April 18, 2011

The Canadian Housewife: An Affectionate History by Rosemary Neering

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The Housewife's reputation has been tarnished of late because of TV shows with the words "The Real" in the title. Time for a reality check. Housewives built this nation, without them settlements failed. Their purchases drove economies. Concern for their families compelled them to become involved in politics. Their efforts on the home front helped win wars.

Family group, copied for Henry G. Birks in 1920
The Canadian Housewife: An Affectionate History by Rosemary Neering takes a look at the history of housewives in Canada starting with the Filles du Roi and ending with the post-war years of the 1950s.With every era, housewives had unique difficulties, whether it was marrying a stranger in a new country, dealing with the extreme poverty of the depression or saving scrap for the war effort. Neering not only chronicles the historical events these women lived through but explains the day to day tasks expected of them and how they were tackled: the cook, the laundress, the nurse, the wife, etc.

Bake oven, Murray Bay, QC, 1898
A Bake Oven (1898, Quebec)
With every technical innovation, the housewife's life improved, giving her more time to consider her place in the world. She didn't have to spend all day dragging the laundry to the river if she bought a washing machine. With more time to herself, she might join an organization with other women. Magazine and newspaper articles of the day, included in the book, clamored for the housewife's dollar offering her the latest time saving device or offering her advice.

Spinning, Cap à l'Aigle, QC, about 1895
Spinning Wheel (1895, Quebec)
Some of that advice is cringe worthy to the modern woman: "smile and don't complain" seems to be the majority of it. Any trouble at home was considered the fault of the woman and it was up to her to fix it. Unable to own her own property for most of Canada's history, she had little choice. Although the magazines might offer questionable advice, I have to wonder if many women took it or if they had their own way of dealing with a cheating or drunken spouse.

The Canadian Housewife was an interesting read. I feel that I learned a lot about the history of my sisters but it definitely had a 'textbook' vibe to it. Neering does the best she can to liven it up (is laundry ever exciting?) with articles, photographs and recipes from the eras mentioned. I didn't like how it ended abruptly. Being a modern housewife myself, I think there's more to be said about housewives in Canada. It also focuses on the European Canadian experience for the most part. Maybe that's fodder for another book.

It wasn't perfect but was informative and well researched. I recommend it to anyone interested in the lives of ordinary women.

9 comments :

  1. I read this a few years back. lol I never thought I'd see it on another book blog. ;-)

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  2. This sounds fascinating! I have the book my mother-in-law was given by the hospital when my husband was born and it has advice like that too.

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  3. Sounds pretty interesting from a historical perspective - and that is something I like. Will have to check it out.

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  4. Sassy- Funny when that happens!

    Kathy- When I was born my mom had a baby advice book from the government, it was full of terrible advice.

    Donna- Hope you can find it!

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  5. I started reading this last year, from a copy in my last school's library. Don't remember why I stopped, but now you've got me wanting to find another copy and get back to it!

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  6. Carina- I hope you give it another try!

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  7. What a great title! I love the concept. just need a US version:)

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  8. Sounds good ... I'll check it out. Thanks :)

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  9. This sounds fascinating! I'll see if my library has it.

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