“Husmaedraskolen” or “The School of Housewives”
Photo is from Vestfoldarkivet in Norway
A couple of months ago, I received a shipment of five cardboard boxes from Norway. They were all that we managed to salvage from my aunt’s apartment after her death last year at age 97. The pandemic made it impossible for my brother and I to travel to Norway to clean out her apartment. It also made it extremely difficult and costly to send things by ship. In the end, we hired someone to do the job for us and whittled down our list to simply all photos and paintings, with the suggestion that, to the extent possible, her hand-made tapestries and embroidery be used to wrap them.
As I unpacked the boxes and began the job of sorting through all the photos, I came across more and more of the very typically Norwegian woven tapestries that had decorated her apartment over the years. Some of them she had made herself, and others had been made by my grandmother. Still others must have been made a generation or two earlier. One beautiful table runner had been woven especially for her by a friend, whose name and the year were embroidered on the end.
Weaving, knitting, embroidery and many other handicrafts have a long tradition in the Nordic countries, partly out of necessity and partly, I imagine, out of the need to pass the time during the long dark winters. Bone knitting needles and spindles were key archeological finds that helped identify L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland as a Viking settlement.
So handicrafts had been occupying my mind quite a bit when I received an email from CNS member Ross Francis with a link to a BBC documentary on “Husmaedraskolen”, Icelandic for the “School of Housewives.” (https://www.bbc.com/reel/video/p09q5pqm/the-nordic-school-that-creates-the-perfect-housewife)
It was very common up until the 1970s for young women in Norway to attend “Husmorskole” and I can only imagine that this applied to all of the Nordic countries. From what I understand, these schools no longer exist in Norway, but there is still one remaining in Reykjavik in Iceland and that is where the video was filmed. The documentary takes us into the quiet, orderly life in the beautiful old house where a group of young women are being instructed in the proper way to prepare traditional Icelandic meals, entertain, sew clothing, knit, and create many other traditional domestic crafts.
There were no young men in this particular cohort, but young men have attended in the past and some were interviewed about their experience. All reported that it had enriched their lives. Not only had it made them self-sufficient and competent in their daily lives, but it seems to have played a role in raising their environmental awareness by, for example, teaching them how to avoid wasting food and how to repair clothing.
Women have so many more options today than they had in the past and many women have no interest at all in the skills that were taught in these schools. But it seems to me that we shouldn’t devalue them either. I found watching the film to be quite a Zen experience. The young women were so quietly absorbed in their tasks and in doing them properly in the beautiful old house. It was like being taken into the past for a while when the pace of life was slower and the little details of everyday living were given more importance than they are today. Maybe these are lessons we can all use in these stressful times.