Less is more, or not!

The more children you have, the less quality of life? Think again!
I have a friend who is something else. I don’t usually brag about friendships but I can’t help giving this dear friend a special mention.  Regardless of the particular country where I happen to be working or visiting, the circle of friends in which I find myself – be it a family reunion or a discussion about children and family life – my friend immediately springs to mind. Some people call her and her husband crazy but I haven’t noticed a constant stream of what might be classed ‘sensible’ people in my travels.

Each time she says she has a big announcement to make, you know in your heart it must be the news she has been sharing with us for a number of years – that they are expecting another baby. They now have 9 children – and as you come to get to know each child, your whole perception of what it means to be part of a large family changes.

The first comment people usually make when I talk about the family is “Of course they will surely be from some radical religious group?” And I am amused because my answer is, “I don’t know or care, but what I do know is that they belong to a group of people who possess a quality we should all imitate -generosity.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean that their like-minded group of friends have equally large families but, economics aside,  they are all generous and give of themselves completely. I might not pass that test of sheer selflessness.

When you walk through their front door it immediately feels like a home. The first thing that hits you is the buzz and vibrancy of children offering to help. The disorder expected is non existent as everyone has a designated role to play, something they’ve been taught from a young age. Their five-year-old was setting the table, taking dishes from the cupboard at his height level and carefully arranging the knives and forks on the table. I could have offered to do it for him but I thought better of it.

There’s no need to speak about equality in this house because clearly, their home belongs to everyone. Their sons and daughters divide the chores equally and both parents manage to work outside the home, neither having to give up their chosen profession.

People often ask me if they have lots of nannies and are rich to afford so many children. The answer is negative to both those questions. But sometimes I don’t even bother to answer as it’s clear that, even after explaining everything, they still don’t understand that a team of 11 is much stronger than a team of just 3 – for prejudices of this nature are hard-wired into the human brain.

 

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Fine Dining? Living At-home Culinary Culture

 

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How much does it cost to go to a really swanky restaurant? Fifty pounds a head? A hundred? You can certainly see why the authors of a new study, suggest that people now plan and save for a lovely dinner prepared under the aegis of a top chef.
 
The author, a Cambridge university academic, speculates that so seriously do diners take their forays into the world of fine dining, that they are prepared to set cash aside for it, in much the same way they would for a holiday.
 
Wow. Is a good dinner really worth taking that seriously? Are there really people out there who think some appetising nosebag is up there with a week at the beach? Maybe there are, and each to their own etc.
 
But the guiding spirit of thrift moves me to ask – is it worth it? The author says her respondents – 40 celebrated chefs – liken the occasion of going to a top restaurant to a trip to the theatre; a cultural, rather than a strictly gastronomical, experience.
 
Which rather sets the cant-detector off. Because the whole drift of the food industry – the cult of the celebrity TV chef, the library of cooking books, the magazines, the faux intellectualism – is predicated on a love of food; principally – its taste.
 
Yet a ‘cultural experience’ is more than how the taste buds are responding. It’s about what we see, who sees us, what status we derive from being observed in a fashionable milieu. All well and good. But nothing to do with the grub. If the food is good, it tastes good whether it’s at home or in SW1.
 
But it does behove one question for those of us trying to think hard about the role of the home. To what extent should we seek to mimic that ‘cultural experience’ at home – for a fraction of the cost?
 
Does shrewd home-making rely on a monthly menu which picks out red letter days? If money is tight, does lighting a couple of candles at the dining table really recreate an evening with Raymond Blanc? Obviously not. Part of eating out is the adventure of ‘going out’. However, there is still something to be said for apeing the conventions of fine dining – at home.
 
This is not to suggest hiring a maitre d’ to work the front of (your) house. But a bit of spit and polish, breaking out the candle-sticks, foldling a couple of napkins, some music; all can help a dinner stand out. And there might still be money left for a summer break.

Spring Clean Traditions

-By Joanna Roughton

I love this time of year. And, if it could speak, I think my home would say the same thing. Because, after the dark months of mud, wind and rain, our house is opening up again – as assuredly as the daffodils.

