The Life Hacks of Peg Bracken, or, You Aren’t as Clever as You Think You Are

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A good mother and housewife, in the circles I run in, isn’t so likely to use Fantastik to clean her kitchen counters, the way she was in the 1970s. These days, we’re supposed to use natural, organic housecleaning agents: bottles of Method and Mrs. Meyer’s and Seventh Generation abound. These things often come in very attractive packaging, and might even smell nice (which Windex and Fantastik do not, in my opinion). None of them are cheap, not even if you score them with a coupon while they’re on sale. But if you poke a random mother at the playground in my neighborhood, and ask her what she uses to clean her house, she’ll say “vinegar and baking soda.” “Frugal,” “organic,” “natural,” “non-toxic,” “homemade cleaners,” those are the keywords these types live by, and I should know, because I am one of them. In my case, it all got started because I was reading Peg Bracken from an early age. And I was cheap. Then, in the era of the mommyblogger (which I obviously am, not that I’m proud of it, but oh well), a number of sub-groups began to embrace this kind of thing. These were women who prided themselves on being more organic than thou, or holier, or crunchier, or less toxic; they were stay at home mothers trying to be frugal. And they tended to write as if this cleaning with baking soda and vinegar thing was new, and a total stroke of genius. Well, they were partly right.
Peg Bracken knew from vinegar and baking soda. This “frugal housecleaning” isn’t a new phenomenon. These aren’t cleaning supplies that were discovered by the neo-hippies of the 1990s or the oughties. Aunt Lucy knew about them, so Bracken knew about them, and Bracken wrote about them in most amusing fashion. Fortunately for you and me, Bracken was, in the 1960s (pre-hippiedom) more realistic about these things than either Aunt Lucy or the wholesome types (1960s or current remix version) would be about it. “Let us be candid,” she writes, “about a few pantry items and what they’re good for. The fact is, few of them do as good a job, as neatly or quickly, as things you can buy.” Bracken’s Chapter 7, wherein Bracken explains which of these old-timey household tips are really worth pursuing, is matter-of-fact and cut-to-the-chase. There’s penny pinching, and there’s time, and there’s effort, and you have to be practical about how much of each you want to spend on any given task. Additionally, there are tips that aren’t about saving money or cleaning more efficiently, but are simply about making life in a broader sense somewhat easier and/or more affordable. “Beware,” Bracken writes, “of buying many disposable items, like paper towels. It’s cheaper to use terrycloth hand towels in the kitchen. If you feel you MUST have a paper-towel rack, put it near the stove. Then the towels will be used for draining things instead of wiping hands, and they’ll last longer.” Hear, hear. A cheapskate move, and a “green” one at that. It’s like the dishrag/sponge thing we talked about earlier. I go through maybe one roll of paper towels in a year. I use paper towels for cleaning up puke and draining fat off things I’m cooking. That’s about it. Since the residents of our house seldom have gastrointestinal woes, and I don’t make meatloaf on a daily basis, it means that a six pack of paper towels can last us a ridiculously long time. The package actually collects dust, down there in the basement. So Bracken’s right: as long as you’re someone who’s doing laundry on a reasonable basis, there’s not much good reason to invest heavily in paper towels. (Maybe this wouldn’t hold if you had a household with ten children in it, but for my small family, it works out just fine.)

Am I supposed to dust the package of paper towels?
I’m not going to answer that.

Anyone who’s ever looked at a listsicle of Life Hacks or Kitchen Hacks will read Bracken and smack their hands to their heads feeling stupid. People claim to have their minds blown by Life Hacks, but so many of these concepts were already laid out (without references to iPhones and far less in the way of binder clips) in Bracken. So many hacks are straight out of Bracken (or Hints from Heloise, or whatever household manual of the 1960s). I can’t tell you the number of times friends have sent me links to Life Hack lists and I’ve looked at them and said, “yeah, number 6? That’s Peg Bracken right there.” Cleaning with pantry items is just the start. I remember one list, which I now cannot locate, that had 100 Life Hacks, and when I went back and looked at  the list and Peg Bracken’s household tips from the I Hate to Cook Book, the overlap was something like 30%. Yeah, those Life Hacks. Revolutionary stuff.

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