Every Housewife's Day

Long ago (like 1960), the rhythm of the average American housewife's life was fairly standard no matter where you went. Each day had its own task, and so the work got done in a logical, orderly fashion as the week progressed. It went like this:

Monday: Wash Day
Tuesday: Ironing Day
Wednesday: Sewing Day
Thursday: Market Day
Friday: Cleaning Day
Saturday: Baking Day
Sunday: Day of Rest

With a few variations (some folks had a gardening day instead of a separate ironing day, or the days were not quite in this order), this is the way everyone kept house for more than a hundred years. It was such a common scheme that day-of-the-week dishtowels emblazoned with that day's chore were everywhere. (You can still get Aunt Martha iron-on embroidery or paint transfers with this schemet.)

There was logic behind this. Laundry was far and away the heaviest task a housewife faced, requiring a great deal of strength and fortitude to hand-wring clothes and carry big baskets of wet laundry to the clothesline from the basement washtubs. Monday was the day to do it, when you were still fresh and rested from Sunday. Tuesday's ironing followed Monday's wash. Mending and sewing on Wednesday made sense when you'd just been through the clothes and noticed what needed a button or a patch. And so on.

The children's song Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush outlines the chore system too, though there's no market day and two cleaning days in this scheme.

Laura Ingalls Wilder

Pioneering Journeys of the Ingalls Family
Pepin, Wisconsin
Household Chores


Return to Pepin, Wisconsin

For Ma and other pioneer women, each day had its own proper chores. Ma used to say,

"Wash on Monday,
Iron on Tuesday,
Mend on Wednesday,
Churn on Thursday,
Clean on Friday,
Bake on Saturday,
Rest on Sunday."


a washtub
A washtub
--Photo courtesy of the Lone Tree Museum, Lone Tree, Iowa

Wash on Monday

Family washing clothes
Family doing Wash
--Photo courtesy of courtesy of the State Historical Society of Iowa-Iowa City, 402 Iowa Avenue, Iowa City, IA 52240

Washing the family's clothes was often done on Mondays, and it took the entire day.  First water was heated in a metal boiler on a cookstove or in the fireplace. When the water came to a boil, soap shavings were added and the water was stirred until the soap dissolved. Next the clothes were dumped in. First the whites were washed, then the colored clothes, then the heavy work clothes. The clothes boiled for ten minutes and were then removed and rubbed with homemade soap and scrubbed on a ribbed washboard.  After all the clothes had been washed the tub was filled with fresh water to rinse the clothes with.

Woman washing clothes

A woman using a washboard
--Photo courtesy of
courtesy of Living
History Farms,
2600 111 th Street,
Urbandale, IA 50322

Iron on Tuesday

a girl ironing
A Girl Ironing
--Photo courtesy of courtesy of the State Historical Society of Iowa-Iowa City, 402 Iowa Avenue, Iowa City, IA 52240 


Ironing board
An Ironing Board
--Photo courtesy of the Lone Tree Museum, Lone Tree, Iowa

On Tuesday, Ma would iron the finer clothes. First she would starch them. Starch was made by boiling grated potatoes. The top was skimmed off until the starch that was left settled to the bottom of the pot. This was gathered, dried, and mixed with water to form a paste. One end of Ma's ironing board would lie on the table and the other on the bedstead, which Pa had made high on purpose. An iron was heated over a fire or stove. The clothing or material to be ironed was spread out, sprinkled with water, and then the heated iron was used to iron it.




Mend on Wednesday

a sewing machine
A sewing machine
--Photo courtesy of Living History Farms, 2600 111 th Street, Urbandale, IA 50322 

Pioneer women spent evenings and free time mending clothing to make it last as long as possible. When clothing was completely worn out it was saved to make quilt pieces or rag rugs. Ma mended everything from Pa's shirts to the sheets on the bed. To make curtains for the Ingallses' new home on Plum Creek, Ma starched pieces of worn-out sheets and edged them with calico and pink strips from a dress of Carrie's that had been ripped. Ma did all of her sewing by hand until Pa bought her a sewing machine just before Laura married Almanzo in These Happy Golden Years .



butter churn
A butter churn

Churn on Thursday

Churning was done once a week to make butter. In the winter the cream was not as yellow as in the summer, so Ma used carrot juice to color the cream. When the cream was ready, Ma put the long wooden dash into the churn and then put the cover over it. The dash was moved up and down through the hole in the cover until the cream was thick and grainy. Then Ma took the lump of butter out of the buttermilk and washed it several times in cold water until the water ran clear. Next the butter was salted. After that Ma molded the butter in the little butter-mold, which was carved in the shape of a strawberry with two strawberry leaves.


Children at a pump
Children at a Pump
--Photo courtesy of courtesy of the State Historical Society of Iowa-Iowa City, 402 Iowa Avenue, Iowa City, IA 52240 

Clean on Friday

All of the Little Houses had to be kept clean. A homemade broom was used to sweep until Ma got a boughten broom in On the Banks of Plum Creek .

china shepherdess
This statue is a replica of Ma's shepherdess. No one knows what happened to the original statue.

When they were old enough Mary and Laura had chores to do. They must wash and wipe the dishes, sweep the floor, make the beds and dust. Laura was not allowed to dust the little china shepherdess that traveled with the family from the Big Woods of Wisconsin to Kansas Territory, Plum Creek in Minnesota, and finally, the Dakota Territory. Only Ma was allowed to touch the fragile shepherdess.




woman baking in a fireplace
A woman baking at a fireplace
--Photo courtesy of courtesy of Living History Farms, 2600 111 th Street, Urbandale, IA 50322 

Bake on Saturday

a cookstove
The cookstove in the Surveyor's house in DeSmet, South Dakota

Saturday was the day when most pioneer women baked what the family would need for the coming week. When Ma made the bread, Laura and Mary each had a little piece of dough to make into their own little loaf. Sometimes the girls got some cookie dough to make little cookies out of, too. Laura even made a little pie once. When the Ingalls family lived in a log cabin in Kansas Territory, Ma cooked over the fireplace. In the dugout on Plum Creek, she used a small tin stove, but when Pa built the frame house near the dugout, he surprised Ma with a new cookstove.

During the hard winter of 1880 and 1881, the supply trains could not get through to De Smet until May. Then Pa bought white flour, sugar, dried apples and other badly needed supplies. The Ingalls family decided to invite Mr. and Mrs. Boast to have Christmas dinner in May. While Ma stewed the dried apples, Laura and Mary picked the stems from some dried raisins to put in the pie. Try adding some raisins to this old recipe for dried apple pie.

Dried Apple Pie

Soak 2 cups of dried apples in water overnight. Drain off the water and mix apples with 1/2 cup of sugar and 1 teaspoon each of cinnamon and allspice. Line an 8-inch pie pan with a crust, add the apple mixture, dot with 3 tablespoons of butter and cover with a second crust. Make a few slashes on the top for ventilation and bake in a 350 degree oven for about 1 hour, until the crust is golden brown.



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