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It has been a long winter. Our home has not flooded, as so many in the West Country have. The worst injury it sustained was the surgical removal of a couple of roof tiles by a particularly nasty south-westerly. But the volume of water has made keeping a tidy house difficult, if not impossible. Dogs and children prove to be excellent vessels for the transference of water from without to within!

Historically, this was the time for the Spring Clean. Often it would take place over a weekend and, crucially, involved an entire family; not just Mum. These were the days before vacuum cleaners and central heating. Then a home, after months of short days and cold nights, would be coated in a thick film of dust, produced by open fires and candles.

Windows and doors would be thrown open, curtains or drapes taken down and washed, soot and grime helped out of the house by a March zephyr.

There was a linkage made with some spiritual housekeeping too. Indeed, within the Orthodox church calendar there is still to be found ‘Clean Monday’, a day at the start of Lent which seems to make a link between a spotless conscience and a spruced-up home.

171379170But in recent years the Spring Clean seems to have fallen from fashion, supplanted by ugly, timeless phrases like ‘deep clean’; an emergency service offered to failing hospitals that have succumbed to infectious spread, or restaurant kitchens condemned by health and safety officials. A friend, who commercially lets a second property, recently parted with a lot of cash to a domestic agency for a ‘deep clean’ after her tenants did a moonlight flit, leaving an awful mess behind.

In short, it has become transactional, not social. The idea that the act of coming together, over a weekend or the whole of a day – as a family – to do nothing more dramatic than clean house, would strike many people now as a burdensome waste of time.

This strikes me as a shame. We all live in a house, so we all ought to have a stake in its wellbeing. And sometimes an orderly home requires a root and branch shake-up. With quotidian family commitments, it is not often we get the chance to get behind the fridge with a mop, or think collectively about whether it’s time to replace those frayed curtains.

More than that, there is something to be said for a Spring Clean as one of those chronological punctuation marks that we need to help us recognise the passage of time. Because magazines, newspapers and TV programmes constantly talk-up the virtues of ‘de-cluttering’. As such, it has become an ever-present, year-round pre-occupation.

Apart from anything else, this induces a sense of guilt. “I really must  go through that garage today and head to the dump.” Well, yes, you probably should. But isn’t it easier on the heart if we know that there is a day or two in March when the house will be blitzed – for no better reason than tradition?

Mothering in the Work-Life Balancing Act

-By Joanna Roughton

The Home Renaissance Foundation is now a think-tank. This is an ongoing process. It is also wonderful. Because studying the home – putting factual flesh on the bones of intuition – is how to win the argument in an increasingly crowded public space for ideas.

No better example of what I mean came last week. The Department for Education – not always a friend of the family – published a big study it had commissioned. The research examined the attitudes of working mothers.

Few areas of home life excite so much controversy and strength of feeling. So this is an area of debate where data, hard facts and the empirical experience of real people carry particular force.

And what were the findings of this study? Here is how the Daily Telegraph reported them: “Middle class women are deserting the workplace in droves to look after their children, an official study shows.”

Golly. That is some claim. Surely the irresistible drift of policy in recent years has been to propel women into the workplace – and away from the home – with inexorable energy. Tax and benefits steer mothers back to the career coal-face. Government ministers laud women who climb the greasy pole of the professions, and diminish the efforts of homemakers.

But here is a study which challenges some of the fundamental strictures of the, frequently, one-sided discourse about the work-life balancing act.

It found that six out of ten working mothers would go part-time if they could, and four from ten would give up work altogether, in order to spend more time with their children. This is a powerful antidote to the prevailing mindset of the mainstream media, which regularly cites stellar achievers, CEO’s and the like, as exemplars of working motherhood. In reality, these women are exceptional. Wonderfully gifted, but not typical.

Many women do not crave a place on the board. Unlike most men our sense of worth and status is complex and generally not so brittle. It often derives as much from what we do at home, as what we are perceived to have achieved at work. And anyway, those top jobs are a rarity. Should we really be surprised that more than half of working mothers would jack it all to become care-at-home-mothers? Not really.

Just as fascinating from this Department for Education research is what we learn about the  motivations of women. Among those who had given up work to look after their offspring full-time, a majority of respondents said their decision had nothing to do with money.

This really does undermine and bely the casual assumptions of the commentariat, that women are forfeiting a career because childcare is too expensive, or that the sums no longer add up because the Exchequer has axed child benefit.

