Ten Dollars Enough

Over the span of several weeks, I have been reading a serialization of the 1888 book Ten Dollars Enough: Keeping House Well on Ten Dollars a Week. How It Has Been Done. How It May Be Done Again. The author, Catherine Owen (née Helen Matthews Nitsch), takes us on a culinary journey with Molly Bishop, a young woman recently married to Harry, the son of a wealthy merchant. Scorned by his parents for marrying beneath him (and rejecting a wealthy Miss Vanderpool), Harry eschews the family business and they take residence in a $20 a week boarding house. While not formally disowned, whenever Molly and Harry would visit his parents, they refused to hide their disapproval and admonished him for daring to support a wife on $100 a month (from his “paltry” job) and would remind their son of his penchant for fine cuisine.

We join the couple a year after their marriage, and a year of living in a boarding house, and during this time Molly has completed cooking and housekeeping classes to prepare for the home she knew they would have in the future. She fears that Harry might someday regret his decision to forgo his position in his father’s company and tries to convince her husband that she would be quite suited to keeping a house: “Shall I promise you that you shall never dread to bring a friend home for fear of a soiled table-cloth, and a too economical dinner? I assure you I haven’t been to cooking-schools for nothing.”

Coincidentally, Harry returns to the boarding house that evening with the very best of news: A Mr. Winfield will be taking his wife to Europe and is willing to let them their cottage in Greenfield, New Jersey, for $20 a month. But Harry’s upper-class tastes remain ingrained, and he “did think a great deal of the enjoyment of life consisted in a good table, by which he meant not good food only, but good cooking and dainty service, and how they were to have this on $100 per month he could not see, unless his income were all spent for servants and food.” And when he told Molly his sentiment on the matter, she replied:

“No, I propose that we keep house, and spend exactly what we do for this one room and our board; that is, $80 per month. It must be divided in this way: $20 for rent (we must never go beyond that), $12 for servant, and $10 a week for housekeeping; that is, $77 a month. The three remaining dollars, with the four or five we now spend for car fare, will buy your commutation ticket.”

And to this he replies:

“$10 a week for housekeeping! I am afraid you’ll find that will make a poor show, little wife,” he said caressingly. “I shall think we are happy and fortunate, if the $20 we now allow for our clothes and outside expenses will cover the deficit at the end of the month.”

Undeterred, Molly counters:

“You’ll see $10 is enough.”

The remainder of the book is a fascinating account of keeping house in the late 19th century, and aside from the many recipes offered, such as:

a considerable amount was dedicated to discussing “the servant problem.” It is obvious that the general attitude toward servants and immigrants was less than tolerant, as when Marta and Harry take a trip to Castle Garden (the point of entry for immigrants before Ellis Island was established) and find Marta, “a thick, short, strong, but stupid-looking girl was the only one whom it seemed possible to take into the house. Molly was a little crestfallen, so far did Marta seem from what she had hoped to meet with. Yet she asked only $10 per month.” These criticisms are scattered throughout, particularly during her conversations with other women. In fact, when Molly tells Harry’s parents during a visit months later that she had acquired Marta from Castle Garden: “Mrs. Bishop almost screamed when she heard it.” When Mrs. Lennox brings Molly up-to-date on her newly acquired servant Maggie (a 16-year-old sister of a neighbor’s servant, which meant that she would, thankfully, not have to travel to Castle Garden), she informs Molly that the child is learning but might never be capable enough to perform duties other than “washing dishes, taking up ashes, making fires, preparing vegetables and washing,” and that she does not care, for that leaves Mrs. Lennox with plenty of time to do “the lighter work to be properly done.”

Immigrants arriving at Castle Garden

When Molly’s good friend, Mrs. Welles, arrives for a visit, the “servant problem” is discussed in depth, and in response to questions about Marta, Molly replies:

Molly explains further: “Young girls must learn that high wages and lighter work are to be attained by proficiency; that they can look on first places, where low wages only ought to be expected, as apprenticeships, and every succeeding one to be a step higher toward the comfortable and well-paid position an accomplished servant of any branch ought to be able to command.”

I suppose these exchanges are part of the reason why I find this book so captivating. Marta exists as a conveyor of information—in this instance she is the recipient of recipe-making and housekeeping instructions—and it is an ingenious way for readers to acquire knowledge of both and be entertained at the same time.

A woman’s role in the marriage is another broached topic, in this instance by Mrs. Framley, who accuses Molly of spoiling her husband with her elaborate cooking and by playing chess with him, even though she prefers not to. Mrs. Framley’s thinking reflects the New Woman movement of the late 19th century: affluent women should act independently and develop interests of their own.

Geologist Florence Bascom was typical of the New Woman. She was the first woman to earn a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University (1893) and, in 1894, the first woman elected to the Geological Society of America.

Housekeepers could find the serialization of Ten Dollars Enough in Good Housekeeping magazine from Volume 2, Number 1 through Volume 3, Number 6. Several of the letters from Good Housekeeping’s readership were dedicated to Catherine Owen’s column, and while many were complimentary, others asked for clarity:

Some readers doubted Molly’s flair in her ability to find some of the ingredients so cheaply and others questioned her superior skillfulness in executing the recipes. In response, Catherine Owen added a preface to the print version of her book, explaining that the month of the year when the ingredient was sourced would affect the price, and she also reminded her readers that Molly was a graduate of “cooking-schools” and “not a representative of an inexperienced young wife.”

Catherine Owen wrote several other books, including Culture and Cooking, Gentle Breadwinners, Progressive Housekeeping and Molly Bishop’s Family (which I am now reading). Her birthdate is unclear (1850s), and she died on October 28, 1889, in Plainfield, New Jersey.

I loved reading Ten Dollars Enough, and each time I clicked on the succeeding issue to find out what Molly was up to, I would invariably be sidetracked by a diverse array of other articles that pertained to cooking, creating a well-stocked kitchen and “bringing up little ones.”

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

The back issues of Good Housekeeping magazine offer more than a glimpse of what it was like to keep house in the 19th century. In fact, one can’t help but become culturally embedded after reading an issue or two. And for someone like me who loves history, it’s not a bad place to be.

Ten Dollars Enough–Enjoy!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: