Put Your Husband in the Kitchen, as published in Atlantic Monthly, (August, 1932)
"Put Your Husband in the Kitchen"
by Helen Keller
In my childhood, even before my education had been begun, I was allowed to take part in the elaborate ritual which, in those days, marked the making of a fruit cake at Christmas time. Although I was blind, deaf, and speechless, the thrill of the occasion communicated itself to me. There were all sorts of pungent and fragrant ingredients to collect and prepare - orange and lemon peel, citron, nuts (which had to be cracked), apples, currants, raisins (which had to be seeded), and a host of other things. The family encouraged me to assist in these preparations, for they discovered that this was one means of keeping me, at least temporarily, out of mischief; and I, for my part, was just as eager to help, because I was always permitted to claim my wages in raisins.
All in all, this concoction of a fruit cake was a long and complicated task. If their had been some oversight in the preliminary planning and an important ingredient was missing, someone had to make a trip to town to fetch it. While the mixing process was being carefully attended to, a roaring fire was built in the stove. At last, when everything was ready and the fire was giving off just the right degree of heat, the great pan was placed reverently in the oven. The climax of the ritual was now at hand. The temperature had to be maintained for several hours with the utmost precision, and everybody had to walk on tiptoe lest some unguarded step shake the floor and cause the precious batter, swelling with the heat, to fall. In the end, if all went well, we were rewarded with a very miracle of a fruit cake, without which Christmas would not have been Christmas.
Today this ritual, so delightful to children, so exacting to the mothers who superintended it, is fast becoming a lost art. The modern housewife has only to go to her compact kitchen cabinet to assemble the ready-prepared ingredients, even to shelled nuts. If one should be lacking, she telephones to the corner grocery. The cake almost bakes itself in an automatically regulated gas stove, while the lady of the house goes about her other duties. Or perhaps she achieves her fruit cake by buying it in a tin container at her grocer's. Whether she bakes it or buys it her labor in either case is simple and quick compared to what it was even a few years ago.
The same thing may be said of almost every other phase of household work. Our grandmothers had to perform a tremendous amount of dreary drudgery in managing their homes. They were kept busy from morning till night, for those were the days when a woman's work was never done. Since then, however, the machine age has come upon us, the transforming the home no less surely than the factory. The housewife of today finds that many heavy responsibilities which she would have had to assume in any other age, such as the baking of bread and the weaving of the cloth, have been lifted from her, and scores of other tasks which still remain in her province have been so simplified that they can now be performed with a great saving of time and effort. Electricity and gas and innumerable mechanical devises have reduced household labor to a fraction of its former burden. In consequence, the modern woman enjoys a degree of leisure which her grandmother could hardly have dared to dream of.
Whether women are using their new found leisure to its full advantage is a debatable question, and one which I shall not attempt to discuss here. The point that I want to emphasize is that they have it - and they have it because of these countless machines and clever contrivances which have been invented to save time and labor.
This, of course, is a very familiar observation, and I claim no credit for originality in mentioning it. But recently, as I was turning over in my mind the tragic muddle of present economic conditions, it suddenly occurred to me that this commonplace is not nearly as hackneyed as it may seem. Few of us seemed to have grasped the significance of this new leisureliness which has come to grace our households. As a matter of plain fact, what women have done with labor-saving machinery in the home is exactly the reverse of what men have done with it in their factories and offices. The captain of industry seizes upon improved tools as means to increase production, and now he finds the channels of trade clogged with more goods than can be sold; his wife uses them to produce leisure, of which she can never have too much.
The average woman is not very familiar with the complexities of economics, but the complexities of economics, but it seems that she has ordered her household economy upon a more solid basis than that upon which men have arranged the affairs of their larger world. In industry, the amazing increase in the use of labor-saving machinery has brought about overproduction, unemployment, and wide spread suffering. Either women are wiser, or they have a sounder instinct for economics. At any rate, they use labor-saving devices for the heretical purpose of saving labor, and in doing so they have, I think, demonstrated in their homes a practical object lesson in economics which their husbands would do well to master. While theorists are still searching for the causes of the depression, and politicians remain at loggerheads in their effort to conjure remedies, I am tempted to think that the perplexed business man might discover a possible solution of his troubles if he would just spend a few days in his wife's kitchen.
Let us see what would happen if he did.
Mr. Jones, let us say, is a modern captain of industry. Mrs. Jones is an intelligent woman who knows more than the average about economics, and has the knack of seeing things through to their essentials. She had often discussed business problems with her husband, and had endeavored without success to win him to her point of view. At last she decided to try an experiment. She persuaded her husband that he owed it to humanity to demonstrate the correctness of his ideas by applying them to the home - the one field which men had not yet touched with their organizing genius. Mr. Jones accepted the challenge and agreed to serve for a term as cook, maid and household manager. He promised to see what improvements he could effect by directing all domestic activities in precisely the same way that he conducted his own business.