These mothers were baldly stating that their actions were divorced from hard cash. They simply did not want to pay a stranger to bring up their children. This sense of giving primacy to the very act of mothering may make some old-school feminists uncomfortable, but there it is, in black and white, in the sound social science of a copper-bottomed study.

In a single year, it found the number of families relying on formal childcare has fallen by a tenth, a dramatic reduction in such a short space of time. Admittedly, these were women with relatively high-earning spouses. But even so we may yet look back at this as a tipping point. The bland assumption that a smart woman craves a career first and children as an afterthought is now in some serious jeopardy.

It’s a Wonderful Life

In the best film ever made, Frank Capra’s ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, the hero is desperate to leave home. George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, wants to explore the world like many of his successful friends.
But, as you know from watching the movie every Christmas, George never quite makes it. The Buildings & Loan, set up by his father to help the poor buy houses, needs him. His witless uncle needs him. The town of Bedford Falls needs him (lest it be dominated by a tyrannical old miser and renamed Pottersville).
My thoughts turned to George Bailey when reading that more and more young men are now living with their parents. Much has been written about why this is happening to the so-called ‘boomerang generation’ – who leave and come back. Similarly, lots has been said about the ‘sandwiched’ parents who provide the ‘bank of mum and dad’ to children who cannot quite achieve escape velocity from the family orbit.
These concepts are almost always considered negatively. And indeed there is something unsettling about young men who – usually for financial reasons – do not fulfil that arc of manhood with all its rites of passage (including setting up their own family home).
And yet, as George Bailey reminds us, there can be something redeeming about a grown-up child who chooses – sometimes against their better judgement – to stay close to the family nest.
Indeed, it has long struck me that one of the strange ironies of modern life is the sheer effort parents expend to secure an outcome which often renders them miserable.
Increasingly, parents stump-up huge amounts of cash for tutors and private schooling to wring the last ounce of academic performance from their child. For what? So their prodigy can go to university many miles away to get a degree that will allow them to take a job which will probably require them to work anywhere, including abroad.
Of course, this is one of the oldest paradoxes in parenting. We love our offspring so much that we move heaven and earth to launch them into the world (even though that may mean they will effectively be lost to us).
But I wonder if the sands are shifting irrevocably here. Certainly, many young people now question the merits of a – sometimes – meaningless higher education. They baulk at the student debt. They wonder if it might be better to get stuck into the world of work without leaving home for a distant campus. When George Bailey saw his friends return from college, they did so in cadillacs. It tends not to be like that now.
So does this release some of the pressure on parents? Does it provide a justification to the instinct to retain a child’s presence, rather than submit to the cool logic that betterment comes with dislocation? Well, I would definitely not argue the merits of children living in the family home indefinitely. A well-run home can flourish with adult-children around, paying their way, doing their share – while saving up money for their own property. But there is a natural life-cycle to such an arrangement. When our children find a spouse of their own.
Yet, how many parents are there out there who – like George Bailey’s matchmaking mother – seek to keep their child in the neighbourhood? Surely the answer is the vast majority of those parents whose home life is harmonious. This is not about seeing our children as friends from whom we cannot part (good parenting is to be a parent first, and a friend second). But it is to acknowledge that the family can exist beyond the home, within the locale. Again, I accept this will seem incompatible with the aim of helping our offspring to ‘get on’. Perhaps, though, many parents would be happy to see – like George Bailey – their child get on a little less, if that meant being around more.

Evidence Links Family Meals to Reduced Occurrence of Obesity

-By Joanna Roughton

Maybe it’s a New Year thing, but obesity is everywhere. Newspapers, websites and our airwaves are full of stories about fighting the flab. One recent media report suggested estimates that half the UK population will be obese by 2050 are an underestimate!

That really did set the hare running (hares never seem to walk which, presumably, makes them immune to obesity?). Anyway, reactions to the ‘underestimate’ story included predictable features about the need to cut calorific intake and maximise calorific expenditure (i.e. eat less and exercise more).

One take on the story was typical. The BBC website asked a range of organisations and campaign groups how they would curb the obesity epidemic.

