My Grandmother on the ‘Universal Food Chopper’ and Domestic Labour

Below is a short piece written by my Grandmother (Eileen Mayes, 1906 – 1993). It was initially published in ‘John Barnett’s All Ways on Sunday File’ in 1989.

This piece interests me not only for its familial connection and posterity, but its relation to recent trends questioning the new domesticity and women’s labour

Picture from a Mail Order Catalogue

Eileen Mayes 

Some time ago I found a mail order catalogue among old papers. There wasn’t much left of it, no cover and lots of the pages missing, but among those that were left I found a picture almost seventy years old.

She’s wearing a long dress with a frilled hem, a high-boned collar in pre-1914 style; she’s got a flower tucked gaily into her piled-up hair. She could be somebody’s Great-Aunt Gwendoline and she’s smiling sweetly as she demonstrates a Universal Food Chopper-Mincer to you.

It’s had a lot of use, this old catalogue, the pages worn and dog-eared with being turned over and over again and I wondered how often Great-Aunt Gwendoline had thumbed through them. Poor deat, even with her Universal Food Chopper she didn’t have much in her kitchen to smile about. Compared with modern kitchens, it would rank as a labour camp.

Oh, she had a refrigerator, at least that’s what the catalogue calls it – ‘Holds 66 lbs of ice’, and if she wanted ice cream there was the ‘Gem’ freezer with ‘solid oak bucket’ to provide it – and plenty of exercise in the making! However, she had one advantage over us today: her cooking utensils, though primitive, were cheap; a nutmeg grater cost a penny, a rolling pin was ninepence or a ‘Colonial’ one could be had for sixpence. Her glass preserving jars came from America and her knives, says the catalogue, were ‘best English steel’. These, of course, had to be cleaned constantly by hand on a knife board, price sevenpence in the catalogue. An English Knife Cleaner was a bit more expensive. This was a circular contraption in which you stuck the knives and then turned a handle. The catalogue says ‘As used by the King’, conjuring up a delightful picture of a portly King Teddy stashing his gold-plated knives into the machine and merrily turning the handle.

Poster for Landers, Frary & Clark, the “Universal food chopper, and a few of the things it chops,” New Britain, about 1899.
Poster for Landers, Frary & Clark, the “Universal food chopper, and a few of the things it chops,” New Britain, about 1899.

Husbands are conned into ordering a cake-mixer: ‘Every newly-married husband should buy one. It turns a poor cook into a Good Cook.’ This little miracle worker, hand-driven by the ‘little woman’, naturally, costs no more than the marriage licence, a mere seven and sixpence.

There’s a complicated little number illustrated, an apple-peeler-corer-slicer, which, although it costs only two and threepence looks as though it might need a mechanic to set it up each time.

And then a item that recalls a quiz show. What is a Turk’s Head? A brand of tobacco, the name of a pub, or the upper part of a decapitated European? It’s a brush for sweeping walls, ‘All hair, price five shillings.’

And what a trial of strength washing day must have been for Great-Aunt Gwendoline! Whilst the water heated (she could use the bellows, price two and tuppence, if the fire was sulky) she’d collect her tin tub and the rubbing board (latest American, 1/3). She’d fill the troughs (best Karri) and perhaps get out a packet of Wyandotte ‘invaluable for washing clothes as it takes the place of soap’, then goes on to add somewhat ominously, ‘It also removes paint.’

What marvellous muscles Great-Aunt Gwendoline must have developed!

First there was the washing machine, clumsy, on four wooden legs looking as though it might serve as a churn in an emergency, and with a large wooden handle propelled – how did you guess? – by woman-power.

Finally when all the shirts and embroidered petticoats and drawers and household linen was starched and dry, there was the ironing. Flat irons cost a shilling, polishing irons to add further lustre – our Gwen must have been a tiger for work – at one and three. The man who made the irons was called Saddler, and his irons as ‘Sad’ irons. How appropriate.

Above the wood stove, on the mantle shelf, is the American alarm clock, price two and threepence, telling the long day is over. The hanging lamp, not so pretty as the one of flowered china and dangling glass pendants in the parlour, is lit and strkes an answering glow from the beautiful copper kettle. ‘Very best copper, price eight shillings.’

How incredibly hard you worked – and how lucky we are to be living in 1975 with all its labour-saving devices! And yet, I wonder – was Great-Aunt Gwendoline? – But that’s another argument and nothing to with a Mail Order Catalogue.

Can an agrarian future avoid the violence of the agrarian past?

The agrarian tradition is increasingly characterized as a positive alternative to industrial agriculture. The lauding of the agrarian past as a way to redeem food production and social organization is demonstrated in Paul Schwennesen’s TEDx talk (below), Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm, Michael Pollan’s numerous books, and documentaries such as Food Inc and Food Matters. Although I am sympathetic to projects that encourage critical thinking about contemporary food practices, I have reservations about attempts to import ideas and practices from the past as solutions to problems of the present.

“We are being sucked into a nameless, faceless, system of consolidated food production which destroys the family farm…Lets come back to the land” – Paul Schwennesen

Agrarian and small-scale agriculture are often characterized as fostering a caring relationship with animals and the environment, establishing self-sufficiency and sustainability, and strengthening bonds of communal belonging. Yet in narrating these benefits a number of contentious themes of that tradition are ignored: dispossession of indigenous peoples, defined social roles, racism and exclusion, and indentured labor.

Advocates for the value of agrarian thought and practices in contemporary contexts – both urban and rural – have ignored or downplayed historical manifestations of agrarian sectarianism and exclusion that conflict with the values of contemporary democracies. Contemporary liberal democracies purport to value diversity, openness and the freedom for individuals to choose their own ends. However, historical examples of agrarian farming practice have run against aspects of these values. My point is not to say that liberal values trump agrarian values, but that potential conflicts need more open acknowledgment. See [1]

Arguably the most rigorous philosopher of agrarian thought, Paul Thompson, acknowledges sectarian expressions of agrarianism in the 18th century but suggests that these expressions evidence the influence of 18th century culture in general and are not inherent to agrarianism [2: 137]. According to Thompson it is possible to ‘untangle’ agrarian ideals from the deleterious influence of the 18th century. I dispute this possibility and argue that it belies Thompson’s own reading of agrarian thought within the virtue tradition [3: 78-82]. I contend that the vices of exclusion are the unchecked virtues of community and belonging. As such the historical expressions of exclusion and violence associated with agrarian communities cannot be quarantined but needs to be acknowledged and reconciled if agrarian thought and practice are to be used in shaping urban agriculture.

My concern is that contemporary proponents of agrarian ideals ignore or marginalize the history of exclusion and violence, which not only perpetuates the historical wrongs but risks repeating them when these ideas are applied to urban contexts. I am supportive of projects that attempt to provide new and helpful ways of relating to food, the land and community. However, I do not believe the purported benefits or virtues of agrarianism can be achieved without clear and honest recognition of the historical manifestations of exclusion, xenophobia and violence. Ignoring this history only weakens the putative benefits and virtues of agrarianism.

1.         Mayes, C., An Agrarian Imaginary in Urban Life: Cultivating Virtues and Vices Through a Conflicted History. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 2013: p. 1-22.

2.         Thompson, P.B., Thomas Jefferson and Agrarian Philosophy, in The agrarian roots of pragmatism, P.B. Thompson and T.C. Hilde, Editors. 2000, Vanderbilt University Press.

3.         Thompson, P.B., The Agrarian Vision: Sustainability and Environmental Ethics. 2010, Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.