Digital History>Voices>Social History>A College Professor's Wife

A College Professor's Wife
Independent, LIX (Nov. 30, 1905), 1279 83.


Many of the people in our town think that we members of the college faculty dwell on Mount Parnassus; that we eat of the ambrosia of books and drink of the nectar of music and painting. No burdens of ordinary mortals come near us, no sordid struggles engage us ours is a life of high ideals and beautiful thoughts. The color and making of the next ball gown certainly never is discussed, but in place of it there is careful planning to see if a suit and a half for the boys may be gotten out of their father's old one. The latest fad in dinner serving is unheard of, but we professors' wives do try to learn the most attractive way to prepare the famly breakfast without the luxuries of coffee and meat.

An income of $1,100 a year and four children and house rent, a taste for books, art and music, and travel and no struggles, think you?
My day begins at six o'clock the year round with giving or superintending cold baths for the four children and myself. Then there are backs to button and hair to comb, and it is easily quarter after seven, our breakfast hour, by the time all are ready.

Bertha, a student who earns her room and board with us during term time, prepares the breakfast of oatmeal and cocoa.

After the meal there are the Professor and two boys to start off to college and school, respectively. Each needs personal inspection a loose button tightened, an application of the whisk broom, or the tie retouched. Then the little girls come with me into the kitchen, and we wash and put away the breakfast dishes, scalding all the milk pails and pans and skimming the cream for the butter. Then we make the beds and put upstairs in order. (Bertha cares for her own room) The study and other living rooms come next, and when they are dusted and neat, it is time to prepare the vegetables for dinner.

It is while I am getting dinner that Ruth and Mary have their book lessons. We do not care to have our children enter school before the third grade because of the class of children that attend our ward school. The two little girls use a wooden box for a desk, sitting on two lower ones, in a snug corner of the kitchen, where I can teach them as I peel potatoes, pare apples or move about the room mixing a pudding. It takes some time to prepare a meal for seven people, four of them hungry students. One thing that makes it harder is not having any water or sink in the house. By half after twelve the dinner is on the table, and I have spent a morning in careful planning, with quick, sure strokes to get all the work done, and yet have time to stop occasionally, as I have to, to teach the children. They come first, after all.

In winter the dinner consists of a cheap cut of meat, usually beef, that I grind up or steam tender and then cook in all sorts of ways to make a palatable variety, potatoes in various forms, frequently dried beans or peas, baked or boiled, from time to time relieved by parsnips, carrots, turnips, or macaroni, rice and escalloped tomatoes, a large part of the latter being bread crumbs. For dessert, clear fruit is too luxurious, so I prepare it with tapioca; batter pudding, corn starch or bread crumbs in different puddings. I begrudge the time it takes to make these simple puddings, but we cannot afford an apple, orange or banana apiece per diem at winter prices.
During the summer we rarely buy meat, but eat the eggs from our own hens. We also have many fresh vegetables from our garden patch; but we can't touch even canned ones in winter, much less dream of fresh ones. The tomatoes used for escalloping in Winter are some I put up from our own garden.

The dinner over, Bertha takes charge of dining room, kitchen and door bell. The Professor takes care of the children, and I have one quiet, restful hour alone, the only one in the twenty four that I can call all mine. That is not always uninterrupted, as every mother knows. In that hour I have to make my simple toilet for the afternoon and take a nap. A cat nap it is; but oh! it is so much needed, for housework tires me out. Perhaps if the muscles for housework had been developed in girlhood it would not wear on me so much Then, best of all in my hour, I lie down on the bed and read for twenty minutes -sometimes a full half hour. I read I devour rather some rare morsel of rich condensed thought food, and I digest it later as I sew, enjoying it quietly, deeply.

From two thirty until ten o'clock I sew, stopping at half past five for a half hour's walk with my husband and some of the children, followed by supper at six If informal callers drop in during the afternoon, I continue sewing, they often bringing theirs with them.

I give half an hour of music to each of the children during the afternoon as I sew. Except for his half hour at the piano or violin, each child lives out of doors all afternoon, no matter what the weather, and a rosy, jolly little group they make. On my constitutional with James the children skip and dance around us as we walk out over the prairie toward the glorious West sky. Then comes the most pleasant meal of the day, supper. Then my husband's class work is over, and we are all hungry from the fresh air, and we have the fun of a foreign language.

We have French and German suppers on alternate days, in conversation only, the bill of fare being good American cereals and bread and milk.

After supper, if it lacks seven o'clock, the little girls' bed time, we all gather around the piano and sing some simple songs in English, French and German, or I play while the children dance. The little dances they know I teach them on Saturday mornings, when Bertha takes some of my housework.

