What Diantha Did

Author: Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Chapter V.

When the fig growns on the thistle, And the silk purse on the sow; When one swallow brings the summer, And blue moons on her brow—

Then we may look for strength and skill, Experience, good health, good will, Art and science well combined, Honest soul and able mind, Servants built upon this plan, One to wait on every man, Patiently from youth to age,— For less than a street cleaner’s wage!

When the parson’s gay on Mondays, When we meet a month of Sundays, We may look for them and find them—
But Not Now!

When young Mrs. Weatherstone swept her trailing crepe from the automobile to her friend’s door, it was opened by a quick, soft-footed maid with a pleasant face, who showed her into a parlor, not only cool and flower-lit, but having that fresh smell that tells of new-washed floors.

Mrs. Porne came flying down to meet her, with such a look of rest and comfort as roused instant notice.

"Why, Belle! I haven’t seen you look so bright in ever so long. It must be the new maid!"

"That’s it—she’s ’Bell’ too—’Miss Bell’ if you please!"

The visitor looked puzzled. "Is she a—a friend?" she ventured, not sure of her ground.

"I should say she was! A friend in need! Sit here by the window, Viva—and I’ll tell you all about it—as far as it goes."

She gaily recounted her climax of confusion and weariness, and the sudden appearance of this ministering angel. "She arrived at about quarter of ten. I engaged her inside of five minutes. She was into a gingham gown and at work by ten o’clock!"

"What promptness! And I suppose there was plenty to do!"

Mrs. Porne laughed unblushingly. "There was enough for ten women it seemed to me! Let’s see—it’s about five now—seven hours. We have nine rooms, besides the halls and stairs, and my shop. She hasn’t touched that yet. But the house is clean—! Smell it!"

She took her guest out into the hall, through the library and dining-room, upstairs where the pleasant bedrooms stretched open and orderly.

"She said that if I didn’t mind she’d give it a superficial general cleaning today and be more thorough later!"

Mrs. Weatherstone looked about her with a rather languid interest. "I’m very glad for you, Belle, dear—but—what an endless nuisance it all is—don’t you think so?"

"Nuisance! It’s slow death! to me at least," Mrs. Porne answered. "But I don’t see why you should mind. I thought Madam Weatherstone ran that—palace, of yours, and you didn’t have any trouble at all."

"Oh yes, she runs it. I couldn’t get along with her at all if she didn’t. That’s her life. It was my mother’s too. Always fussing and fussing. Their houses on their backs—like snails!"

"Don’t see why, with ten (or is it fifteen?) servants."

"Its twenty, I think. But my dear Belle, if you imagine that when you have twenty servants you have neither work nor care—come and try it awhile, that’s all!"

"Not for a millionaire baby’s ransom!" answered Isabel promptly.

"Give me my drawing tools and plans and I’m happy—but this business"—she swept a white hand wearily about—"it’s not my work, that’s all."

"But you it, don’t you—I mean having nice things?" asked her friend.

"Of course I enjoy it, but so does Edgar. Can’t a woman enjoy her home, just as a man does, without running the shop? I enjoy ocean travel, but I don’t want to be either a captain or a common sailor!"

Mrs. Weatherstone smiled, a little sadly. "You’re lucky, you have other interests," she said. "How about our bungalow? have you got any farther?"

Mrs. Porne flushed. "I’m sorry, Viva. You ought to have given it to someone else. I haven’t gone into that workroom for eight solid days. No help, and the baby, you know. And I was always dog-tired."

"That’s all right, dear, there’s no very great rush. You can get at it now, can’t you—with this other Belle to the fore?"

"She’s not Belle, bless you—she’s ’Miss Bell.’ It’s her last name."

Mrs. Weatherstone smiled her faint smile. "Well—why not? Like a seamstress, I suppose."

"Exactly. That’s what she said. "If this labor was as important as that of seamstress or governess why not the same courtesy—Oh she’s a most superior opinionated young person, I can see that."

"I like her looks," admitted Mrs. Weatherstone, "but can’t we look over those plans again; there’s something I wanted to suggest." And they went up to the big room on the third floor.

