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.)