Mr. Jones had grown up on a farm. The chores that fell to his lot as a boy made him familiar with the drudgery of household work in former days. Although he was vaguely aware that the home had kept pace with the mechanical age, he did not know what a startling revolution had taken place in the economy of the household until he surveyed his wife's model kitchen, with its gas range, its dishwashing machine, its electric mixer, and its various other labor-saving appliances. He investigated the interior of the compact kitchen cabinet, containing all sorts of prepared foods. He was particularly impressed by the special cake flour and the shelled nuts.
'Ah, the wonders of science and modern efficiency!' he said to himself. 'I remember the fine nut cakes my mother used to make. What a job it was in those days! But now, with all these prepared ingredients, with the electric mixer and the automatically regulated gas range, I ought to be able to make ten cakes in less time and with less trouble than my mother required to make one in her primitive household.'
So, true to the ideas which had made him captain of the industry, Mr. Jones proceeded to transform potential power into actuality. When the family assembled at the dinner table that evening, the new household manager could hardly restrain his enthusiasm. Laughingly, he said to his wife: 'See now, Mary, what I have done. Ten cakes. Ten! When you were running the house we had only one, or two at most. Ah, the logical, orderly, efficient brain of a man is needed even in the kitchen, that sacred province of woman. In one day I have revolutionized the business of cooking, and have put it on a sound basis.'
The cakes were good, and the family ate almost a whole one with relish. They were persuaded to finish it. But there were still nine left. By good salesmanship the industrialist- turned-cook induced the family to eat another, which they did to please him, but they had no relish for it. At this point Mr. Jones found himself confronted with the same problem which he had to face every day in his business - he would have to sell more. Inventory could have been reduced, unit costs slashed. That could be done only stimulating demand and increasing consumption. So he employed the cash rebate system, offering small William a dime to place his order for a large section of the third cake. William saw that it was a consumer market; he knew that such wonders are natural and impermanent, and could not resist stocking up. In the end, by using every known trick of the salesman's art, Mr. Jones coaxed, wheedled, and bribed the family to dispose of the third cake. By this time everybody had arrived at a stage of acute discomfort and complete indifference to his further entreaties, and he recognized the symptoms of a saturated market.
That night the family physician was kept busy ministering to varying degrees of indigestion from mild to acute. The care with which Mr. Jones had nurtured the family them in good stead, however, and all were fairly well recovered by morning.
At breakfast Mrs. Jones said to her husband: 'Of course you realize that the doctor's fees will have to come out of your budget. It was all your fault.'
'But I have no reserves set aside for that,' replied Mr. Jones. 'You know that before we changed places I always paid the doctor. His bill shouldn't be charged against the household budget.'
'Just the same,' said Mrs. Jones 'I'm afraid you'll have to add it to your production costs. Then next time you'll know better that to glut the market.'
For once Mr. Jones had nothing to say, and his wife continued: 'Fortunately, we shall not want any more cake for a long time to come. But when we do, you can bake ten, if you must, and then throw away nine. You can't object to that. I understand that such methods are common in your economic world. "Maintaining the market" - isn't that what you call it? It won't be the first time food has been destroyed to maintain the market. And, of course, you manufacturers are constantly producing goods that go to waste because of lack of demand. So I shouldn't dare suggest that you bake only one cake merely because that is all we need. That would be heresy. It would be inefficient. It would be criminal failure to take advantage of "plant capacity." The gas stove will easily hold ten cakes, and the same gas that will bake one will bake the others too. The electric mixer also represents an investment. You should not let it stand idle, for the overhead will ruin us. So go ahead with your plans, John. I just know you are going to do remarkable things in increasing production and cutting unit costs - but don't forget to dispose of your surplus.'
'Getting sarcastic, aren't you? replied Mr. Jones. 'Well, perhaps I did make a mistake. Anyway, let's forget it. If you want to be helpful, tell me what I can do with these seven cakes left over from yesterday. It seems a pity to throw them away.'
Mrs. Jones was helpful. She took the remaining cakes in her car and distributed them among her friends. She knew that it would not be long before her friends would bring her a few glasses of jelly or some other homemade delicacy in return.
Mr. Jones did not like his wife's solution of the problem, but he was not in a position to protest. Such friendly bartering of goods struck him as very primitive, a reversion to economic methods of savage tribes. He thought of economics in terms of money, vast organizations, complicated financial structures, stocks and bonds, banking and credits, and a hundred and one other intricate devices. All these he contemplated with pride, as evidence of the lofty plane upon which our civilization moves. But in this imposing forest he lost sight of the trees. He forgot the sole purpose of any economic system is to facilitate the manufacture and exchange of the necessities and luxuries of life, in order that life may be made easier and finer. Like many another captain of industry, he had come to consider business, not as a means toward this end, but as an end in itself. No wonder he was having difficulty accommodating himself to the elementary principals of household economy, the sole purpose of which is to promote the welfare and happiness of the family.
