“The manifold duties of the mother . . .” – circa 1894-1896

Very little is known about this untitled and undated text, in which Scott Duniway argues that domestic service must be made a respectable occupation. Her discussion is particularly interesting for three reasons. First, in her view, the topic of domestic service is important not only to the wealthy and privileged, for whom she has little time, but for families everywhere, and families of working women in particular. Abigail herself had hired a Chinese cook and a housekeeper when the family moved to Portland in 1871, just as she was launching the New Northwest, and knew that she could lead a public life because she had domestic help.1 Indeed, the New Northwest once praised Oregon as a place “where cooking and washing and chambermaid work are performed by Chinamen and women can engage in lucrative employment unlike women in older states.”2

Second, her concern for the status of housekeepers is consistent with her general concern for the economic well-being of workers and laborers.

Third, the text elaborates an extended example that obviously is autobiographical: In her story of a woman who must support her family after her husband is crippled, Abigail unquestionably is writing about herself in the third person, with only a touch of artistic license.3 Thus, while the text’s time frame cannot be known conclusively, her reference, in present tense, to the “partially paralyzed husband [who] patiently awaits the final call of the pallid messenger” is a clue. Arteriosclerosis, sciatic pain, and other ailments made Ben a heavy burden in the final two years before he died (on August 4, 1896). Abigail, knowing nothing of nursing and lacking the financial resources to hire help, complained bitterly about having to care for him alone. How she must have contemplated the subject of domestic help!4

The text is taken from a six-page typescript in Scrapbook #1 of the Abigail Scott Duniway Papers.

The manifold duties of the mother of a family have reached such complicated, not to say vast proportions, that it is no longer possible for one pair of hands to meet their requirements and at the same time satisfy the many demands upon strength and energy required outside of the home, by society, the church, the club, and the many philanthropies with which the well-to-do woman of the period is continually in touch.

And when, as often happens in these later years, the wife or mother is a professional or business woman, much of whose time is necessarily occupied outside of her home, the problem of proper domestic service, and how best to secure it, becomes one of bewildering magnitude.

To properly perform the multitudinous duties of the household requires, first of all, a mistress, or head, with sufficient intellectual endowments to manage a state or a nation. She must come into her kingdom endowed with culinary skill, artistic taste, a love of home, a charming personality and a commanding, though not domineering character. She must be capable of seeing the defects of her household management with clear vision, and at the same time of exercising judicious blindness when necessary. Her house-keeper, or maid of all work, must, if qualified by nature, for the manifold requirements of her position, must [sic] be endowed with excellent intellect; she must not be a mere machine, like a pianolo or a prepared pumpkin stalk, moving only as she is wrought upon by a power outside of herself, but she must have nerves of her own, and be inspired with sufficient will power and native understanding to comprehend and command the complexities of a many-sided situation.

Such a girl, or woman, if American born, instinctively shrinks from the title of servant. Nothing can come of berating her for this dislike. It is American born, and is no more to be intelligently deplored or deprecated than the color of her eyes or hair. It is instilled in her soul at the common school; it graduates with her at commencement times, and enstamps its character upon her whole mental make-up from the cradle to the grave.

She knows, as does everybody else, and especially those who would most thoroughly enforce this humiliating title upon her, that it carries with it the stigma of the former slave dealer. It implies passable submission to enforce the indignities from anomonal5 mistress of the house, repellant alike to her woman-hood and her education. She knows that upon the shoulders of the cook stove queen rests the most important of all the duties of every well managed home, that of kitchen engineer, and she naturally feels, and with good reason, that the shoulders of this responsible functionary ought to support as many honors as those which embellish the shoulders of any faithful officer who proudly bears the title of “Chief Engineer, U.S.N.” But she knows she will not be so recognized and honored, no matter how faithful her service, or how complete her accomplishments, so she seeks other applications, less remunerative, but to her way of thinking, as well as the world’s, more honorable.

In a modern home of ten or a dozen rooms, equipped with every up-to-date requirement, there is usually installed a chief engineer, a raw recruit from the green isle of Eden6, whose highest aim is to hold me place in one of the best families for the least possible service, and whose earlier life was spent in the atmosphere of the peat bog and the pig sty under the slatternly tutelage of a mother whose highest ambition was to see how many sprouting Hibernians7 regularly stuffed with adequate potatoes. If the servant girl be of Tuetonic8, rather than of Celtic origin, the service may be varied somewhat as to style and quality, but the results are no less satisfactory.

