Midsummer in Carthage, Missouri, 1907. The sun beat down on this small town day after day, as women trying to organize a forthcoming suffrage convention met in formal parlors and fanned themselves in the summer heat, without a breeze to lift the curtains. They hurried home to see about the next meal, to face the ordeal of cooking on hot, cast-iron stoves, where they baked bread, muffins, and pies, roasted meats, and cooked vegetables, a neverending round, from breakfast through lunch and dinner. The same women, keeping up with their laundry and cleaning through the long summer days, idly speculated about the future after suffrage was won, the future without private housework envisioned by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
A future without housework? An impatient husband, an ex-senator, challenged the ingenuity of the local women's group, by complaining about his wife: "She is always cooking, or has just cooked, or is just going to cook, or is too tired from cooking. If there is a way out of this, with something to eat still in sight, for Heaven's sake, tell us!"1
His ultimatum was debated in a long session among women in one of the hot, formal parlors and argued out at a larger meeting of near neighbors, with almost sixty men, women, and children present. A large white clapboard house, with broad verandas on two sides, shaded by tall oaks, was rented. Horses and wagons, loaded with dining room tables and chairs, converged on the rented house and stopped near the broad porch. On the porch, the women drew lots, and one by one, the tables were carried inside. The winners placed their tables next to the tall windows in the library and dining room on the ground floor. The losers put theirs in the centers of these rooms. The women brought tablecloths, napkins, and silverware from home in boxes and hampers. Muslin curtains were hung at every window. As the tables were set, a few women added jars of homemade relishes, pickles, peach and strawberry preserves, mint jellies. The rooms were readied for sixty people to dine.
A manager, two cooks, two waitresses, and a dishwasher were busy in the kitchen, preparing for the evening meal of steak, stuffed baked potatoes, baked beans, brown bread, lettuce salad, blanc-mange with orange sauce, and coffee. The member families, having paid $3.00 per adult per week, for three meals per day (or half that price for children under seven), enjoyed that meal. Said one husband, "Never to hear a word about the servants that have just left, or are here, or are coming to-morrow--perhaps! . . . We're in Missouri and we're ready for anything."2 Said another husband, at first a skeptic about this "Home for the Help-less," "I'm down as a life-member, let me tell you right now! The meals may be plain but they are balanced. The quality makes up for any amount of frills and trimming."3
After a month of successful operation, as autumn drew in, a reading room was