“From a drudge, to … a cook”

Hidden and ostentatious labor in the early modern household

Authored by: Mary Trull , Rebecca Laroche

Routledge Companion to Women, Sex, and Gender in the Early British Colonial World

Print publication date:  October  2018
Online publication date:  October  2018

Print ISBN: 9781472479945
eBook ISBN: 9781315613772
Adobe ISBN:


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This chapter argues that while domestic documents, such as household orders, advice to servants, and recipe books disclose previously ignored realms of women’s activity, they also work to obscure status differences in women’s labor. In a rich vein of recent scholarship on domestic instruction, including work by Michelle Dowd, David Goldstein, Michelle DiMeo, Sara Pennell, and Wendy Wall, the domestic labor of household mistresses and upper servants has been central. To show how status difference intersects with gender, this chapter juxtaposes the genres mentioned to investigate how the labor of the kitchen “drudge” – an under cook-maid or a similar female servant – is elided in domestic instructional texts of the seventeenth century. Further, comparing these genres allows us to offer the terms “ostentatious labor” / “hidden labor” as an alternative to the concepts of literate / illiterate labor and skilled / embodied labor. Ostentatious labor is recognized more by its association with cleanliness, ceremonial performances, and male workers than by literacy and artistry, and work that is seen as dirty or performed by women, whether or not it is literate and artistic, tends to be hidden. Domestic instructional texts sometimes specifically direct their audiences to hide the signs of labor; at other times, they mark hidden labor by stating that women’s labor is beyond their purview or by assuming that low-status tasks will be accomplished, without providing instructions. Through a closer investigation of how instructional texts present some kinds of labor as artful, admirable, and necessary, while eliding others, we show that part of the work done by instructional texts themselves is the gendered labor of social differentiation.

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