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"What's Wrong with the Home?" from Fruit Garden and Home

by Ellis Parker Butler
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from Fruit Garden and Home
What's Wrong with the Home?
by Ellis Parker Butler

To read the articles in some of the papers -- or to read some of these modern novels -- a man would think the home was as out-of-date as the hoop-skirt or the mastodon. We ought to look into this right now and see how much truth there is in it and make up our minds what we are going to do about it. I know mighty well that I like to be up-to-date, myself, and if the home is a back-number and as passe as a last-year's bird's nest I want to know about it and act accordingly. I've been feeding and housing a home for about twenty-five years now, all the while thinking it was in style, and if I have been fooled and the home is in a class with the pterodactyl and the wire bustle and the plush-covered rolling-pin it is time I got rid of it.

Perhaps those who think the home is as dead as Tut-aukh-Amen, or at least on its last legs, are right. If they are I'm like the man who couldn't see the forest because there were so many trees; the trouble with me may be that I can't see the facts because there are so many homes. It may be that I'm located in the wrong street in the wrong town in the wrong nation in the wrong world. To see the truth about the home I should, perhaps, get out of Flushing and get into the scandal columns of some newspaper or between the covers of one of these new-fangled smutty novels.

Ellis Parker Butler takes time off from his fun-making to write on serious subjects now and then

The trouble with the block I live on is that in the sixteen years I have lived here not a home has been broken up. Husbands have died and wives have died, but the homes have continued in spite of that. A few families have moved, but they continued their homes just the same in the new houses. On our street twenty or thirty new houses have been built and these have become homes. In our town some thousands of houses have been erected, and these are all homes now. In the nation there must be hundreds of thousands of new homes -- possibly millions. I never knew so many homes, or heard of so many homes, or saw so many homes. These people who talk of the home going blooey must be talking of Mars or Betelgeuese or the moon. They are not talking of any world I know anything about.

Some of the people who see a phonograph or a player piano where the old cabinet-organ used to stand get all excited and think the home has gone to the dogs. Or perhaps it is because they see a couple of hearty fighters have secured a divorce now and then.

I have never gone in for divorce much myself, still having No. 1 wife on hand, but it never seemed to me that the best sort of home could be made by putting a dog and a cat in a box and nailing down the lid. Personally I have never thought that sort of home amounted to much as a home. Children are apt to grow up stoop shouldered if they have to be bending down to dodge the crockery all the while. I venture the bold suggestion that the homes that are broken up by divorce never were and never would be the sort anyone would sing "Home, Sweet Home" about, and that if, in the old days, these champion scrappers -- instead of separating as they sometimes do now -- continued in the same house and kept up a battle-royal and short-arm massacre and Donnybrook Fair they were not producing a very desirable article of home. I am inclined to think divorce has not seriously undermined the home up to the present writing; it has decreased the number of domestic battlefields and that is about all it has done. I don't call a life-long fight a home, not even if it has a roof over it and the old man has to buy coal for the furnace just as in a regular home.

I think you will all agree with me, if you pause to think over your own neighborhood and own town -- unless you live in a purely imaginary Greenwich Village -- that I'm right in saying there are as many if not more happy and pleasant homes today than ever before. And that the passing of the home is largely newspaper and novelists' buncombe. And those who like to see danger everywhere and who say "Yes, the home is safe here, but think of our great cities!" do not worry me at all. I know a great city, you see. I know the greatest city in the world, and I know the very part where you may imagine the home is most surely going to pot -- the author and artist and actor part. You'll find no more charming homes anywhere than these people have made for themselves. The actor, especially, used to be a homeless person -- he, or she, lived in boarding houses and hotels; now most of them have their own homes. The authors and artists, making homes in the remarkable apartments that have been created in the last few years, are snug and cozy and comfortable and happy, and the most friendly hospitable people I know.

Because the "parlor" has made way for the "living room" does not mean that the home is blasted forever-more. The home did not perish because someone decided it was silly to have a room where the blinds were kept drawn and gloom hovered for six and a half days per week. Nor did the home perish because mother found she need not leave her Sunday dress in the closet except when she wore it to Sunday morning church service. I think the home has been bettered by letting a little daylight and outside joy and interest into it. It has become a little less like the Book of Judges, perhaps, but is far more like the Book of Ruth. The old variety of home was a place where father ruled; the new home is more a place where sunshine rules.

Basically the home is a place where a man and a woman establish themselves to have children and rear them. It is what the nest is to the bird, or the hole to the fox. It is the safe and pleasant place to which to return, to find food and rest and sleep and enjoyment of whatever kind that may be had there. And so, also basically, the home must have a mother. Theoretically, at least, there can't be a home without a mother. The bride, entering her brand new home, is to be a mother. The aunt, coming to care for the motherless children of her brother, is a mother. If two bachelor girls take a flat and set up housekeeping they can't make it a home unless one of the two becomes, to some extent, the mother of the two. The mother is, when you come right down to brass tacks, the home. Until there are no more mothers there will always be homes. You have noticed, I'm sure, how unhomelike the home becomes if the mother dies, and how many homes still keep the home atmosphere after the father dies. That is because the home is, and always has been, built around the mother. You may think of father and the Sixth National Bank, or father and the price of corn, or father and the warm season is hurting the sale of underwear, but you always think of mother and home.

So when it comes to a man's job in the home I see it as the job of supplying the shell -- the house or the vacant rooms -- and paying for the bed and chairs and other furnishings, and then supplying those things necessary, including as much love and gentleness as he is capable of, to permit the wife to run the home as it should be run. It won't hurt him to get upon a bough and sing once in awhile, either, like a cock-bird, while the hen-bird fusses with the twigs and feathers. When I say "get up on a bough and sing once in awhile" I don't mean that the husband should climb onto the dining-table or on top of the refrigerator and sing "The Old Oaken Bucket." I'm speaking a parable. I don't believe it would help the home making of any mamma to have papa balance on the chandelier and carol however sweetly while she uses the carpet sweeper. What I mean is that the singing of the gentleman canary is about all the entertainment the lady canary gets. The housekeeping of the canary family, as I have noticed, is about the simplest form of home-making there is, if we except that of the goldfish. The canaries live, so to speak, in a furnished flat, with a birdseed cafe attached, and a charlady to come in and do the rough work. The only time when the lady canary gets down to real home-making is when she begins to build a nest. She then becomes an extremely busy person, rips a small strip of paper from the newspaper in the bottom of the cage, and flies onto a perch, where she beaks the bit of paper, softening the edges as she slides it around in her bill. Mr. Canary knows the sign -- his wife has started her home making. So he hops up on a perch and raises his head and sings for all he is worth. And she appreciates it; she jumps around and puts the bit of paper at one end of the perch and then at the other, and hops to the floor of the cage and gets another bit of paper -- and all the while the old gentleman trills and burbles and gurgles and pours forth song.

He knows that home making is quite a job and tremendously confining and full of difficulties. Putting a bit of paper on the end of a perch and having it fall off eight hundred and sixty times is apt to become annoying and sour the lady's temper if she does not have a little amusement to refresh her now and then. So he sings. The singing of the male canary is canary grand opera, canary theatre, canary movies, canary dinner-at-the-down-town-restaurant-once-in-awhile, the whole canary come-out-of-the-kitchen-awhile business. That's what I mean by suggesting that the husband get up on a bough and sing now and then. One of the biggest helps he can give to the home-making is in taking the curse of monotony off it by taking his wife away from the house from time to time, and -- perhaps -- letting the wife see, as Mr. Canary does that he appreciates the home-making that is going on.

I think one reason so many wives have taken up clubs and bridge and outside interests is just that -- the husband hasn't been doing enough of the right sort of singing. The happiest work is always that from which one goes away now and then; employers now know that a vacation pays ten-fold in better and more contented work. It is well enough for wise ones to say that woman is this or that or the other, but basically every woman is a home-maker -- just as every Mrs. Bird is a nest-maker -- and wants to make her home the best home she can. She also has the instinct that being a kitchen slave is not the way to be the best home-maker, the instinct that she needs recreation of some sort now and then if she is to be at her best, and -- since we husbands have not done our singing as well as the canary gentleman does his -- she has instinctively looked for some outside amusements and interests for herself. Because while at first it is rather amazing, it is true that many of the happiest and best-managed homes are those where the wife and mother has interests other than bed making and bread-making. It may be that this "outside" interest is a garden, or it may be that it is a Friday Afternoon Club, but it may as well be an interest in the legends concerning Quetzalcoatl and the Aztec-Maya civilization, or possibly even a job downtown. Why else have women always kept canaries and cleaned the cages daily, and why have they grown geraniums in pots? These and similar things mean more work, not less, but they are "escapes" -- small recreations that let the mind for a few minutes get away from the routine.

I can't see that the home is in any danger. I heard an eminent British novelist say, not long ago, that many of the fine old English country homes were being abandoned because of the difficulty of getting servants. That may sound bad enough, but it only means that houses that were too large to be comfortable without a lot of servants are being abandoned for houses that are comfortable with fewer servants. For a house is not a home -- a house is merely the container of the home. And in spite of what may be written we can't deny the evidence of our own eyes. We see more homes and, I do honestly believe, pleasanter and happier homes than ever before. So let's not think nonsense.

The tremendous multiplication of mechanical aids to housekeeping and the increase of excellent factory-made substitutes for what was formerly done by hand in the home leads, naturally and properly, to the woman in the home having more time at her disposal for other interests. The wife does not now have to spin yarn, weave the cloth, cut out the garment, sew the seam by hand. There is time saved for the wife in that. Washing machines, wet-wash laundries, wholesale bakeries, telephones that make marketing a matter of minutes -- a thousand things save the wife's time. So much time is saved that, I hold, a wife can now belong to six clubs, play bridge, go to the theatre or the movies, and still have more time for making the home what it should be than she ever had before.

When we think of the old-time homes we are too apt to think only of the two or three in each town that were the brag and admiration of the town. We forget the many that were but partly swept, unkempt, full of trouble and tears and bitterness, because the wife had not time to do all she wished to do or did not have the materials at hand. I say there are ten first-class homes today for every one there was when I was a boy, just as there are ten delightful gardens now for every delightful garden there was in those days.

We are more than a little inclined, in this country, to get excited and yell whenever any one calls attention to the one thing in a million that is out of the ordinary. If a robin flies across a pool and drops a feather, and the feather alights on a frog's back and sticks there, we see in the next forty-page Sunday newspaper two pages of "FEATHERED FROG DISCOVERED! SCIENTISTS AMAZED! FEAR EXPRESSED THAT IN A FEW YEARS ALL FROGS WILL GROW FEATHERS! WILL THE FLYING FROG BECOME A MENACE TO THE HOME?" Then the frog jumps back into the pool, and the feather floats off its back, and the excitement is all over for a while.

Anyhow, I know one thing. I know I'm still paying interest on a mortgage and I know that those who lend money on mortgages still consider a mortgage on a house in which a home can be made the best security in the world. The home began when civilization uttered its first peep, and the home will be on hand when civilization utters its last gasp and goes up the flue. So that settles that!



Saturday, October 07 at 1:12:05am USA Central
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