When Mrs. Jones returned from her little tour of barter, her husband was busy with the vacuum cleaner and was busy putting the finishing touches on the living room rug.
'Why,' she cried, 'you've practically completed the cleaning! What will you do then? With a broom it would have taken you four times as long. Here you've used the vacuum cleaner only a few minutes, and you're almost through. Then the machine will have to lie idle until tomorrow. Heavens, you could have cleaned a house twice as large! I suppose there is really nothing for us to do but buy a larger house. It is really a shame to waste all the time that is saved by this electric sweeper. Then there is the investment in the machine; you can't afford to let it stand idle. That is not efficiency. Yes, I can see the vacuum cleaner will have to give a better account of itself in future. It must be used more, and the only way to make sure of that is to get a larger house.'
"Have you gone completely out of your senses?" asked the astonished Mr. Jones.
"Not at all," replied his wife. "I'm just beginning to understand your way of looking at things. We must go in for "plant expansion" - isn't that what you business men call it? We must realize the productive potentialities of our vacuum cleaner. It cries out for new carpets to sweep, and of course the new house will need lots of new rugs. Just think, John! We shall immediately create a vast, untouched market for the services of our electric sweeper. How foolish I have been all these years! How inefficient! Why, that silly old vacuum cleaner has been in the closet for years, idle practically all of the time except for a few minutes a day, and I never realized until now how wasteful it was."
"Please, Mary, don't be ridiculous," Mr. Jones snapped.
'Oh, was I being ridiculous? Why, I thought I was following your business logic. Have you forgotten the time, two years ago, when you foreman invented that labor-saving device which made it possible for a man to tend two machines instead of one? You expanded the plant, put in twice as many machines, and doubled production. You said then that it wouldn't be long before I could have a new car and a new fur coat and all sorts of things, because profits would be more than doubled. Production was doubled, just as you planned, but at the end of the year you had half of the goods in the warehouse and you closed the factory while the machines and the new plant "ate their heads off," as you so quaintly put it.'
Mrs. Jones smiled sweetly, but Mr. Jones stammered and rushed away to his new sanctum - the kitchen.
Early that afternoon when Mrs. Jones came downstairs on her way to a meeting of her church club, she found her husband seated before the living room fireplace smoking a fragrant cigar and contentedly immersed in a book. He looked up guiltily as she entered.
'Is something wrong, John?' she asked. 'It isn't at all like you to be wasting time in this fashion. Surely you don't sit in your office and read a book in the middle of the afternoon! Even when you have nothing to do, you at least try to appear busy.'
'I won't need to start dinner for another hour,' Mr. Jones explained, 'and everything else has been attended to.'
'Have you finished the luncheon dishes? Yes, I suppose you have. It takes very little time with the new dishwasher. But, really, I don't know how to suggest making efficient use of the time you save. I don't know how to provide more raw material for a machine which transforms soiled dishes into clean ones. I hope you won't be driven to the extremity of having to invent a dish-soiling machine so that the dishwasher may be kept operating at capacity.'
Mr. Jones's cigar turned bitter in his mouth and he lost interest in his book, but his wife hurried out the door and went her way.
When Mrs. Jones returned from her club meeting she brought news to cheer her husband. The women of the church were to give a large charity dinner, and Mr. Jones saw in this event an opportunity to demonstrate his methods of efficiency, organization, and mass production in a real test. He sprang to the telephone and immediately began placing orders for hams and chicken, jellies and pickles, and scores of other things that would be needed to feed the hundred people who were to be invited.
That evening Mrs. Smith came in to talk over arrangements for the dinner, but Mrs. Jones referred the embarrassed caller to the new director of cuisine and household economics. Mr. Jones was pleased to have this chance to spread his gospel of efficiency, and he launched at once upon a technical outline of his plans for preparing the whole affair according to the most improved factory methods.
'I am sure,' he concluded, 'that by proper organization and mass production I can bring the unit cost per dinner down to a record minimum. I think I can guarantee that the cash contribution from each member of the club will be smaller than has ever before been possible.'
Mrs. Smith interrupted him. 'But, Mr. Jones,' she said, 'Your proposal would upset all our arrangements. You see, each of our members has her own specialty to supply. Every summer when I put up jelly, for example, I always set aside a few extra jars for the church dinner. Mrs. Doe does the same with chowchow and pickles. Mrs. Roe supplies chickens from her own barnyard, and Mrs. Franklin furnishes potatoes from her farm. Very little actual money goes into the dinner. Each of us donates what she is best equipped to give.'