When as is an every day occurrence, the wife and mother in the modern home finds herself at the mercy of an untaught human machine, the burden of her life begins, as many so situated can testify. But if she prefers, as most women do, to cherish a false and very transparent pride, which keeps her silent, except with an occasional lady caller who knows just how it is herself, the tell-tale lines come quickly into her face, and crow tracks blossom immaturely around her eyes.

Occasionally, even with the title of servant-girl branding her soul, a woman accepts domestic service as a last resort against penury, and, though a refined and educated gentleman will enter a modern home, and for a stipend, ridiculous low, when the responsibilities of the position are considered, will assume the burdens of kitchen, pantry, laundry, bed-rooms, store-rooms and furnace. She had been a dress-maker, perhaps, before seeking employment in somebody’s kitchen, or a type-writer, or a school-teacher, or a clerk, but her living expenses and those of others dependent upon her had for so long a period absorbed all her earnings that in sheer desperation she had donned the servant’s badge. She had been recognized as an individual while engaged in other lines of work, and had enjoyed such relaxation and shame after office hours as she soon finds await no servant in the modern home. What wonder that after a brief struggle she gives up her new experiment, and returns to the old routine amidst scenes where she is no longer a Bridget or a Hulda, but a Miss or Mrs. somebody, on a social footing with the people or customers whom she meets in other vocations.

A woman well and widely known in social and intellectual circles, who has for many years been the bread-winner, as well as bread dispenser, in the home where her partially paralyzed husband patiently awaits the final call of the pallid messenger, never depends upon what society calls a servant, yet her home is a model of order and comfort, and its mechanism runs like clock work, although her professional duties call her daily from its immediate environments; yet this woman has reared a large family of sons and daughters to respectable and honorable maturity all of whom are now well settled in homes of their own.

“How have you managed to do so much, and do it all so well,” is the query with which she is often confronted.

“In the first place I discard the term servant,” she invariably explains; “there is but one class of servants who are really entitled to the name, and they are the wives and mothers of the land who toil without wages.” The ordinary bearer of this title, who demands and receives a salary, proves by the very fact of her accepting such a title, her unfitness for the post of responsibility she is called upon to occupy, and which, by its very importance, suggests the exercise of the acumen of a higher order.

This famous woman had begun her married life on the far frontier after the fashion of her environments as a maid of all work in her humble home. There her children were born, and there, except for a brief period during her regularly recurring confinement, she lived amid the usual retirements of rural activities till an accident befell her husband which necessitated an entire change in her domestic realm.

Having been herself a servant without wages for more than a dozen years, and having often envied the more fortunate employees of her husband, whose work was from sun to sun, while her’s was never done, this woman resolved at the very out-set of her career as a recognized bread-winner that she would revolutionize the servant girl problem in her own home.

It was easier to resolve than to execute, but the demand was urgent; so when her invalid husband and growing family were installed in the village whether she had gone to earn a livelihood as a keeper of a boarding school for girls, the first great need she encountered was, of course, a house-keeper. Her surroundings were of the pro-slavery order, for it was before the war, and strong and deep was the prejudice among the poor white trash with which the community abounded, against allowing their half-clad gals to go out to service. So a woman was employed to take charge of the home, who was popularly supposed to have seen better days, albeit her whilom husband had abandoned her and their children years before, and she had carried the double burden until her girls were reared and married.

This woman was given in the home of Mrs. Blank a room of her own with stove, lamp, and rocking chair, and her kitchen was provided with an easy chair and couch. She was liberally supplied with books and periodicals, and was frankly told that whenever her work for any day was done, her time should be her own.

Mrs. Blank’s salary as a teacher and the weekly stipend from the dozen young lady boarders sufficed to meet all expenses, including the house-keeper’s wages, for a term of years. The house-keeper was not the Bridget or Hulda, but was accosted in a respectable manner by her legitimate employer Mrs. Johnson. Just how she managed to get all the hardest and roughest of the house-work completed and out of the way during Mrs. Blank’s school hours, or just why her cooking was always excellent, nobody cared to ask.

Mrs. Johnson never intruded herself upon her employer’s company, though she was often her private and confidential counselor. The children of the household, who had been trained on the farm to do their allotted chores, without regular reminder, as cheerfully assisted the house-keeper out of school hours in their growing years as though she had been their mother; and none of the boarders showed by word or deed that she was considered in any sense a servant. But on one fateful evening, when there was an extra houseful of company, one of the boarders, a new comer from the city, who had not fully learned the household’s ways, thoughtlessly remarked in Mrs. Johnson’s hearing “Oh, she’s nobody, she[’s] only Mrs. Blank’s servant girl.” Mrs. Johnson left the house without warning. She was willing to work, to oblige, to be kind, to be faithful, but to be nobody, to be only Mrs. Blank’s servant girl, it was too much.

