I have an uncomfortable relationship with technology. I’m conflicted about most of it – the car, the TV, the electric razor, even the “labor-saving” devices that populate our home. Oh, I use them. Sometimes I even have my washer, dryer, dishwasher, bread machine, and vacuum cleaner all going at the same time. But I have this annoying feeling that won’t seem to go away – like a mockingbird chirping under a bedroom window night after night – that maybe all of this technology isn’t making most of us happier.
Take the bread machine. This handy invention has its roots back at the turn of the twentieth century. Joseph Lee, an African American proprietor of an inn and catering business in Massachusetts, invented and patented the first dough-kneading machine for commercial bakeries. The large machine reportedly did the work of six men, and created better tasting, “more hygienic” loaves. Nearly all commercial bakeries automated their bread-making production by the 1950s. Then in 1986 a Japanese company produced a bread machine small enough to sit on the kitchen counter. In the three decades since, bread machines have become inexpensive and commonplace, transforming many households across Japan, Europe, and the U.S. – including mine.
I use my bread machine twice a week. I set it to the dough cycle, then transfer the dough to a loaf pan for its final rise and baking. I love it for so many reasons.
- It creates perfect loaves every time. A person (not to mention anyone in particular) might not always produce a perfect loaf. She might knead the dough, let it rest, knead it again, let it rest, put it in the oven, bake it for thirty minutes, then excitedly open the oven door to find a loaf that – how shall we say this? – is the consistency of a block of concrete. But the bread machine? It never fails. It is a straight A student.
- It makes what would be a laborious process nearly effortless.
- It makes my house smell good all day.
- I use organic, whole-grain ingredients, so the bread is nutritious and lacks any nasty preservatives.
- I never buy the $5.00 loaves at the health food store anymore.
The bread machine is a magnificent invention. It deserves my undying devotion. I should celebrate its existence every day.
But instead, I sort of resent it. I just don’t get that swell of pride, that sense of accomplishment, that giddiness that I get when I use my own two hands to turn flour, water, and yeast into bread. And when I take a loaf to a potluck or give one away as a gift, and someone asks if I made it, I hesitate, I stammer, I feel like a cheater – like the kid caught red-faced copying off my neighbor’s paper. Like a total fraud.
Wasn’t life more satisfying when we made everything with our hands?
Okay, I admit, I’ve been known to fantasize about halcyon days past – times when people had face-to-face friends rather than Facebook friends, when folks exercised outdoors rather than in front of their wiis, when people spent time interacting with other people instead of zoning out in front of Lost or CSI. So I guess it’s in that same vein that I imagine that when keeping up a household was more handiwork and less switching on different machines, housework was surely more laborious, but didn’t it feel more, well, authentic?
Maybe you also find yourself waxing poetic about a mythical technology-free past. Maybe you glare at your bread machine or your Cuisinart; or you wince at the buzz of the dryer; or you heave a sigh as you drag the vaccuum out of the closet? Well, I think I might’ve found a cure. Pick up The Forgotten Arts and Crafts by John Seymour, and turn to the section on the housewives of eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain.
Seymour sets out to celebrate the difficult and creative work women have done in homes throughout time, work that he asserts could not have been done as well, if at all, by men. If you read the chapter, you will undoubtedly agree with Seymour that the housewives of yesteryear were a noble bunch. You may also mourn with him for the Americans who live in “bleak and cheerless” shells of houses “glued to that flickering screen.” However, if you’re prone to dreaming about a utopian past, you might also feel a bit less ambivalent about your washer, dryer, stove top, vacuum cleaner … and yes, your bread machine. Take these three common Victorian-era chores:
1. Cooking without electricity or gas
Until the mid-nineteenth century, women cooked everything on an open hearth in an iron cauldron, spit, or griddle over the fire, and they baked bread in dutch ovens hidden in the ashes. It was a messy affair. Dollops of soot flopped down the chimney and burst into the room, and pots were hopelessly blackened with soot.
The first cast-iron kitchen range was invented in 1780, but they didn’t become readily available until the 1840s. Around then coal also gradually took over from wood as the most popular domestic fuel. Ranges, especially closed ranges, transformed the kitchen, but cooking was still a laborious task. The cook had to sweep the chimney and clean the flues and dampers that channeled heat around the range. And every morning, she had to clean, black-lead, polish, and re-light the range.
The cast iron stove of days past is not as mysterious to me as it may be to some, as I grew up with a wood-burning one in my kitchen. We used it mainly to keep the kitchen warm during the winter months, but we also cooked stews in the oven and toasted tortillas on the top. It certainly made our kitchen a more beautiful, cozy place. But relying on it for one’s entire sustenance is a different matter. Cooking as we know it – with handy oven dials set to exact temperatures and relatively predictable cooking times – is a strikingly modern invention – one that I plan not to take for granted from now on.
2. Doing dishes without a faucet
Housewives rubbed ashes on greasy dishes to make soap, and for more stubborn dirt, they used sand or brick dust. Of course, sinks didn’t have faucets until recently. So where did water come from? Rainwater collectors, ponds, and wells. A housewife heated the water in boilers over the fire or hobs that sat by the side of the fire. As long as she kept her water pots full, she had a constant supply of hot water that she could carry to the sink when she needed it.
By the mid-nineteenth century, water was piped to many towns in England, but an entire street usually shared one common faucet. It wasn’t until after World War II that poorer homes were outfitted with indoor water faucets.
3. Washing laundry without the spin cycle
In most households, Monday was set aside for the wash, because the housewife cooked meat on Sunday, leaving plenty leftover for Monday’s meal. Saved the task of cooking, she could devote Monday to laundry. She drew water, carried it to the house, and made soap. Then she spent the whole of the day “soaking, pounding, rubbing, boiling, starching, rinsing, and drying” the family’s clothing. She had a number of tools at her disposal – tubs, boards, dollies, paddles, bats, and tongues. She used human urine or pig manure to bleach linens, and she starched shirts with wheat, potatoes, or rice. Drying linen was no easy task until the invention of the upright wringer in the nineteenth century. Virtually all clothing needed to be ironed with flat irons heated on the range top. Poorer housewives had to start the wash at night, just before retiring to bed, because their family members only possessed one pair of clothes.
Making peace with the Magic Chef©
John Seymour convinced me. The housewives of days past were super heroes. And I recommend picking up The Forgotten Arts and Crafts, because we can undoubtedly learn a lot from them. They managed without many of the things a lot of us are striving to use less of – oil, processed food, and plastic to name a few. Their work was relentless, back-breaking, and filthy, and they seemed to do it with grace. Seymour recounts a conversation he had with an old woman in Herefordshire many years ago. She gave him an account of the weeks’s work when she was a child, and he replied, “‘Wasn’t it all a lot of work?’ ‘Yes, she said. ‘But nobody had ever told us there was anything wrong with work.’.” We’d probably all do well to remember that wisdom. But if I had a time machine, I think I’d stay right where I am, with the Magic Chef© churning away on the kitchen counter.