It’s the sugary drinks, said Public Health England. It’s the advertising of junk food, argued the British Medical Association. Inadequate labelling, the dangers of hidden sugar, GPs who fail to intervene. The list went on. Of course, most hedged their comments with the important caveat that no one solution can work alone. But what struck me in this journalistic equivalent of rounding up all the usual suspects, was the one which was missing.

I was reminded it only this morning while listening to the BBC’s Thought for the Day on Radio 4. The contributor noted that a growing number of men in prison had to be taught how to use a knife and fork at meal-times.

It put me in mind of a super piece written by the Michelin-starred chef and Home Renaissance Foundation patron, Richard Corrigan. In it he talked about how, as one of seven children growing up on a farm in Ireland, he had learned about the importance of family meals and, though a very busy restaurateur now, he still made time to sit down to eat where he could with his wife and children.

There is nothing unusual in that. But what really caught my eye, and comes to mind now, was the research paper he quoted written for the HRF by Dr Sophia Aguirre. She has flagged up some extraordinary benefits which derive simply from sitting down at meal-times. There are strong links, it seems, between a family meal and lower levels of risky behaviour – things like drugs use, self-harming and the like.

Now you could argue, as we like to say, that cause is not correlation. Richard Corrigan asks the question in his piece, that maybe a family organised enough to sit down together for a Sunday roast, is likely to be the kind of setting where there is lots of social capital. In other words, the kind of young men who have grown up eating pizza and burgers and do not know how to use cutlery, tend to be from chaotic families.

But in his (full story here) Richard answers his own question, pointing out that: “Dr Aguirre’s work also shows how it is precisely these disadvantaged youngsters who need formal family meals more than others. It is at the dining table that we impart some of the most important lessons of life: how to tell a story, share our recollections of the day and listen politely. It is where kids should learn something about manners. Not formal etiquette, but how to behave in company. It is easy to dismiss these things as irrelevant.stock-footage-young-ethnic-family-enjoying-a-healthy-lunch-together-at-home

“The diners at my restaurant in Mayfair know what a soup spoon looks like. Yet last August [2011], not a million miles away from my own home, the riots showed us that a generation of young men are not part of the story of social mobility which drew me to Britain. I am not for a second saying that learning how to tell the difference between a fish and steak knife will help cure “broken Britain”. But I do sincerely believe that something as simple as sharing a family meal can do a surprising amount of good. If you can get kids into the habit early enough, family meals can be the making of what the academics call “soft skills” – even if it is just once a week.”

Of course, the key finding which Dr Aguirre lays before us is not about these ‘soft skills’ – important though they are. The main point about family meals is that they teach young people how to eat; good food at set-times. There is a lot of evidence making this connection between family meals and reduced obesity.

It is important that something as simple as sitting down together at meal-times is factored into the debate on combatting obesity. Some public health groups will sometimes find the urge to push for bans or advertising campaigns irresistible. They may find the idea of advocating family meals a little de trop, a bit old fashioned, a trifle socially conservative. But, hey guys, if it works…

Click here to find out more about Healthy Homes & Healthy Diet resources by the Home Renaissance Foundation team.

How can we make weddings duller?

-By Joanna Roughton

It’s hard to imagine a more po-faced question! But the answer matters if we are to halt and reverse a truly pernicious trend, identified last week by the former Archbishop of Canterbury. Rowan Williams gave a speech in which he warned that a wedding has become an ‘experience’ and the pressure to have the perfect day amounted to one of the biggest threats to marriage itself. Glitzy weddings, partly inspired by no-financial-holds-barred celebrity occasions, offered couples the chance to join a matrimonial arms race, where nobody wanted to be seen to be left behind. We were witnessing the ‘marketisation’ of marriage, he said. 

Certainly, there is a lot at stake for those pushing the ‘perfect day’ pill. It is dangerously easy to think of those involved as forming part of a cheery cottage industry of one-man-band make-up artists and flower arrangers. They are there. But so too are the big players – the wedding planners and magazines, the hotel venues and caterers. In the face of their brochures and blandishments, couples are willing to leverage themselves massively, thinking nothing of wracking up debts which, in another time, might have been the result of a growing family or deposit on a first home. Worse still, Lord Williams noted, the ‘fantasy’ wedding did no favours to newlyweds in terms of managing expectations of what married life was actually all about, or as he put it: “this massively fantastical experience which you go through on your wedding day, after which, of course, nothing is ever quite so good again.”

