of these. Emerging areas of interest were identified, and further detail exchanged through free-flowing conversation and recalled anecdotes. As research sources were discussed, we spent some time reflecting upon how content gathered to inform this new project may enable challenge to our working methodologies and individual practice alongside the avoidance of repeating earlier projects located within similar themes of social history and domesticity.

Drawn to the notion of specific moments in time, we reflected upon the marriage bar, changing roles within the household and the identification of specific tasks assigned to these for our parents, grandparents and self. The routine and rotation of household tasks through the fortnightly turn-out were discussed and linked to some extent to our own experiences. Some consideration was given to taking this theme forward through the collection of data from friends and their families.

Continuing to explore notions of thrift, we discussed the teaching of domestic skills and the saving of buttons from old clothes within the button box. The button as an evocative object was considered through the research and writings of Lynn Knight, and the potential for collecting our own real and imagined stories considered.

With some consideration of potential timings and deadlines for this project, we agreed to spend August undertaking further individual research around The Button Box through reading and the collection of real and imagined stories. This will form the content of the project and enable September and October to be allocated to design and production.

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Keeping House: The Way Things Were

First research around the notion of keeping house, revealed a series of linked words defining a range of domestic materials, account books to catalogue household expenditure, and money given or granted on a regular basis to finance the running of the household. I read about differences across generations, expectations for raising children, keeping house and the marriage bar.

The marriage bar restricted employment of married women, and (as in the case of my maternal Grandmother), required the termination of a woman’s employment when she married. Seemingly, this practice was justified as a social policy to find jobs for men and single women and allegedly created a disincentive for women to marry. In 1946, The Spectator, published an article which presented reasons for the implementation of marriage bars. These included thoughts around married women not needing jobs as they were financially supported by their husbands. Schools prepared girls for this life of domesticity providing tuition in cookery, household management, darning, sewing and how to iron a shirt properly. Girls were taught to look after their house and husband, and once married their husbands were considered the head of the household. Clothes were often homemade, either sewn or knitted. Knitted items were re-cycled by being unraveled and re-knitted into something else. Allegedly, when collars on shirts became frayed, they were unpicked, turned inside out and sewed back on! And buttons from old clothes were saved for the button box.

I discovered a Housewife’s Button Box within the contents of a discarded sewing box for sale in a local bric-a-brac shop earlier this year. Of the original 72 plastic two-hole and four-hole buttons, 29 are remaining and 25 other buttons have been added to the box. Of these 25, 10 have 4 holes, 13 have 2 holes and 2 are shank buttons with a loop at the back for fastening. In reading about button types, I discovered correct and incorrect sewing conventions linked to button and fabric type. Whilst investigating stories surrounding button boxes, I happened upon the historian Lynn Knight who explores the narrative of haberdashery through lives of ordinary women. For Knight, buttons are tokens to recall the clothes they were made to fasten and embellish, the housewives and mothers who made and wore those clothes, and the lives they contained. Within her book, The Button Box: Lifting the Lid on Women’s Lives, Knight writes about stories passed on from the women in her family, their changing prospects over generations and of clothes as self-expression, defiance and entertainment.

An article in The Guardian, written in February 2000, questions whatever happened to the housewife? It begins by presenting the view of a journalist some 40 years ago who wrote about suburbia as a good place to bring up children but a dull place to live! The original article apparently connected with readers and ultimately led to the formation of the National Housewives’ Register which aimed to unite housebound wives with liberal interests and a desire to remain individuals. Re-named as the National Women’s Register in 1987 it continues today, with groups meeting regularly to discuss everything except the domestic. The article notes that early members of the register admitted to fiddling the housekeeping to pay for the membership fee! A present NWR member, who is just 10 years older than I am, recalls having to give up her secretarial job when she got married because the company did not employ married women stating “it was the way things were”.

Alongside information about the roles of women within the house, I also found a WW2 sewing kit, called The Housewife, designed to contain all the materials a soldier would require to carry out any repairs to his clothing, including a thimble, two balls of grey darning wool for socks, 50 yards of linen thread wound around card, needles, brass dish buttons for battledress and plastic buttons for shirts.

References
https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/housekeeping
https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/The-1950s-Housewife/
http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/britain_wwone/women_employment_01.shtml
https://history.blog.gov.uk/2015/05/26/a-perfect-nuisance-the-history-of-women-in-the-civil-service/
https://www.civilservant.org.uk/women-history.html
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2000/feb/28/gender.uk
https://nwr.org.uk/component/k2/item/14?Itemid=263
https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30016350
https://www.penguin.co.uk/authors/lynn-knight/1073993/
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/feb/10/the-button-box-lifting-the-lid-on-womens-lives-lynn-knight-review

Cleanliness, Thrift and Routine


For several years I have collected books that relate to traditional aspects of domesticity, therefore these editions became my initial point of reference. The books cover the periods from approximately the 1930s-60s, so are written for a different time, with the natural assumption that keeping house was the sole responsibility of the female of the household. The main theme of all the books across the 30 year spectrum appears to be thrift – recipes, shopping, cleaning hints, laundry, mending and how to budget the household finances efficiently.

“A housewife, to be really successful, must not only be a good cook, and house-keeper, but a good shopper so that she gets the best value for her housekeeping allowance’ The Modern Housewife’s Book

 KEEPING HOUSE: There appears to be an extraordinary amount of importance placed on ‘keeping a house spick and span and free from dust’ with several of the books offering suggested house-work routines which refer to the ‘fortnightly turn-out’ where tasks are rotated, through to entire chapters on spring cleaning and the military precision required to juggle housework with other duties such as cooking and looking after children.
HOUSE KEEPING: The same amount of order and precision is given to managing the household budget as to the cleaning routine, with all the books assuming that the housewife will keep weekly accounts of her expenditure, pointing out that “this not pointless drudgery, but the necessary routine of a well-managed household…” The Book of Hints and Wrinkles

There are suggestions of how to break down the household income and plenty of advice on budgeting, with hints on cheap shopping, menu planning and cutting down on household bills (avoiding unnecessary phone call and turning off the lights!).

As stated at the beginning of this post, these books refer to a different era, and it is easy to make light of the pedantic nature of the writings, however if you strip away the out-moded references, what is left are themes that we can still relate to; different pressures undoubtedly mean that we still, to various extents, rely on routine to manage our daily lives (which includes shopping, cleaning and cooking). Similarly there is probably more pressure to maintain our homes – DIY make-over programmes of the 1990s, the plethora of home magazines and social media platforms such as Pintrest encourage us to update our interiors on a far more regular basis than say my grandparents (who had the same furniture for their entire marriage).

To Bordeaux and Back

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A pre-arranged visit with friends presented the opportunity for a face to face meeting to make sense of first ideas in response to our new project. The time afforded enabled free flowing conversations, in which we questioned content and context with a particular focus on overlaps with previous projects and our interest in continuing to challenge working methodologies and individual practice. Object led memories were discussed as we exchanged stories around childhood, parents and grandparents, and similarities were noted with ideas beginning to be formed linked to keepsakes, evocative objects and the house and home. Interests in family photographs, clothing and shoes emerged as we spent some time sharing details around favourite items and specific moments in time. Keen to establish our next step, we considered potential timings for research,decision making and realisation and began to construct a series of first points of enquiry focussed around the selection of evocative objects connected to our grandparents. As we discussed these in more detail, common themes around keeping house emerged and we became interested in the notion of housekeeping, ‘housekeeping money’, and routines and rituals linked to these roles across generations. In response to this, we agreed to each undertake first research around the theme of housekeeping in order to clarify our question of enquiry prior to gathering stories and memories.