At seven, James carries a little girl upstairs on each shoulder and puts them to bed, a privilege he has made his own. In the meantime, I have my talk with the boys. They tell their little confidences more freely being both together, each one helping the other by loving suggestion. They are so unalike that each has great admiration for the other. In half an hour they scamper upstairs and take possession of their father.

By eight o'clock my turn comes. James sits by me as I sew, and we talk alone together for the first time in the day. Sometimes he reads aloud to me, but at half after eight his evening's study begins. If my work is on a garment that does not need turning and shifting about so that I make no motions to divert his attention from his books, I sit silently by him sewing, sewing without a word, glad to be near my faithful, plodding man. When ten o'clock comes, I bid him good¬ night and go off to my little Ruth and Mary, leaving him still working.

Sometimes a neighbor spends the evening with me, sewing or reading aloud What a delight to be read to as I sew! Because I loved books and music too well, I hardly knew how to handle a needle before I was married But the college days and study in Europe help the needle thru hard places now. All this sewing does not mean that I am an atom in a sweatshop system. I means that I am taking the only, the last way possible, to make ends meet on our salary and yet live with my children in their work and in their play. My husband's clothing and my winter under woolens are all that we buy ready made. I make sturdy jackets for James to save the wear on his sacque coat, and keep a piece of carpet in his study chair to save the trousers. Of course, all repairs, relinings and pressing on his clothing I attend to. My coats and dresses are my hardest tasks, harder even than the boys' suits. All of the children's clothing, both outer and undergarments, I alone make, many of them from the sound parts of their parents' clothing. Then there are carpets to mend, comfortables to make, and other household supplies to keep up. The regular weekly stocking darning and other mending for an active family of six is no small item.

Our student helper, Bertha, does her own ironing and bakes the bread twice a week. I frequently help her with the mid week baking. She cooks breakfast and supper, washes the dinner and supper dishes, and fills the lamps. On Friday afternoon and Saturday morning she gives me two extra hours each for sweeping. In exchange for these services she receives her board and room, well furnished and heated, and enters into the family life as one of us at meals and other times. Often I help her with her lessons during the evening.
One part of the week's work I hire done for me. That is the washing and as much of the ironing as can be crowded into the same day, subject to the discretion of our whimsical dusky Minerva. The rest of the ironing for the famly falls to me.

The poorly built house adds to my difficulties as maid of all work. All of the water has to be carried into the house from the cistern pump, ten or fifteen feet from the kitchen doorsteps. There is no sink or waste pipe of any kind, so all the waste water has to be carried some distance from the house and thrown on the ground When it is below zero those two things amount to hardships, almost, for a family of our size uses a good deal of water. We have no cellar, except a small excavation in the clay soil under our dining room. It is called a cyclone cellar, and might be used as such if we were not in as great danger of drowning ¬as it is utterly useless for anything but frogs. When we asked our landlord to have it drained he laughed, and answered that he did not think we needed any more piping than the nightly frog songs. That is all that came of it, except, perhaps, a doctor's bill or two, but other interesting features about the house have their part in these little notes, "For services rendered" Rain and snow and wind sift in around the door and window frames and thru the corners of the house, where we can often see light shining at the joint in the mopboard Certainly they swell the fuel bill The care of four stoves, three of them heating and one a cook stove, is no small matter. The boys help their father carry the coal from the barn, the only place to store it. Soft coal is bulky and dirty, but anthracite is far beyond our means here in the Middle West. The same strong arms bring in much of the water also.

We pay eighteen dollars ($18) a month for this poorly built, eight small roomed house, its three lots and barn made of piano boxes and other odds and ends of lumber. We could not hope to rent a better built house, merely a larger one, for more money unless we were willing to go over forty dollars. Families have come to live in our town faster than houses could be properly built, and it is hard on the man who has not capital enough to build for himself. The three lots that go with our leaky house are very useful, for they furnish us a garden of rich soil in Summer and a playground for children and chickens in Winter. The cow and the coal repose in our barn, and each has about equal space in its luxurious proportions. That cow is a big saving of money, but it adds to our labor, for we make our own butter, but we must have it to help those proverbial "ends." There is plenty of prairie south and east of us for pasturage.

Others of the faculty are trying to tie those flying ends too. Mrs. A does about what I do for her three little girls and gives piano lessons to the neighborhood besides. Mrs. 13 has her three year old boy and housework, including the washing, and tutors in mathematics and Latin five hours every day, four of the five hours coming after seven o'clock at night, when the little fellow is in bed Mrs. C , who has no children, writes book reviews and has charge of the Women's and Children's Page in our paper. All of the wives of the faculty are busy women, trying each in her own way to add to her husband's pittance. Where the men are not full professors, that pittance is less than my husband's.

