Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Should You Fire Your Maid? And Other Lessons from the Era-House

The older little and I have gotten hooked on the era-house reality shows that were made around the turn of this century. They typically involve a modern family (or three) 'going back in time' to simulate life in an earlier period. The first of this genre is 1900 House. A British family moves in to a restored late-19th century London semi-detached house and copes with all the inconveniences of life in that period, including a woefully inadequate stove, far too infrequent baths and a marginally helpful mangle.
image: wikipedia
Finally, the housewife snaps under the strain of housekeeping and employs a 'maid-of-all-work,' one of the lower members of the late-Victorian/Edwardian servant class. This type of maid was, as the title implies, responsible for taking on all manner of chores, from cooking to cleaning to laundry. This freed up the housewife to pursue other interests, such as the burgeoning women's movement and other social causes of the time. She becomes so burdened by the plight of women servants (through her research, not actual interest in the woman she's hired) that she decides she can no longer square her conscience with hiring a maid, and promptly sacks the young woman.

In a letter. Because she was too chicken to do it face-to-face.

Of course, the only reason she does this is because there is only a week left on her social experiment and she really doesn't care how dirty the house gets because they're out of there. But I couldn't help but wonder.... what would have become of such a woman? (The maid, not the housewife.)

In fact, these maid-of-all-work positions were a lifeline for poor women of the period. Uneducated and ill-trained, maids-of-all-work were pretty much one job away from the gutter. For a lower-middle-class woman to let go a hardworking maid was to consign her to a miserable fate, unless she had an excellent reference and another job lined up right away. So I'm naturally thinking, 'just give her a job and treat her with dignity!'

It's very easy to get preachy when you watch these shows from your comfortable, well-heated 21st century living room, but I find that we might be in a similar position without even realizing it.


Ever since I began my household purge using the KonMari Method, I have been pitching things left and right. How wonderful! Less stuff! YAY! The first week alone, I donated over six huge bags to charity. I have less stuff, a tax deduction, and poor people... somewhere... have the blessing of all my cast-offs, right?

Well, maybe not. Right after I finished my clothing purge, I happened upon a documentary called The True Cost. It focuses on the abuses perpetrated by the garment industry, specifically a segment of it called 'fast fashion.' This is the low-quality, mass-produced stuff you find at Walmart, Target, H&M, Forever 21, Kohl's and the like. Fast-fashion is a huge segment of the garment industry, and it's growing rapidly. The clothes are produced in third-world countries in what are basically slave-labor conditions. The toll this takes on the workers, local economies and the planet is nothing short of staggering.

The plight of these workers was highlighted a few years ago by the fire that swept through a Bangladeshi garment factory. Unsafe working conditions resulted in the deaths of over 1,000 workers. While it may be tempting to lay the blame at the feet of the factory owners (and they deserve some of it), they are trying to compete with other factories to secure the contracts of western companies.

The movie is incredibly depressing and hard to watch. And it has, in my opinion, some problems. The filmmaker blames fast-fashion for everything from environmental destruction to farmer suicides in India. I'm not saying there isn't a link, but the scope of the film is so broad, it lessens it's impact. It's like drinking from a fire hose. After a while, you just shut down.

It's also long on problems and short on solutions. Clearly, avoiding mindlessly buying stuff from Walmart just because it's cheap is a start, but even better retailers outsource their manufacturing to these countries. I started checking labels on my kids' clothes, and my son's L.L. Bean sweatshirt was made in Cambodia, one of the places garment workers have clashed with police over wage disputes.


I remember when I first read 'made in Bangladesh' on a clothing label. I felt really glad. Knowing what a poor country it is, I thought how great that my t-shirt is providing a job for someone in Bangladesh! Awesome! It was the same feeling I had when I'd donate clothing, but as the film reveals, many western clothing donations end up in landfills, and these donations have gravely affected the local economies of the countries to which they are sent.

So what are the answers? How do we help with this?

One thing I know I can do is to...

Stop buying cheap clothes. I am very sympathetic to the fast-fashion buyer who is cash-strapped and just needs something to wear, especially the parent who is trying to keep her kids in clothes that fit. The siren song of cheap is very alluring, particularly when it comes to children who outgrow things in a hurry. But even then, I find the cheap stuff doesn't last. I discovered holes in the knees of both my littles the other day. I'm resolving to buy better quality clothes. The L.L. Bean knees remain intact (even if they are made in Cambodia), while the pants from Target have to be patched before they can even make it down to the little darling. It's not cheap if I have to replace it for the younger child. I'm better off in every way if I just buy the good stuff the first time around.

Another is to...

Fix things!
A maxim of World War 2 Britain was 'make do and mend.' Fabric was in short supply during the war, and housewives were tutored by a fictional character called Mrs. Sew-and-Sew.
image: paperdressvintage.co.uk
She provided lessons in how to extend the life of garments and other textiles, lessons which were sorely needed. Food, clothing and household supplies were rationed into the early 1950's. Patching and mending are easy and inexpensive ways to breathe new or longer life into clothes. Recently we had a pair of torn trousers fashioned into shorts for my husband by a local seamstress. The fact that we supported a local business was a bonus.

Stop Shopping for Recreation.
Really. Shop when we need things, not just to 'see what's on sale.'

We've been immeasurably blessed by hand-me-downs, and we love passing them on when we're done with them.

But as for the Bangladeshi worker, I don't know the long-term answers. I don't know what regular people like me can really do to make an impact on this lamentable situation. Yes, I can refuse to buy clothes with the 'made in Bangladesh' label, but am I really helping the garment worker there who has to leave her children with relatives so she can work for starvation wages? Or am I just making her plight worse, like the 1900 housewife firing her maid?

What I do know is the gluttonous consumption of the west is not helping them, and really, it's not helping us. We're drowning in things. We're not happier with more things. In every single one of these era house reality shows, the participants say they are changed. That they now enjoy having less. They acknowledge how overwhelmed we are with things. A boy in the series Frontier House, emphasized how he enjoys having fewer toys after his experience, and the children in 1940s House (the best of the genre, I'd say) returned home with no interest in their PlayStation. They were more entertained by a homemade board game.

We've been deceived into believing that more is always better, and it isn't true. Often, more is just... more.