So how to retain the public declaration of commitment which must lie at the heart of a wedding ceremony, with a final bill which will not leave a couple in hock and delaying those things which are genuinely likely to advance their long-term stability – such as children or a functional home?

Well, there are obviously powerful movements at work here which are not going to be undone quickly. From Facebook to selfies, people increasingly see themselves as the central protaganist of their own soap opera. And challenging that cult of vacuous, often vain, self-realisation, is not going to be easy. But it is possible to appeal to those who have doubts about the ‘marketisation’ of matrimony and supply them both with the arguments – as Lord Williams has done – and the practical advice needed to buck the fantasy wedding trend.

Organisations like the Home Renaissance Foundation, which encourage families to ‘do’ rather than ‘buy’, may have a role here. Indeed the home itself – as a physical space – could yet enjoy a return to its historical position as the obvious place to hold a wedding reception. The aptitudes which the HRF celebrates, of family dining, household organisation, domestic budget management; these are the very skills which many couples are ‘contracting out’ to providers who charge them for the privilege.

Might Housework Be Therapeutic?

-By Joanna Roughton

“What you get from having a popular TV show is a voice.” So recently spoke 42-year-old Kirstie Allsopp, host of Location, Location, Location, in a Times article.

And she is using that voice in a thought-provoking and counter-cultural way. In her latest interview, she articulates a deeply unfashionable idea – at least in metropolitan media circles – that housework can be good for mental health.

She told the Western Daily Press: “I’m not doing the ironing because I have to, but if I get a chance, I find it immensely therapeutic”.

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“I’m absolutely convinced that those repetitive tasks that one does everyday, organising and regularising one’s home, and keeping it tidy, is enormously therapeutic.  I know it is for me, and I have many, many working mum friends who feel the same. That to know that their child is going to school with clean hair, clean teeth, clean uniforms, and their house is clean is what keeps her sane.”

Of course, all homemakers know there is a balance to be struck here. But although it is possible to be swamped by a heavy domestic workload, the case is rarely made for why repetitive domestic chores can have an upside.

Kirstie Allsopp, a mother-of-two with two stepchildren, makes the case for the benefits of housework in relation to peace of mind. Certainly, it is possible to see how completing a task, in a world where many processes are beyond our control and have no definable start and finish, is helpful to our sense of wellbeing. It was interesting to hear her word for it: regularising.

There is also something therapeutic in the reveries that we are transported to while focusing on a job – say ironing – which, because it does not require all our brain’s synapses to fire at full-tilt – allows our minds to wander, unencumbered by the need to concentrate totally.

There are other quiet satisfactions. The ability to bring our own quality control to bear on a task. Homemakers do not have to ask whether the cleaner got around the back of the loo – we did it (surely, wee did it?).

Then there is the sense of feeling a kind of kinship with all the other home-makers out there. Keeping house is one of the fundamental human experiences wherever, or indeed whenever, you live.

Edmund Burke, the great Anglo-Irish thinker and politician, famously said that a harmonious culture required a social contract between the generations. And not just those still living, but those yet to be born and those already dead. When we set about making a home work, we are invisibly communing with others around the world as well as in other times. It is a universal experience of the human condition in a way that, say, working in a call centre or selling insurance, is not.

All of which seems a long way from finishing that pile of ironing. But we should not be timid about putting the case for home-making, even at the risk of pretentious flights of fancy!

And, as illustrated by Kirstie Allsopp, a woman who has consistently defended the right of women to choose to build a home rather than a career, it sometimes takes a high-profile public face to state what is obvious to so many people whose every utterance is not of interest to our celebrity-obsessed media.

Christmas Traditions in the Home: Past and Present

– By Joanna Roughton

It reportedly cost the retailer John Lewis £7m to produce its latest Christmas video. The animated advertisement features a bear who repeatedly sleeps through Christmas while hibernating; until a neighbourly hare buys him an alarm clock.

Whether cryptic or mawkish, the commercial represents money well spent for John Lewis. For big retailers healthy Christmas sales can make the difference between a good or bad financial year. By associating itself with the warm glow of the festive season, John Lewis – and the other retailers who have aped the idea – associate themselves with the spiritually galvanising best of Christmas. The marketeers, skilled practitioners in the dark arts of sub-conscious nudging, have hit upon a clever way of linking a particular brand with a feelgood annual event.