In her shop and at her work Isabel Porne was a different woman. She was eager and yet calm; full of ideas and ideals, yet with a practical knowledge of details that made her houses dear to the souls of women.

She pointed out in the new drawings the practical advantages of kitchen and pantry; the simple but thorough ventilation, the deep closets, till her friend fairly laughed at her. "And you say you’re not domestic!"

"I’m a domestic architect, if you like," said Isabel; "but not a domestic servant.—I’ll remember what you say about those windows—it’s a good idea," and she made a careful note of Mrs. Weatherstone’s suggestion.

That lady pushed the plans away from her, and went to the many cushioned lounge in the wide west window, where she sat so long silent that Isabel followed at last and took her hand.

"Did you love him so much?" she asked softly.

"Who?" was the surprising answer.

"Why—Mr. Weatherstone," said Mrs. Porne.

"No—not very much. But he was something."

Isabel was puzzled. "I knew you so well in school," she said, "and that gay year in Paris. You were always a dear, submissive quiet little thing—but not like this. What’s happened Viva?"

"Nothing that anybody can help," said her friend. "Nothing that matters. What does matter, anyway? Fuss and fuss and fuss. Dress and entertain. Travel till you’re tired, and rest till you’re crazy! Then—when a real thing happens—there’s all this!" and she lifted her black draperies disdainfully. "And mourning notepaper and cards and servant’s livery—and all the things you mustn’t do!"

Isabel put an arm around her. "Don’t mind, dear—you’ll get over this—you are young enough yet—the world is full of things to do!"

But Mrs. Weatherstone only smiled her faint smile again. "I loved another man, first," she said. "A real one. He died. He never cared for me at all. I cared for nothing else—nothing in life. That’s why I married Martin Weatherstone—not for his old millions—but he really cared—and I was sorry for him. Now he’s dead. And I’m wearing this—and still mourning for the other one."

Isabel held her hand, stroked it softly, laid it against her cheek.

"Oh, I’ll feel differently in time, perhaps!" said her visitor.

"Maybe if you took hold of the house—if you ran things yourself,"—ventured Mrs. Porne.

Mrs. Weatherstone laughed. "And turn out the old lady? You don’t know her. Why she managed her son till he ran away from her—and after he got so rich and imported her from Philadelphia to rule over Orchardina in general and his household in particular, she managed that poor little first wife of his into her grave, and that wretched boy—he’s the only person that manages her! She’s utterly spoiled him—that was his father’s constant grief. No, no—let her run the house—she thinks she owns it."

"She’s fond of you, isn’t she?" asked Mrs. Porne.

"O I guess so—if I let her have her own way. And she certainly saves me a great deal of trouble. Speaking of trouble, there they are—she said she’d stop for me."

At the gate puffed the big car, a person in livery rang the bell, and Mrs. Weatherstone kissed her friend warmly, and passed like a heavy shadow along the rose-bordered path. In the tonneau sat a massive old lady in sober silks, with a set impassive countenance, severely correct in every feature, and young Mat Weatherstone, sulky because he had to ride with his grandmother now and then. He was not a nice young man.


Diantha found it hard to write her home letters, especially to Ross. She could not tell them of all she meant to do; and she must tell them of this part of it, at once, before they heard of it through others.

To leave home—to leave school-teaching, to leave love—and "go out to service" did not seem a step up, that was certain. But she set her red lips tighter and wrote the letters; wrote them and mailed them that evening, tired though she was.

Three letters came back quickly.

Her mother’s answer was affectionate, patient, and trustful, though not understanding.

Her sister’s was as unpleasant as she had expected.

"The " wrote Mrs. Susie. "A girl with a good home to live in and another to look forward to—and able to earn money to go out and work like a common Irish girl! Why Gerald is so mortified he can’t face his friends—and I’m as ashamed as I can be! My own sister! You must be —simply "

It was hard on them. Diantha had faced her own difficulties bravely enough; and sympathized keenly with her mother, and with Ross; but she had not quite visualized the mortification of her relatives. She found tears in her eyes over her mother’s letter. Her sister’s made her both sorry and angry—a most disagreeable feeling—as when you step on the cat on the stairs. Ross’s letter she held some time without opening.

