Martha! Martha! Martha!

The year is 2108. Can you imagine what it will look like? It doesn’t seem that far away-only 96 years. And yet, what will change? The possibilities are endless. One thing is certain. The people of 2108 will probably be just as interested in the foolishness and wisdom of the past as we are today.

Imagine the researcher of tomorrow sitting in a library paging through old magazines, marveling at the quaint clothing, the sleek hairstyles, and the carefully applied make-up worn by the women of 2012. Maybe she’s pulled up an old issue of Martha Stewart Living. Her eyebrows will raise in delight as she ponders this printed proof of the social norms of her sisters who lived 96 years before her. She will pour over details of how to bake perfect lemon cakes, organize bathrooms, and plant herb gardens. And after reading Martha Stewart cover to cover, the researcher will walk away thinking she has a pretty good idea of how people lived in 2012. Oh dear.

This is what terrifies me about my own research into the year 1915, the year in which my book, Missouri Girl, takes place. Over the last couple of years I have gleefully mined the depths of eBay for books, magazines, even old Department of Agriculture Farmers’ Bulletins in an attempt to understand the world my protagonist inhabited. But I have to remember that what was printed doesn’t necessarily reflect the real people of the time any more than Martha Stewart’s idealized philosophy of living represents me.

Still, I’ve found some real gems, many of them too good not to share. And I’m pretty sure I’ve located 1916’s Martha Stewart equivalent. Her name was Mae Savell Croy, and she is the author of Putnam’s Household Handbook. My copy of Putnam’s is lovingly inscribed, “To Lizette, from Jack, Xmas. 1917.” I only hope for Jack’s sake that he presented this book of homemaker advice to Lizette alongside a beautiful necklace. But perhaps I am layering my 2012 feminism on to 1917 ideals. I’m probably not being fair. One thing is clear: I can open any page in this book and instantly be reminded of how easy my life is by comparison. In the chapter on clothing and laundry I read,

A cleaning fluid much used by professionals is composed of one gallon of gasoline, one half ounce each of alcohol and ammonia, and one ounce each of chloroform, ether, and borax. The articles to be cleaned should be soaked for a short time, then rubbed with the hands, applying to the spots the undissolved borax as though it were soap. The odor evaporates quickly.

Well, I should hope so! I return to my own laundry room filled with misty-eyed appreciation for my orange jug of Tide.

More eye-openers present in the chapter dealing with the care of children. Mrs. Croy writes,

A great comfort for baby when riding in an automobile is a small hammock swung suspended from the top of the machine so that it swings just above the seat tops and near mother’s lap.

My husband assures me that automobiles did not travel very fast in 1916. And I do realize that. Still, brakes have to be applied at some point. It was reading this paragraph, more than any other, that made me wonder if Mrs. Croy really was the Martha Stewart of her day, whipping up cheerful domestic solutions and improvements for any imaginable situation.

Reading through Putnum’s, I found some questionable and downright laughable advice, but I also found advice which proves the adage, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Returning to the chapter on childcare, we read,

Confidence between a thoughtful parent and a child is the greatest safeguard a child can have. A child who has been taught from babyhood to confide in father and mother, not in a complaining or petulant sense, but with the thought of telling mother or father about it, is not going to withhold his confidence in later years.

Thank you for reading my first blog post. If, like me, you find yourself fascinated by the lives of people who lived not so very long ago, then check back every now and then. Too many of the things I’ve found in my research will never make it into my book. And yet, they deserve to be shared.

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12 comments on “Martha! Martha! Martha!

  1. Rosetta Griffith says:

    Proud of your work Susan… Please put me on the follow….. blog… I love to keep reading…
    Rosetta Griffith

  2. Thank you so much, Mrs. Griffith! If you would like to receive automatic email updates, just click on the email button on the lower right side of the blog. Again, thank you so much for reading. Miss you!

  3. Derek Schreiber says:

    You’re blog is epic! Makes me want to start one! Keep on writing!

  4. Anita Crowe says:

    Susan, your search for my mother, your beloved grandmother, her life and times, means more to me than I can ever say. You knew and loved her as a “grandma”, but to become acquainted with her as a young girl is extraordinary. And that is what you are doing. Not only that, but you are writing a book about her, so we can all know her as she was then. What a wonderful gift this is to grandma! And what a wonderful expression of your love for her! I can’t say enough to tell you how much your efforts mean to me…..your mom

  5. Elena Schreiber says:

    Hey, this blog is GREAT! keep writing! I’d love to see more of your writing!

  6. Susan,

    I’m really enjoying your blog! Thank you for sharing it with us and I can’t wait for more posts and your book!

  7. Carol Ebert says:

    SUSAN—–Nice to read this article—Mae Savell Croy was my mother and died about 15 years ago. SHE had the energy and drive to work hard —-writing. SHE was born in Florida and went to NewYork when a young woman to seek a career.She wrote she wrote a number of books,magazine articles and a newspaper and a newspapwer column.

    • Thank you so much for writing! As the article mentions, I came across your mother’s delightful book by accident. I was doing research for a book I am writing that takes place in 1916. You must tell me–was your mother really the “Martha Stewart” of the early 1900’s (omitting the jail time, of course)? Her book made me think of both Martha Stewart Living and also Real Simple magazine. There is something about people who are able to elevate life’s everyday routines to an art form, isn’t there? Again, thank you so much for writing. I hope you realize how much her book has influenced my own novel. Best, Susan

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