The Rubbish of Spiders No Mortal Supposes

I was vacuuming up cobwebs around the windows this morning, and it recalled to mind this phrase:

The rubbish of spiders no mortal supposes

which is a line from The Housewife’s Lament, also known as the The Housekeeper’s Tragedy. or The Poor Old Woman. The entire poem goes like this:oldllady-sweep_mth

One day I was walking, I heard a complaining
And saw an old woman the picture of gloom
She gazed at the mud on her doorstep (’twas raining)
And this was her song as she wielded her broom

Oh! Life is a trial and love is a trouble
And beauty will fade and riches will flee
Pleasures they dwindle and prices they double
And nothing is as I would wish it to be.

There’s too much of worriment goes to a bonnet
There’s too much of ironing goes to a shirt
There’s nothing that pays for the time you waste on it
There’s nothing that last us but trouble and dirt.

In March it is mud, it is slush in December
The midsummer breezes are loaded with dust
In fall the leaves litter, in muddy September
The wall paper rots and the candlesticks rust.

There are worms on the cherries and slugs on the roses
And ants in the sugar and mice in the pies
The rubbish of spiders no mortal supposes
And ravaging roaches and damaging flies.

It’s sweeping at six and it’s dusting at seven
It’s victuals at eight and it’s dishes at nine.
It’s potting and panning form ten to eleven
We scarce break our fast ere we plan how to dine.

With grease and with grime from corner to center
Forever at war and forever alert.
No rest for a day lest the enemy enter
I spend my whole life in struggle with dirt.

Last night in my dreams I was stationed forever
On a far distant isle in the midst of the sea.
My one chance of life was a ceaseless endeavor
To sweep off the waves as they swept over me.

Alas! ‘Twas no dream; again I behold it
I see I am helpless my fate to avert
She lay down her broom, her apron she folded
She lay down and died and was buried in dirt.

Although none of us are making bonnets anymore, and few of us iron shirts (I can remember having to iron my father’s dress shirts though), still some of these troubles remain with us.

The midsummer breezes are loaded with dust — they are if you live across the road from an orchard, like I do. In fall the leaves litter — they still do. There are worms on the cherries if the jays don’t get them first. I don’t have mice in the pies, but we had to set traps for the mice in that were eating our tomatoes.

And if you have a large family or many guests, then the sweeping, victuals, dishes, potting and panning go on and on, so that We scarce break our fast ere we plan how to dine.

So if you ever feel burdened with housework, if you feel that:

Pleasures they dwindle and prices they double
And nothing is as I would wish it to be.

remember that you have something in common with our 19th century sisters.

The poem first appeared in print (unattributed) in a magazine in 1871, and in 1872 was published in Out-of-Door Rhymes by Eliza Sproat Turner. It has been set to music, with the second verse as the chorus. One version by Anne Hills and Cindy Mangsen can be heard here.

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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