Mrs. Blank found the kitchen sink groaning under its burden of unwashed dishes, the kitchen table was loaded with cans of well sealed fruit, and the dasher churn (for it was before creameries were) stood a great yellow churning left to its rate just as the butter had come.

There was a note on Mrs. Johnson’s table, tear blotted and brief,

“You have been kind to me, dear Mrs. Blank,” it said, “but,” and here were two or three illegible words, “I could not be a servant in nobody’s house.”

A year of such discomfort in the busy household as the reader must be left to imagine followed Mrs. Johnson’s retirement. For a long time it was impossible to find another housekeeper able to meet the requirements. The first servant engaged from necessity, no more competent as a cook than she would have been as secretary of war, but she felt wholly above her station, and was so frightened at the prospect of being looked upon as a servant in reality, she wore a dress hat trimmed with roses and feathers when waiting on the table or washing her dishes.

Mrs. Blank worked herself into a fit of nervous prostration trying when her school duties were at an end for the day to do another day’s work in kitchen and pantry, and was at last compelled to close her school.

After half a dozen other trials and failures had followed in rapid succession, then the following advertisement was sent to a city paper. “Wanted: A housekeeper. Must be a good cook, with sufficient common sense to be her own manager. No servant need apply. Salary no object.”

A Miss Doe answered the ad in person. She was a New England maiden, of uncertain age, a shrill speaker, a high stepper, tall, sinewy, methodical, a graduate of the cooking school, and an authority upon all subjects pertaining to her domain. She was indeed no servant. She was queen of a realm, and so faithful withal that Mrs. Blank gladly abdicated her kitchen throne in her favor, and resumed her own business at the old stand. But she soon saw that Miss Doe’s extravagance would lead her household into financial ruin. Experience had made her diplomatic, so after much circumlocution, and not a little carefully concealed purturbation, she approached Miss Doe and broached her topic.

“You are an excellent cook and house-keeper,” she said, with an attempt at bravery, which chilled her blood to zero, “but”, and she fairly gasped for breath, “the expenses of the house-hold are over-running the income, and I have come to confer with you about the situation.” “If I don’t suit you, you can get somebody else,” said Miss Doe, switching vigorously at the cake she was compounding.

“I don’t wish you to leave me,” said Mrs. Blank, “though of course you can go at any time if you are not satisfied, but I wish to make a suggestion; tomorrow is the first day of the month. I find that I can only spare you about one hundred dollars per month for table expenses, that ought to be sufficient, for we have our own milk, butter, eggs, and chickens. Now, Miss Doe, my proposition is this: If you will take one hundred dollars per month and supply the table with all the delicacies of every season, you shall have a commission on your purchases of every cent that is left over in addition to your salary every month.”

The effect upon Miss Doe’s executive capacity was magical. From a careless, extravagant consumer of raw material she became a close calculator, and while the quantity or quality of her table supplies was not perceptibly impaired, the saving to Mrs. Blank’s bank account was exceptionally satisfactory.

The moral to this overtrue tale is plain. Domestic service must be elevated to a position of trust, and must not come into competition with the unpaid toil of wives and mothers. Every woman engaged in it must be taught that it is not only not a menial service, but is the most honorable, because the most necessary occupation, upon which humanity must depend for its very existence. To this end let the idea be cultivated everywhere that the work of the wife and mother who follows no other business is that of a co-partner with the husband and father in other lines of work. This fact once established, the ingenuity of woman, spurred on by her intellect, her love of home, and her home’s necessities, will do the rest.

When that time comes, she will see that no more work is left to do inside the home than the average wife and mother will be able to perform with comfort to herself and household. Then, and not till then, will the servant girl problem be in a condition to settle itself. The way is steadily opening for even the unskilled women to find employment in great manufacturing centers where food and clothing are prepared from the raw material by women.

House-keeping, home-making are like everything else in human economy, undergoing a constant process of evolution. There is no more reason why every loaf of bread should be baked in a different kitchen than there is why every bushel of wheat should be ground in different mills. Already the revolution in domestic affairs has begun to take tangible shape. The laundry is gradually rising to the standard of a threshing machine, the creamery to that the spinning and power loom, the fruit cannery to the company of the great flour mills, the dishwasher to the companionship of the steam-driven mangle, and the bakery to that of a ready-made clothing store.

Individual or segregated homes will not only never grow obsolete under this improved condition, through which alone the servant girl problem can be satisfactorily resolved [in] every habitation, but they will, let us strongly hope, grow more and more into favor until that modern Babylon, the average fashionable boarding houses, will be remembered only as a distorted dream.


