1917-ish, still on the farm in Silverdale, Kansas.
Among all the people of economic marginality in Silverdale, Mrs. Alson was, undoubtedly, at the bottom.
She was a rather large, homely woman with two children, but no husband. The only income she ever had, as far as I know, was from doing other people's laundry. She received about twenty-five cents for an average wash and likely made only about fifty cents for an entire day of work.
Her two girls attended Sunday school with me and I remember them as always having dingy, lace-trimmed slips which hung about two inches below the bottom of their dresses -- no doubt cast-offs from some family only slightly better off then they. They were a bedraggled lot and I have often wondered what became of them. Their outlook for marriage was certainly unpromising and single women in those days had few prospects unless they were fortunate enough to have relatives willing to look after them.
When people today decry programs such as Aid to Dependent Children, I always think of those girls, wishing they could have had some support from the more fortunate ones of society. (Aid to Dependent Children is part of the Social Security Act of 1935, aimed at providing support to "all children whose mothers lacked the support of a breadwinner, no matter how they had got to that position.") Charitable support was almost non-existent, although we did give our clothes away. But, when we finished with a piece of clothing, it was of little value to anyone else.
President Roosevelt established the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) in 1935. The period I'm describing now is around 1917, and even twenty years later only one in ten farms had electricity. Silverdale wasn't included in that ten percent. Human drudgery and long hours were common practices on those farms. Women wearied under the brunt of heavy labor and became old before their time. Given the choice between a good-looking woman and one who was healthy, strong and practiced industry, there was little doubt as to what a man's choice for a wife should be.
As mentioned before, hard work was almost of a religious nature in Silverdale. It is by no accident that this virtue is at the core of the Protestant Ethic and it held high pragmatic value on the frontier. After all, you were confronted more directly with the consequences of a lack of effort out there.
Although a willingness to work hard sometimes found little reward, failure to find any employment always led to dire consequences. There was no Workman's Compensation, so Social Security, no minimum wage. The family as an economic unit had to make its own and the absence of a male head of household spelled disaster. Should any outside assistance be forthcoming, it would be meager and only of the barest subsistence.
Life was hard in those days, yet mother never complained. For 16 years after she married, she cooked, sewed, washed and ironed clothes, tended the garden, canned vegetables, fruit and meat for off-season consumption, cleaned the house and bore and reared children. Early mornings, while my father built a fire in the wood burning stove in the dining room, my mother built a wood fire in the kitchen range. As Pop milked the cow, mom made biscuits and prepared the rest of breakfast. Afterward, Pop went off to work building a house or barn and mom continued her daily duties. There was no gas, electricity or running water. Mom probably worked 80 hours a week.
Not only was labor divided among members of the family, when those tasks were performed was often fixed. As children, we learned this song:
This is the way we wash our clothes, wash our clothes, wash our clothes,
this is the way we wash our clothes, so early Monday morning.
This is the way we iron our clothes, iron our clothes, iron our clothes,
this is the way we iron our clothes, so early Tuesday morning.
This was not just a song. That's the way it was done.
Strong emphasis was laid on the EARLY morning part. At a fairly young age I caught on that great virtue was attached to early posting of the laundry on the line to dry. Neighbors competed to see whose wash was up first, thus signifying early rising followed by industry - the Protestant Ethic at work! Sloth was considered a very nasty trait, one of the more serious of the Seven Deadly Sins.
There was nothing easy about washing clothes. Water had to be brought in and heated in a large boiler on the wood burning stove. Soap had been previously prepared when the hogs were butchered. Fat from the belly, along with lye and I don't know what else, was cooked in a large iron kettle in the open yard over a wood fire. With this crude but effective soap, laundry was hand scrubbed on a wash board in hot water.
Remember, all that water didn't flow, effortlessly, from some faucet. It was hand pumped from a well, or more likely a cistern where rain water was stored, then carried to the boiler on the stove. After scrubbing and scrubbing and scrubbing, the clothes were soused in hot water then wrung out by hand. Next came a cold water rinse and another wringing out before hanging on the line. But what a glorious, and perhaps smug feeling to look across to the neighbor's line and find that yours was the first displayed.
Saturdays were reserved for the week's baking. At our house this meant several loaves of bread and a few pies. I tried to be on hand when the bread came out of the oven, because Mom always sliced off the heel and put a little butter on it for me while it was hot. There was a saying, "Man works from sun to sun, but a woman's work is never done." Something always needed her attention. Stockings had to be mended. They were not discarded simply because of holes. Little was thrown away. Years later I had a history teacher say, "the frontier was hell on women," and we were near enough to it that it wasn't much different in Silverdale.
There wasn't a great deal to be joyous about. Until the time I left home I never had a glass of beer, played any game with cards or even said, "damn." As noted previously, Mom was very religious and took to the Hell and damnation parts more than the Gospel and Good News. She took more solace in her religion than Pop and I think she missed much of the joy of life. I often wish Mom could have had an easier and happier life.
Mother, (Ethel Rowena) died of leukemia in 1952. She was 66 and is buried in Arkansas City, Kansas, not many miles from the farm. Beyond her household duties, she did embroidery work, liked music, played the organ and was very good at transposing keys.
Two months before she died, she wrote this letter on Christmas Day, 1951:
This is a wonderful day in the sight of all Christian people. We have many things to be thankful for, but first of all the birth of our savior. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him shall have everlasting life. Then too, He has been especially kind to our family in allowing us so many years together.
We are grateful today to Bo and her helpers for the wonderful dinner they have prepared today. It surely was grand of her. The future of our family looks even brighter than the past, and may our motto be: "Be of service to others and to God."
God bless you Mom, and may you rest in peace while waiting for your great reward.