She was in her little upstairs room in the evening. She had swept, scoured, scalded and carbolized it, and the hospitally smell was now giving way to the soft richness of the outer air. The "hoo! hoo!" of the little mourning owl came to her ears through the whispering night, and large moths beat noiselessly against the window screen. She kissed the letter again, held it tightly to her heart for a moment, and opened it.

"Dearest: I have your letter with its—somewhat surprising—news. It is a comfort to know where you are, that you are settled and in no danger.

"I can readily imagine that this is but the preliminary to something else, as you say so repeatedly; and I can understand also that you are too wise to tell me all you mean to be beforehand.

"I will be perfectly frank with you, Dear.

"In the first place I love you. I shall love you always, whatever you do. But I will not disguise from you that this whole business seems to me unutterably foolish and wrong.

"I suppose you expect by some mysterious process to "develope" and "elevate" this housework business; and to make money. I should not love you any better if you made a million—and I would not take money from you—you know that, I hope. If in the years we must wait before we can marry, you are happier away from me—working in strange kitchens—or offices—that is your affair.

"I shall not argue nor plead with you, Dear Girl; I know you think you are doing right; and I have no right, nor power, to prevent you. But if my wish were right and power, you would be here to-night, under the shadow of the acacia boughs—in my arms!

"Any time you feel like coming back you will be welcome, Dear.

"Yours, Ross."

Any time she felt like coming back?

Diantha slipped down in a little heap by the bed, her face on the letter—her arms spread wide. The letter grew wetter and wetter, and her shoulders shook from time to time.

But the hands were tight-clenched, and if you had been near enough you might have heard a dogged repetition, monotonous as a Tibetan prayer mill: "It is right. It is right. It is right." And then. "Help me—please! I need it." Diantha was not "gifted in prayer."

When Mr. Porne came home that night he found the wifely smile which is supposed to greet all returning husbands quite genuinely in evidence. "O Edgar!" cried she in a triumphant whisper, "I’ve got such a nice girl! She’s just as neat and quick; you’ve no idea the work she’s done today—it looks like another place already. But if things look queer at dinner don’t notice it—for I’ve just given her her head. I was so tired, and baby bothered so, and she said that perhaps she could manage all by herself if I was willing to risk it, so I took baby for a car-ride and have only just got back. And I the dinner’s going to be lovely!"

It was lovely. The dining-room was cool and flyless. The table was set with an assured touch. A few of Orchardina’s ever ready roses in a glass bowl gave an air of intended beauty Mrs. Porne had had no time for.

The food was well-cooked and well-served, and the attendance showed an intelligent appreciation of when people want things and how they want them.

Mrs. Porne quite glowed with exultation, but her husband gently suggested that the newness of the broom was visibly uppermost, and that such palpable perfections were probably accompanied by some drawbacks. But he liked her looks, he admitted, and the cooking would cover a multitude of sins.

On this they rested, while the week went by. It was a full week, and a short one. Mrs. Porne, making hay while the sun shone, caught up a little in her sewing and made some conscience-tormenting calls.

When Thursday night came around she was simply running over with information to give her husband.

"Such a talk as I have had with Miss Bell! She is so queer! But she’s nice too, and it’s all reasonable enough, what she says. You know she’s studied this thing all out, and she knows about it—statistics and things. I was astonished till I found she used to teach school. Just think of it! And to be willing to work out! She certainly does her work beautiful, but—it doesn’t seem like having a servant at all. I feel as if I—boarded with her!"

"Why she seemed to me very modest and unpresuming," put in Mr. Porne.

"O yes, she never presumes. But I mean the capable way she manages—I don’t have to tell her one thing, nor to oversee, nor criticize. I spoke of it and she said, ’If I didn’t understand the business I should have no right to undertake it."

"That’s a new point of view, isn’t it?" asked her husband. "Don’t they usually make you teach them their trade and charge for the privilege?"

"Yes, of course they do. But then she does have her disadvantages—as you said."