There is nothin160190197g new in this, of course. Think about the way the Coca Cola company appropriated Santa Claus in the 1930s. But for those of us who believe that Christmas traditions are something which spring from and belong within a family home, there is something hollow about the way shopping seeks to supplant something more wholesome, less ersatz.

It is a big tide to push against. But, in a modest way, inspiration comes not far from the offices of the Home Renaissance Foundation. The Geffrye Musuem in London, which celebrates its centenary next year, is putting on an exhibition entitled ‘400 Years of Seasonal Traditions in English Homes’.

Any historical assessment of Christmas traditions will always provide an antidote to its modern incarnation – for many – as a carnival of indebtedness, office parties and bad woolly jumpers. The story of the birth of Christ, now so frequently airbrushed out the ‘Happy Holidays’ picture, is front and centre

But the Geffrye also reminds us that Christmas traditions have to start somewhere. No family is a tableau rasa, and there are things that I do with my husband and children at Christmas which have been handed down through the generations.

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Yet there are also new twists. The crockery which I bought in Brussels which only comes out on Christmas Day, the order in which we open presents, the games; these are the stuff of cherished memories. They are our creations, spontaneous, meaningless to anyone outside the family, not the brainchild of a slick creative mind at John Lewis.

When Home-Making Really Was Domestic Science

The Home Renaissance Foundation seeks to take the work and life of the home seriously, an ambition it asserts is both timeless and universal. Sad to say, such a view is increasingly in the minority.

Busy careers, increasing mobility, dysfunctional families and the fashion for living alone (almost a third of all households in the UK are now in solitary occupation), all undermine the centrality of the home in the life of individuals and society at large.

It was not always thus. And a reminder of how far cultural mores have shifted can be found in a remarkable collection of periodicals and books, compiled online by one of the world’s most renowned libraries.

What really strikes home about The Smithsonian Library’s “The Making of a Homemaker” is the sheer breadth of popular literature on the subject, covering a period of well over a century, predominantly from the Victorian era.

Homemaker in the Victorian era

The titles provide quite a canon. Most are aimed squarely at the house-wife. Some are for women of modest means, others for hostesses who need to manage staff and entertain on a grand scale. But what even a brief examination of these titles rewards is a reminder that the phrase ‘domestic science’ was well deserved.

Because these books are, put bluntly, not for the stupid. These are authors who refuse to patronise their readers and who challenge, very directly, the modern idea that to manage a home and see that as the defining role of one’s life is – somehow – evidence of a wasted life.

I do not lament the passing of a world where women had no choice but to see home-making as the acme of achievement. But I am rendered wistful when, reading these books, we realise that so many modern feminists cannot conceive of a world where home-making had intellectual depth.

And what depth. Yes, there is writing here which would be familiar to those who subscribe to Good Housekeeping. There are chapters on larder management, laundry, dining table etiquette, sewing, cooking, and – to use a word that would be utterly alien to readers a century ago – parenting.

But there is so much more too. This was an era when a home-maker was far more able to contract out some drudgery (in Britain the number of domestic servants ran to hundreds of thousands and even families of limited affluence could afford some ‘help’), while yet being much more willing to fix things herself.

This was an era before dish-washers, microwaves, and vacuum cleaners. There were no circuit boards which nowadays means a piece of domestic equipment, once faulty, has to be disposed of or sent for repair. And so we find manuals that, as the Smithsonian notes, offer amazingly complex advice, with one book even offering guidance on “metallurgy for the home”.

These are books for clever, capable women, who saw home-making as a vocation and one which allowed them to give full vent to their gifts of mind, organisation and assiduity. It is a world away from that lazy modern stereotype of a home-maker as someone who is somehow ducking a ‘real’ career.

Not all the books in this online collection are written by women for women. There are a number of male authors but, as the Smithsonian makes clear: “The great depth of information contained in these Victorian era handbooks signifies not only the elaborate households of the era, but the amount of knowledge women were expected to obtain. Though restricted outside of her domestic sphere, within it she was brilliant.”

The Smithsonian Libraries, “The Making of a Homemaker”, is available here.