    1. “Abigail Scott Duniway” 9; I. Ross, Ladies 193. Even earlier, while they lived in Albany, Abigail could manage as well as she did in part because, after the 1862 accident in which a runaway team of horses dragged a wagon over his back, rendering him a semi-invalid for life, Ben was home taking care of the youngest boys, Clyde and Ralph (born there in 1866 and 1869, respectively) (Moynihan, Rebel 76; D. Duniway 203-04). []
    2. Qtd. in Capell 45. Scott Duniway’s attitude toward the Chinese was somewhat more complicated than might be suggested by her frequent condemnation of the consignment of women to “the political category of idiots, insane persons, criminals and Chinamen,” or by her more general criticism of foreign-born voters. She believed that Chinese servants enabled women to escape the drudgery of their house-bound sphere, and dismissed much anti-Chinese agitation as the complaining of indolent white men, both native and foreign born, who simply were not as industrious and who, in any case, would not perform the same jobs. At the same time, she favored restrictions on immigration for reasons both noble and not. In 1882, when President Arthur vetoed an exclusion act that would have suspended immigration for twenty years, the New Northwest editorialized that he had “given heed to the prattle of sentimentalists of the East” and “accepted the buncombe words of theorists thousands of miles away” rather than the testimony of eyewitnesses to “filth, slavery and degradation.” At the height of anti-Chinese riots in Seattle in February, 1886, the Governor declared martial law, there were casualties when the militia fired on the mob, and U.S. troops were sent. On the very eve of this violence’s spread to Portland, Abigail again blamed “the European foreigners who are menacing our country’s peace” and advocated restriction as an antidote to slave labor and a means to break the hold of “the Chinese Six Companies [who] comprise a syndicate of slave-owners who are just as much to be despised, and ought as surely to be prohibited from operating in America, as were the African slave-dealers of a bygone era.” Yet, she offers, exclusion also would prevent the Chinese “from overrunning the United States and draining our money from the country”; therefore, “we can see no danger from the presence of a limited number of the barbarians to do menial service among us.” This latter reason glosses another, much uglier, column from 1882, which treats the “Mongolian evil” and describes the “hordes” who are “swarming” Portland’s streets, who “are not in any sense of us,” who “do not come to build up the country” but “to rob it of its substance” while “replenishing their ranks forever like a perpetual swarm of ever-increasing house-flies.” It contends that “when a building, a block, a city, or a country” is “befouled” by the Chinese, “it can never be reclaimed and purified for the occupancy of a cleanly race.” Therefore, “while it is right in principle that the Chinamen should seek our shores, and equally right for us to let them come as fast as we can entertain or employ them with benefit to ourselves and our homes,” their numbers should be restricted lest “Asiatic immigration . . . play havoc with us” even as “European immigration played havoc with the Indians in this country”! Perhaps the best that can be said is that, while she (like her brother, Harvey) supported limited immigration and general exclusion for economic and racial reasons, she seems never to have endorsed the even more drastic policy of expulsion (New Northwest 14 Apr. 1876, 25 Aug. 1876, 6 Apr. 1822, 22 June 1882, 11 Feb. 1886; Scott, History of the Oregon Country 1: 79-82, 278-79, 2: 52, 3: 224-26). []
    3. Unlike “the woman” in the text, Scott Duniway “technically” had only one daughter. However, her eight-year-old niece, Annie, came to live with the Duniways in September, 1865, after Abigail’s younger sister, Maggie (Margaret Ann Scott Fearnside), met an early death from consumption (Moynihan, Rebel 81). []
    4. Moynihan, Rebel 202-05. Scott Duniway’s fiction also addressed the subject of domestic service. Jean Ward observes that the short story “Judd and John Mundane” (New Northwest, February 18 and 25, 1886) “deals with issues of Chinese workers and labor reform. Labor and management give up their quarreling and join hands in interdependence, and the Anti-Coolie League becomes the Working Men’s Cooperative Union”, while “‘Gretchie,’ a novelette written circa 1896, is the story of a domestic servant, Gretchen Von Linderlitten (“Women’s Responses” 90-91 [n. 4]). The timing of “Gretchie” is particularly suggestive in this regard. []
    5. Probably “a nominal” is meant. []
    6. Ireland []
    7. Irish. The Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish Catholic society formed to defend Irish immigrants, was founded in the United States in 1836, and in Oregon in 1877. Its slogan was: Friendship, Unity, True Christian Charity. Members were barred from joining secret societies that contravened the teachings of the church (Ancient Order of Hiberians). []
    8. Germanic []

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