Monday, 28 February 2011

The Ladies' Work-Table

As I read through periodicals from the 19th century, the different treatment of needlework is striking. The article excerpted below is clearly on the "pro" side, with the attendant view that women should have no role in the work place. If they had no business there, then they had to find some meaning in their lives elsewhere -- one suspects, at the hallowed "Work-Table."

I loved this article's description of the manic pace of life at that time -- 1856 -- with its "ceaseless agitation," and the importance of the home providing a respite. The more things change... Present-day resources still exhort and encourage us to make the home a sanctuary from the stress of modern living.

(The original had no paragraphs, but I have broken it down to make it easier to read.)

In the daily routine of domestic life, we know of few things having greater influence upon its peace and comfort than the "Work-Table." In those restless dwellings where its office is a sinecure, and all is flurry and excitement, from the rising up in the morning until the lying down at night, composure of mind is as much jeopardized as rest of body is sacrificed. We live in days of ceaseless agitation. The intellect is ever at work, teaming with new projects and aiming at ambitious desires, every faculty being strained to attain the desired end. ...

It is true that these are, or ought to be, masculine abstractions, in which the gentler sex have no share. ... When men are tempest-tossed and spirit-torn, they return to their own habitations with ruffled spirits and a brow but half-calmed from recent agitation.

What is the result?

If the impressionable mind of the mistress of the dwelling catches the reflection, and her household duties and domestic interests are disturbed, then all goes wrong.

But, on the other hand, supposing that the master of the house comes in from that outer world of strife in which he has got so bruised and wounded, and finds those who are dearest to him on earth sitting calmly round that "Work-Table," which is like the centre of a circle of peace, what is the consequence? He looks round on the happy faces, all so interested in those gentle labors, which seem to make him blush for the excess of his passion.... How pleasant is it to look on those smooth brows and those calm lips? The works of those busy fingers are for him and his; they are either for the comfort or adornment of his home.

The girls hurry to meet him; the wife looks at him a little anxiously, fearing that something has gone wrong. Shall he give vent to his troubles that the outer world has forced upon him -- his fears his cares, his anxieties, his distractions?


He thanks heaven for the happiness of that home, which is as a haven of rest to his troubled soul, and sits down with feelings of softening gratitude among the circle gathered round the "Work-Table."

 Graham's Illustrated Magazine, December 1856 (Philadelphia, PA)

1 comment:

  1. The less-than-subtle, sweet and syrupy admonitions to worship a man convinced many women that there was no higher calling than service in the home. Pity the woman who couldn't or wouldn't marry. Pity the woman with brains. But perhaps the most pity goes to the women for whom the 'womanly arts' were difficult to master. What alternative did they have?