Thursday, April 17, 2014

1950s Kitchen Quote of the Week: Mrs. Emma Van Coutren

“Just like a man, I thought, singing the familiar refrain about how wonderful everything used to be. I told him I didn’t believe most women of my generation would agree. And I say it again, although I’m no expert with a degree after my name, but only know what I’ve learned from 65 years of living on this earth, raising a family of 12, and watching 17 grandchildren come along. I know how life has changed in our country in the past half century, and I admit that it isn’t like the good old days. I think it’s a lot better.

Of course, I don’t say that ever change has been an improvement. It seems to me that we are on the go too much to think of spiritual things as often as we should, and as often as we used to. If so, that’s our own fault, and not the fault of the times we live in. If we stopped once in a while for reflection, we would look back at the road we’ve traveled and give thanks for the blessings of life in America today.

I notice that it’s almost always the men, anyhow, who say that things used to be better. Men remember chicken dinners and home-baked pies an bread—but it was their wives who spent hours plucking the chickens, kneading dough, and baking in a coal range.

After Sunday dinner, it was the men who went to the lodge or the park, while the women piled the dirty dishes in the tin-lined sink and heated cistern water on the stove for washing. There were no automatic dish washers and dryers, no stainless steel sinks with garbage disposal units, no ventilating fans to carry off cooking smells and heat.

Men have forgotten how floors were scrubbed on hands and knees, rugs cleaned with a broom or a beater, clothes scrubbed on a washboard, fruits and vegetables canned all summer long to provide the winter’s food supply. These were round-the clock, 7-days-a-week chores which women of my day accepted without question, and which made many of them old before their times.

Young housewives of today take for granted a world which has been turned upside down for their convenience, during the lifetime of people no older than myself."

–––Mrs. Emma Van Coutren, from her memoir essay, ‘This Beats the Good Old Days,” The American Magazine, August 1950: pp. 32-33; 104-106.

Mrs. Emma Van Coutren was a 65 year old mother of twelve and grandmother of seventeen who raised her family in rural Missouri. [She was born in Elmira, New York in 1885]. In the extensive article, in addition to her describing the “good old days” (a man’s term, she says) and all of the hard work she did as a housewife, she mentions that each of her twelve children served during World War II—at home or abroad—and that all twelve came home. She was honored in 1944 by the Mother’s Day Commemorative League as the woman who best exemplified American motherhood.

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