"Does she? What are they?"

"Why she’s so—rigid. I’ll read you her—I don’t know what to call it. She’s written out a definite proposition as to her staying with us, and I want you to study it, it’s the queerest thing I ever saw."

The document was somewhat novel. A clear statement of the hours of labor required in the position, the quality and amount of the different kinds of work; the terms on which she was willing to undertake it, and all prefaced by a few remarks on the status of household labor which made Mr. Porne open his eyes.

Thus Miss Bell; "The ordinary rate for labor in this state, unskilled labor of the ordinary sort, is $2.00 a day. This is in return for the simplest exertion of brute force, under constant supervision and direction, and involving no serious risk to the employer."

"Household labor calls for the practice of several distinct crafts, and, to be properly done, requires thorough training and experience. Its performer is not only in a position of confidence, as necessarily entrusted with the care of the employer’s goods and with knowledge of the most intimate family relations; but the work itself, in maintaining the life and health of the members of the household, is of most vital importance.

"In consideration of existing economic conditions, however, I am willing to undertake these intricate and responsible duties for a seven day week at less wages than are given the street-digger, for $1.50 a day."

"Good gracious, my dear!" said Mr. Porne, laying down the paper, "This young woman does appreciate her business! And we’re to be let off easy at $45.00 a month, are we"

"And feel under obligations at that!" answered his wife. "But you read ahead. It is most instructive. We shall have to ask her to read a paper for the Club!"

"’In further consideration of the conditions of the time, I am willing to accept part payment in board and lodging instead of cash. Such accommodations as are usually offered with this position may be rated at $17.00 a month."

"O come now, don’t we board her any better than that?"

"That’s what I thought, and I asked her about it, and she explained that she could get a room as good for a dollar and a-half a week—she had actually made inquiries in this very town! And she could; really a better room, better furnished, that is, and service with it. You know I’ve always meant to get the girl’s room fixed more prettily, but usually they don’t seem to mind. And as to food—you see she knows all about the cost of things, and the materials she consumes are really not more than two dollars and a half a week, if they are that. She even made some figures for me to prove it—see."

Mr. Porne had to laugh.

"Breakfast. Coffee at thirty-five cents per pound, one cup, one cent. Oatmeal at fourteen cents per package, one bowl, one cent. Bread at five cents per loaf, two slices, one-half cent. Butter at forty cents per pound, one piece, one and a-half cents. Oranges at thirty cents per dozen, one, three cents. Milk at eight cents per quart, on oatmeal, one cent. Meat or fish or egg, average five cents. Total—thirteen cents."

"There! And she showed me dinner and lunch the same way. I had no idea food, just the material, cost so little. It’s the labor, she says that makes it cost even in the cheapest restaurant."

"I see," said Mr. Porne. "And in the case of the domestic servant we furnish the materials and she furnishes the labor. She cooks her own food and waits on herself—naturally it wouldn’t come high. What does she make it?"

’Food, average per day . . . $0.35 Room, $1.50 per w’k, ave. per day . . . .22 -----

Total, per month . . . $17.10

$1.50 per day, per month . . . $45.00

"’Remaining payable in cash, $28.00.’ Do I still live! But my dear Ellie, that’s only what an ordinary first-class cook charges, out here, without all this fuss!"

"I know it, Ned, but you know we think it’s awful, and we’re always telling about their getting their board and lodging clear—as if we gave’em that out of the goodness of our hearts!"

"Exactly, my dear. And this amazing and arithmetical young woman makes us feel as if we were giving her wampum instead of money—mere primitive barter of ancient days in return for her twentieth century services! How does she do her work—that’s the main question."

"I never saw anyone do it better, or quicker, or easier. That is, I thought it was easy till she brought me this paper. Just read about her work, and you’ll feel as if we ought to pay her all your salary."

