Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Working Away: Mennonite Place, Women's Space, and Plain Maids of the 1930s

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Working Away: Mennonite Place, Women's Space, and Plain Maids of the 1930s

Article excerpt

In my day, that's just what Mennonite girls did. You'd go to town and become a maid. We could make more money working away.(1)

--Mabel (Yoder) King

After I'd given a poetry reading at the Writer's Center of the Chautauqua Institute of Arts and Religion, an elegant, elderly woman clasped my hand in both of hers and said with refined elocution, "Thank you so much. Your poetry is unique. You know, we have Mennonites around here, but they are our servants." I smiled and mumbled a confused "Thank you."

If she had said "house cleaners," "carpenters," or "nurses," I would not have been so unsettled, for during the week that followed the reading, I observed plain-dressed people performing all of those tasks on the grounds of that Victorian-era resort devoted to culture and lifelong learning in western New York. The word "servant," however, with its rigid significations of class and domestic confinement surprised me at least as much as she was surprised to find a Mennonite-identified person performing and teaching in that bastion of WASP culture. I was out of place in her estimation.

Her remark may not have seemed so strange if I had recalled my step-grandmother ironing pillowcases monogrammed with a cursive, gold metallic "T"--not for my grandfather Thomas Peachey as I guessed, but "Thompson," the family whose laundry she "took in." Growing up outside my parents' home community--located in the Kishoquillas Valley of Mifflin County, Pennsylvania--I divided extended visits there between my grandparents' homes and sensed significant differences between their households. Both grandfathers had lived with second wives for as long as I could remember; they all attended Locust Grove, a Conservative Conference Mennonite church in Belleville, and were even related through marriage--Grandpa Spicher married the sister of Grandpa Peachey--yet their homes felt entirely different. In my estimation, one was "plain," the other "fancy." Bertha (Peachey) Spicher had worked "for her own people" as a hired girl before she married, whereas her future sister-in-law, Verna (Kanagy) Peachey, "worked away." Could a brief exposure to the recipes, lifestyle, and domestic practices of a middle-class, non-Mennonite, town family have made the difference? Or, were they simply different kinds of women to begin with?

Verna and her cousin Mabel (Yoder) King recalled that more than a dozen--maybe twenty or so--young women from their Amish Mennonite community worked as live-in maids for middle- and upper-class families in the towns of Milroy, Huntingdon, and Lewistown. In 2003, two of only three surviving members of that group, Verna and Mabel, both now deceased, described their experiences in ways that complicate the meaning of a Mennonite space and a woman's place, enlarging an image of their community during the period between the Great Depression and Second World War. As described by these women, the spaces they inhabited seem neither bounded nor particularly static: Big Valley with its traditional farmsteads and the nearby towns and their worldly ways.

These Mennonite maids are among the last from their community to "work away" as live-in domestics, but they were not the first. Scholarly and literary investigations have begun to illuminate the experience of Mennonite immigrant girls who worked in Canadian cities during the early twentieth century, but less attention has been paid to those American Mennonite girls who left secure farm communities, lived in non-Mennonite homes, and then returned. (2)

Verna and Mabel marveled at the sense of ease with which they moved through town years ago, and at their parents' willingness to let them live under strangers' roofs in areas that years later they would have avoided after dark. In those days, Lewistown, a small industrial city along the Juniata River, did not seem an unsafe or alien territory when a Mennonite maid climbed and claimed the back steps of one of its fine houses or walked its streets late at night. …

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