'You see, John,' spoke up Mrs. Jones with an indulgent smile, 'none of us tries to capture the whole dinner market. We plan and cooperate. We don't go about it as you manufacturers do when a new field is opened up, and every manufacturer sets out to capture the market in toto. If we did that, we should find ourselves spreading a dinner for a thousand people instead of a hundred. Mrs. Roe might make a full supply of potato salad, while Mrs. Doe, convinced that her own potato salad was far better, might make a full supply and place it in competition with Mrs. Roe's product. Then we should have over- production, and all of us would lose by it. We avoid this by estimating our market as closely as possible, we plan and cooperate to supply the demand. I suppose, John, that this will strike you as very primitive indeed, but somehow it seems to accomplish our purpose with a minimum of waste.'
In the end Mr. Jones had nothing for it but to sneak away to the telephone and cancel the orders he had placed.
Thereafter he seemed a much chastened man. He did not again make himself the butt of his wife's irony by producing more things than his family could use, just to demonstrate the efficiency of his household machinery. In a few days he took to spending an occasional afternoon at his club. He began playing golf, and devoted many of his leisure hours exploring the rather large library, which had hitherto been merely an unused collection of books. He found himself becoming interested in all sorts of fascinating subjects. He was really enjoying himself immensely, although he had a guilty look on his face whenever Mrs. Jones caught him at any of these diversions during working hours.
One day she said to him, 'Perhaps you can see now, John, that the purpose of labor- saving devices is really to save labor, so that more time can be devoted to pleasant and stimulating living.'
Not long after this, Mr. Jones decided that his business again required his attention. His wife is convinced that he returned to his office with a few elementary but enlightening lessons in economics well mastered.
No one, of course, would act as foolishly in the realm of household economics as did this mythical Mr. Jones, but there are many Mr. Joneses who have acted no less foolishly in their own sphere of large-scale industry, expanding plants and piling up goods with complete disregard of market demand. It may be argued that the parallel I have drawn is not a fair one because the family unit is so small and static that its requirements can be easily gauged, while there is no element of competition in supplying these requirements. But the nation, after all, is only the sum of these small units, and with proper cooperation it should not be impossible to estimate, within certain limits, the amount of goods the nation needs.
Here, of course, arises the question of whether we are at present suffering from overproduction or underconsumption - the question, in short, of purchasing power. This is a large subject which I do not have space to deal with in this article, but I hope to write about it some other time. The only point I want to make here is this: that it is about time for us to begin using our labor-saving machinery actually to save labor instead of using it to flood the nation haphazardly with surplus goods which clog the channels of trade. That will presuppose, to be sure, some cooperative effort to determine the needs of the people and to produce accordingly.
In the allegory of Mr. Jones, perhaps Mrs. Jones came off better than she should. She has obtained leisure, certainly, but it is doubtful whether the hundreds of thousands of Mrs. Joneses throughout the land are making the best use of the new wealth of hours which the labor-saving devices in their homes have made possible. But at least the opportunity is there. Women have won the first skirmish, whereas in the industrial world - the world of men - the machine is battering at the very livelihood of our beleaguered people. If we are to win this larger battle, we must adopt a new collective view of the machine and the complex economic structure which had been erected upon it.
I am convinced that the machine has taken something out of life. We have paid, and are still paying a great price for the benefits it has given us. But the fault lies with us. We have not used it properly. If the progress of the mechanical age should suddenly cease now, I should say that its disadvantages had outweighed its benefits. But further developments are certain to come. We cannot now throw the machine overboard. It is with us to stay, and our task is to turn it to our proper need. In the machine, rightly controlled, lies the hope of reducing human drudgery to the minimum - not merely that we may be free of drudgery, but that every individual may have the opportunity for a happy life, for a leisure which, under wise guidance, may lead to mental and spiritual growth.
I do not set myself up as an expert economist, but from my detached position I have tried to examine the whole problem from a humanitarian and common-sense point of view. It is evident to me, as it must be to all thinking people, that the manufacturer and exchange of goods constitute the preponderant influences in modern life. That is a false emphasis. Now, at last, we have an opportunity gradually to shift that emphasis by using labor-saving machinery for its ostensible purpose of saving labor. This will mean a reduction in the hours of toil for the great masses of people. The trend is already in that direction, as an emergency measure, and I am convinced that the pressure toward this end will outlast the emergency, for it is a logical result of the flowering of the mechanical age. This new orientation is by no means impossible. If I thought it were, I should lose my faith in humanity.
After all, is it too much to expect that our ingenuity can reorganize our economic system to take advantage of the machines which we have created? It is largely up to the men - the statesmen and the captains of industry; and, if they are unable to accomplish the task, we women shall have to send them into the kitchen for a few lessons in common-sense economics.
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