With all this straining to live comes a wish from the President and Trustees of the college that we mingle more in town society, that it will be good advertisement for the college to be well represented every¬where. Who can afford the evening dress to go? Or the evening's sewing left undone? Who can return invitations? Who has the strength and this is at the highest premium who has the strength to spare? Not one of the wives of the Trustees who desire this has ever called on a professor's wife, much less done anything to bring the college people into her circle of acquaintances. We meet them at the college receptions; they always express their interest in the college, and that is all.

The little social life we have is among ourselves almost entirely. We gather informally at a house for a hour and a half or so, chat awhile, then, perhaps have an impromptu entertainment of music, or an account of a book lately read, a bit of a lecture on a topic of general interest; then light refreshments and home by ten o'clock, for the next day's hard work is before us all There are college lectures, debates and entertainments that those of us who have few or no children attend; but the children mean spending no admission fees, however small. Of course, it would be a real benefit to the students as well as ourselves if we could keep in touch with these broadening influences; but it is in other ways we are forced to help them. It is expected that we subscribe to the football, baseball, glee club, Y.M. and Y.W.C.A., and other college student funds. To some of these we would volunteer to add as liberally as we could, but not to all, when we hardly are clothed warmly enough all Winter. Anyway, we do not like to have the sum we are expected to raise announced to us, with the request that we see that the vote passes in faculty meeting. If the request, or demand rather, came from the student body it could be resisted.

There is one way in which James and I rejoice to help the students. Whenever we treat ourselves to a roast of meat we share it with one or two self supporting students. It is reward enough that they bring us their joy or suffering, even coming back after graduation to share their life crises with us.

It has been suggested to us not to live in such and such a house because it is not in keeping with the dignity of our position (!). We are to entertain in such and such a way, for we have had the best advantages in social life that this country can boast (!). (I add the exclamation with respect to our superiors.) The discrepancy comes between the ideal and the actual possibilities of our salaries. We who have had comforts, even luxuries, do not avoid them now because we were satiate. True, our tastes and education make us companions of the refined in easy circumstances, but our incomes are those of mechanics. The mechanic may be refined and have lofty ambitions, but he does not need travel, close contact with good libraries and large minds, an intimacy with the fine arts and the sciences to keep him ready to help those under him, as a professor does. It is enervating to work by one's self, going over the same ground every year, always alone, with but a new book or two on the subject Oh! how I long that my husband may have the chance to study under somebody, with some one of his own or greater education and intelligence! If it were but for a Summer it would give him a new impetus. But how is this possible on our $1,100 a year? This is just how it all goes:

Rent $216.00
Food (including fodder for cow in winter) 300.00
Clothing 125.00
Fuel and light 55.00
Hired help for washing (52 weeks at $1.25) 65.00
Hired help for housecleaning (4 days at $1.25) 5.00
Magazines and books (including technical books for
professor and school books for children) 35.00
Church and college contributions 40.00
Life insurance and fire insurance on furniture 105.00
Doctor's and dentist's bills 20.00
Carfare, postage, etc. 30.00
Household furnishings, tinware, garden implements, etc, 40.00
Sundries (Christmas presents and other expenses larger than average) 64.00

Where does the possibility to travel and study elsewhere come in here? To get away from one's cow and vegetable patch must help to quicken a man's wits in itself, to say nothing of our stultifying Summer heat.

It is because we with our needs and tastes are not receiving a living salary that there is a constantly changing element in the faculty, especially among young married men with no children. They consider their connection with our college temporary, taking it as a stepping¬stone to larger institutions. They do us a real harm with their inexperience in teaching and their restlessness. An occasional one would not be so detrimental, but it is demoralizing for the students to change instructors in a study every few years, just as the former one begins to understand how to teach it This spirit of self interest is more noticeable in the science and music departments than others, it seems to me.

I overheard a conversation between James and Mr. E , a Ph.D. from Halle, a while ago. They were standing in our little hallway when Mr. Easked James for a letter of recommendation to a teachers' agency.

"Why do you want one?" James asked

"Stay here! I'd rust"

"Oh, no, you wouldn't Men who carry double schedules don't rust"

"Perhaps you can stand grinding all your life for nothing, but I've got to have a better place."

I thought about it afterward "A better place!" He might find a more remunerative one, but after all, is there a better place than here and time than now, for giving one's best? Are not these hardworking, serious young men and women worth helping as much as their more delicate, highstrung Eastern cousins?

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