Mr. Porne read:

"Labor performed, average ten hours a day, as follows: Preparation of food materials, care of fires, cooking, table service, and cleaning of dishes, utensils, towels, stove, etc., per meal—breakfast two hours, dinner three hours, supper or lunch one hour—six hours per day for food service. Daily chamber work and dusting, etc., one and one-half hours per day. Weekly cleaning for house of nine rooms, with halls, stairs, closets, porches, steps, walks, etc., sweeping, dusting, washing windows, mopping, scouring, etc., averaging two hours per day. Door service, waiting on tradesmen, and extras one-half hour per day. Total ten hours per day."

"That sounds well. Does it take that much time every day?"

"Yes, indeed! It would take me twenty!" she answered. "You know the week I was here alone I never did half she does. Of course I had Baby, but then I didn’t do the things. I guess when it doesn’t take so long they just don’t do what ought to be done. For she is quick, awfully quick about her work. And she’s thorough. I suppose it ought to be done that way—but I never had one before."

"She keeps mighty fresh and bright-looking after these herculean labors."

"Yes, but then she rests! Her ten hours are from six-thirty a.m., when she goes into the kitchen as regularly as a cuckoo clock, to eight-thirty p.m. when she is all through and her kitchen looks like a—well it’s as clean and orderly as if no one was ever in it."

"Ten hours—that’s fourteen."

"I know it, but she takes out four. She claims time to eat her meals."


"Half an hour apiece, and half an hour in the morning to rest—and two in the afternoon. Anyway she is out, two hours every afternoon, riding in the electric cars!"

"That don’t look like a very hard job. Her day laborer doesn’t get two hours off every afternoon to take excursions into the country!"

"No, I know that, but he doesn’t begin so early, nor stop so late. She does her square ten hours work, and I suppose one has a right to time off."

"You seem dubious about that, my dear."

"Yes, that’s just where it’s awkward. I’m used to girls being in all the time, excepting their day out. You see I can’t leave baby, nor always take him—and it interferes with my freedom afternoons."

"Well—can’t you arrange with her somehow?"

"See if you can. She says she will only give ten hours of time for a dollar and a half a day—tisn’t but fifteen cents an hour—I have to pay a woman twenty that comes in. And if she is to give up her chance of sunlight and fresh air she wants me to pay her extra—by the hour. Or she says, if I prefer, she would take four hours every other day—and so be at home half the time. I said it was difficult to arrange—with baby, and she was very sympathetic and nice, but she won’t alter her plans."

"Let her go, and get a less exacting servant."

"But—she does her work so well! And it saves a lot, really. She knows all about marketing and things, and plans the meals so as to have things lap, and it’s a comfort to have her in the house and feel so safe and sure everything will be done right."

"Well, it’s your province, my dear. I don’t profess to advise. But I assure you I appreciate the table, and the cleanness of everything, and the rested look in your eyes, dear girl!"

She slipped her hand into his affectionately. "It does make a difference," she said. "I get a girl for $20.00 and save nearly $2.60 a week—but you know what they are!"

"I do indeed," he admitted fervently. "It’s worth the money to have this thing done so well. I think she’s right about the wages. Better keep her."

"O—she’ll only agree to stay six months even at this rate!"

"Well—keep her six months and be thankful. I thought she was too good to last!"

They looked over the offered contract again. It closed with:

"This agreement to hold for six months from date if mutually satisfactory. In case of disagreement two weeks’ notice is to be given on either side, or two weeks’ wages if preferred by the employer." It was dated, and signed "Miss D. C. Bell."

And with inward amusement and great display of penmanship they added "Mrs. Isabel J. Porne," and the contract was made.


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Chicago: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "Chapter V.," What Diantha Did, trans. Garnett, Constance Black, 1862-1946 in What Diantha Did (London: Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, 1831), Original Sources, accessed July 21, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=D9Q6HRKUZTQSJ7C.

MLA: Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. "Chapter V." What Diantha Did, translted by Garnett, Constance Black, 1862-1946, in What Diantha Did, London, Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, 1831, Original Sources. 21 Jul. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=D9Q6HRKUZTQSJ7C.

Harvard: Gilman, CP, 'Chapter V.' in What Diantha Did, trans. . cited in 1831, What Diantha Did, Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, London. Original Sources, retrieved 21 July 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=D9Q6HRKUZTQSJ7C.