Book Review: Mrs. Dunwoody’s Excellent Instructions for Homekeeping

Some time back I found this quote somewhere online (I forgot to note where) from a book titled Mrs. Dunwoody’s Excellent Instructions for Homekeeping:

In these notes, I have endeavored to impart knowledge necessary for keeping a neat, well-ordered home. But beyond that, I wish for you to understand the larger issues of homekeeping — creating an environment in which all family members grow and thrive, a place where each member may evolve to the full extent our Creator intended.

I liked that, and I further liked the information posted with it, that  “Mrs. Dunwoody, the wife of a judge in Georgia, was the ‘Martha Stewart’ of her time during the Civil War. She started her journal (notes) on homemaking in 1866, and would spend the next 50 years to complete her notes.”

I liked this so much that I asked for this book for the next Christmas or birthday. When I received it and started looking through it, though, I found that it was not written by a real 1860s Mrs. Dunwoody: It was written by a modern Miriam Lukken in 2003 in the style of the “receipt books” “that nineteenth century Southern women penned as a record of all they knew and thought meaningful,” and Mrs. Dunwoody was a character based the author’s great-grandmother and other Southern women.

At first I was sorely disappointed. But then as I began reading, I realized that I still did like the philosophy of housekeeping represented.

She believed that the ordinary acts we practice every day at home are of more importance to the soul than their simplicity might suggest. Taking care of our home enables us all to feel nurtured and safe; it brings comfort and solace both in the fruits of our labor and in the freedom it affords to experience life to its fullest.

She taught that women were not just doing chores, they were creating — creating a home, a place of security, warmth, contentment, and affection (p. xii).

Home reflects the creativity, serenity, and beauty we hold dear (p. 7).

Homekeeping is a fine art. It grasps with one hand beauty, with the other utility; it has its harmonies like music, and its order like the stars in their courses. I fear really good homekeeping — which exhibits itself not in occasional entertainment or a handsome parlor, but in good housekeeping which extends from the attic to the cellar, and through every hour in the year — is far from common (p. 8).

I’ll admit that my home is not in complete order from attic to the first floor every hour…but I do see her point.

Organization has more benefits than mere efficiency…Knowing your life and home are in order reduces strife and anxiety, and increases confidences. In short, establishing your own routine for tackling domestic chaos makes the task less burdensome. And everyone feels the effects of that (p. 8).

Homekeeping is an ongoing art, a process, not an end product. It will never be “all done.” Bathrooms, clothes, and dishes, once clean, have a way of getting dirty again. But home is meant to be lived in, in the fullest, most potentially filling way for everyone in it. That means that every room does not need to be picture perfect and waiting for a perfect display, but rather, each room has a sense of order and calmness to it. The home looks like someone lives there, without appearing messy or cluttered (p. 8-9).

The rest of the book is filled with household tips and snippets of wisdom on everything from laundry, etiquette, health, garden, what to do for spring cleaning, etc.

In some parts of the book she sounds a little too rigid with her routines for my taste: I think an overly rigid housekeeper who only tolerates things done in specified ways and at specified times can make her household and guests as miserable as the lax housekeeper. Balance is needed.

And she mentions that home is “a place where even the everyday things in our lives were held sacred and should therefore be cared for and treated in a special and orderly way” (p. xii). We women do have our little treasures around the house, but I would not call them sacred. We have to remember not to “lay up treasures where moth and rust doth corrupt and where thieves break through and steal” but rather in heaven. I prefer to think in terms of stewardship: the things we “own” are given to us by God, and we should therefore take care of them.

But overall her reminders help me refocus on the fact that housework isn’t just “drudgery” — it is a ministry to family and guests, it fosters order and tranquility, and it is a testimony of a God of order, creativity, and beauty.

(This review will be posted to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

13 thoughts on “Book Review: Mrs. Dunwoody’s Excellent Instructions for Homekeeping

  1. I do believe that “Mrs. Dunwoody” is correct. I recently told Amoeba that I will not live in a home I cannot decorate. Both of our leased homes in Hawaii came with clauses that said, “no wall hangings”. Also, they came with pre-installed, mis-matched furniture.

    I said, “This is just too hard on my soul. I don’t care how nice the home it, it might as well be a flea bag hotel if I can’t personalize it.”

  2. I think we do add personality to our homes. Creating an atmosphere of love and harmony is a spiritual gift: Hospitality. Being as my Honey Bear is our provider in the sense that he goes out and earns the money which feeds and clothes us, my Homekeeping is an act of love and a gift to him.
    Mama Bear

  3. LOL! I thought suuuuurely this was going to be a comedy on the lines of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House! I think I will enjoy it anyway. I wish you’d quit doing this to me… ROFL!

  4. Well my dear, I have to tell you that this post is an answer to prayer. Truly! I had read this book several years ago and enjoyed it so much. I was thinking of it the other day and couldn’t for the life of me, remember the title! Well, I come on here today and there the title is right on the sidebar of my very own blog (in the link to you!) God is good♥

  5. It sounds like a wonderful book Barbara. One that I would like to HAVE, sooooo I may have to purchase one! I,too, like the principle idea of it. I used to be very rigid about my housekeeping but during my “painful years” learned to lighten up alot and found that I love my home even more now.
    thanks so much for a much-needed and timely post.

  6. Those are great excerpts, Barbara. I esp appreciate the one about organization being more than efficiency. I had a friend who said that doing things promptly (like making your bed when you get out of it) is freeing because it frees you up from having to come back to that chore.

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  8. It is a little disappointing that it was written in 2003 and not in the 1860’s like it seems, but I think I’ll have to check out this book. I love the snippets you shared! Thanks for the review!

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  10. Hello,
    I am the author of Mrs. Dunwoody’s Excellent Instructions for Homekeeping. I appreciate your kind words regarding my book, but would like to bring to your attention that in your review you spelled my name incorrectly. The correct spelling is Lukken.

    I enjoyed viewing your site and wish you continued sucess.

    Thank you to all who posted comments here.

    Miriam Lukken

  11. Hi Barbara, I own the book and have enjoyed reading it myself! In the preface it states that Mrs. Dunwoody was a real person. She was born in 1841 in Savannah, Georgia, and named Caroline Anne Wylly. She attended a “finishing school” and then she married a lawyer named Charles Spalding Dunwoody. They had six children. They spent time in Washington, D.C. when he rose in prominence as a judge, so she was considered to be “well traveled” by her peers in Georgia, and people looked to her for social advice. Her husband died an untimely death and so she turned their home into a boarding house. She started this book in 1866 and it took her 50 years to complete. Miriam Lukken, I believe, edited the book and brought it to the public attention again by re-publishing it in 2003. It was originally published in Caroline Dunwoody’s own lifetime. I thought you would want to know that Caroline Anne Wylly Dunwoody was, indeed, a real person, and she really did write the book! It’s filled with fascinating tips like how to make your own whitewash, which the editor, Miriam Lukken made a note that she did not recommend using that recipe, but to water down white paint with paint thinner instead! 🙂

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