What Does the Ideal Victorian Day Look Like?

So we want peaceful homes, we know why we want them, and we know getting there is not necessarily going to feel easy.

But what do we actually do?

I already know how to tidy and organize, and I know how to clean my home. What I struggle with is keeping it that way, and as S.D. Power writes in her 1884 book Anna Maria’s House-keeping, “One keep-clean was worth a great many make-cleans” (p. 99).

What I’ve been grasping after but never quite reaching is a way to have a house that stays mostly clean and mostly tidy most of the time. I know I need is a routine, a system that automates the housework I need to do on a daily and weekly basis—but I don’t quite know where to start.

I could find a modern resource to help me—that’s what I tried to do when I first moved into this house and became a full-time homemaker. But there are so many resources, so many approaches, so many different attitudes surrounding homemaking that I very quickly grew overwhelmed with the overabundance of options.

Alternatively, I could come up with my own system for keeping house. That’s what I intended to do when I first started this series. I planned to read everything I could on nineteenth-century homemaking, take an abundance of notes, and design my own Victorian-inspired homemaking system from the ground up.

But that sort of defeats the point of letting my “intellectual effort” take a break, as I explained in my last post. I’m pretty good at synthesizing information—but I’m also very tired and quite a bit more stressed than I’d like to be, and to be honest, I don’t really have the mental capacity to design my own system from scratch.

The fact of the matter is that I’m a beginner. I’ve lived in homes all my life, but I’ve never borne the primary responsibility for “keeping house,” for making the decisions that determine whether the practical side of things runs smoothly or not, whether the home feels restful or chaotic. And what I’m finding is that, as Power writes, 

the first half-day’s housekeeping will bring you face to face with more that you don’t know than you ever dreamed of. You can as well expect to become a painter by reading the hosts of books written on art, and studying galleries of pictures, without handling a brush, as to learn anything about housekeeping without going into the drudgery with your own hands.”

Anna Maria’s House-keeping, by S.D. Power

If I’m being honest, I have to admit that I honestly don’t know what I’m doing. I have no idea how to bridge the gap between the way my home feels right now and the way I would like it to be. And, much as I’ve struggled to admit it, I’m too tired to figure it out on my own.

So instead, I’m going to see what experienced Victorian homemakers did and what they would advise me to do—and that’s where I’m going to begin.

The Ideal Day

Nineteenth-century homemakers had high standards for their housekeeping, but I have yet to find a single housekeeper’s manual that expected they would spend all day doing housework. This was the height of the Industrial Revolution, when machines were speeding up processes that used to take hours or days to accomplish, and cultural obsession with efficiency was high. People valued high-quality work, but they also valued the leisure time efficiency could buy back for them. 

Homemakers were no exception.

In most of the sources I’ve read, the housekeeper’s goal was to find both the best and the quickest way to complete her tasks so that “the work was always done, and not doing” (Beecher, p. 312). This required a certain amount of forethought and creativity—keeping on top of meals, marketing, cleaning, and laundry in an era before washing machines, refrigeration, and running water was no walk in the park—and the ability to organize oneself and one’s household efficiently was a highly-praised skill during this era.

It’s a skill I’d like to develop for myself.

In The American Woman’s Home, Catherine Beecher gives a tantalizingly restful description of the ideal New England housekeeper, a description that sounds almost utopian in its blend of hard work and leisure:

“Long years of practice made them familiar with the shortest, neatest, most expeditious method of doing every household office, so that really for the greater part of the time in the house there seemed, to a looker-on, to be nothing to do. They rose in the morning and dispatched husband, father, and brothers to the farm or wood-lot; went sociably about, chatting with each other, skimmed the milk, made the butter, and turned the cheeses. The forenoon was long; ten to one, all the so-called morning work over, they had leisure for an hour’s sewing or reading before it was time to start the dinner preparations. By two o’clock the house-work was done, and they had the long afternoon for books, needle-work, or drawing…”

The American Woman’s Home, by Catherine Beecher, p. 310

Later on, she describes a woman who desperately needed to hire someone to help her with her busy household. She hired a girl from a neighboring farm, who 

“took a survey of the labors of a family of ten members, including four or five young children, and, looking, seemed at once to throw them into system; matured her plans, arranged her hours of washing, ironing, baking, and cleaning; rose early, moved deftly; and in a single day the slatternly and littered kitchen assumed that neat, orderly appearance that so often strikes one in New-England farm-houses. The work seemed to be all gone. Every thing was nicely washed, brightened, put in place, and staid [sic] in place; the floors, when cleaned, remained clean; the work was always done, and not doing; and every afternoon the young lady sat neatly dressed in her own apartment, either quietly writing letters to her betrothed, or sewing on her bridal outfit.”

The American Woman’s Home, by Catherine Beecher, p. 311-312

Now, I realize most of us have other jobs besides keeping our houses clean and making meals for our families. In many respects, our daily lives are never going to resemble the lives of nineteenth-century women (a fact for which we’re probably all grateful!).

But here’s what captivates me about these descriptions: 

  • The house looks clean, tidy, and attractive.
  • It stays neat and clean without appearing to require much additional effort.
  • The housekeepers have a lot of free time—even in an era when they were making cheese and butter from hand.

I want my home to look clean, tidy, and attractive.

I want my home to stay neat and clean without feeling like it’s a burden to keep it that way.

I want to have free time to do other things that matter to me.

And I want to do those things that matter in a house whose cleanliness and orderliness feel like visible permission to take a long, deep breath.

This is the reason I turned to the Victorians. The image of a well-ordered home, with a housekeeper who works hard but also gets to be done with all her work by two o’clock—this is what I want in my home.

I’m tired of feeling like I have to choose between having a peaceful home and having time to do other things that matter. I realize not every modern homemaking source espouses this viewpoint—I’m sure many do not—but after a few months of sifting through all the different voices telling me what I should and shouldn’t care about, I got tired and gave up.

I care about rest and letting go of perfectionism. But I also care about doing a really good job at tending to my home. And the Victorians are telling me I can have both.

I can have a home that is clean and tidy and presentable—and I can have time to read books and visit friends and feel like a human being.

I can have home-cooked meals and keep up with the laundry and still have time to pursue other projects and goals that matter, too.

I can have a restful home—and I can also have time to rest.

Sure, we can’t do it all and do it well.

But we can do more than we think we can.

And if Victorian advice can get me there, I’m all in.

What is YOUR concept of the ideal day? What would your home feel like? What would you spend your doing? Let’s chat in the comments!

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