In Zion, who takes out the trash?

I recently remembered two items that share a similar response to the titular question. The answer? Not me.

Martha Hughes Cannon is a wonderful and fascinating character in history. She was a doctor, educated at the University of Michigan. She was a State Senator (D), defeating her own husband who ran on the Republican ticket and became the first woman to hold the office in the United States. She was a mother.

For twenty years, Cannon corresponded regularly with Barbara Replogle, a non-Mormon friend from the National School of Elocution and Oratory in Philadelphia. Her letters reveal the complexity born of polygamy, responsibility and federal prosecution. In one such letter, she encouraged Barbara to get married and expounded on motherhood:

When are you going to wed? After all, this to my mind, is the true state of womanhood neither, if properly managed should it interfere with her true advancement, in whatever sphere she might cast her talents. Tis not the bringing of noble spirits into the world — to me, a mother is woman’s brightest glory — that dwarfs talent, and retards her intellectual advancement but it is the multiplicity of household drudgery which only belongs to servants — and the conformity to the vile customs of modern society.

Barbara, even if we have to be poor let us not waste our talents in the cauldron of modern nothingness — but strive to become women of intellect, and endeavor to do some little good, while we live this protracted gleam called life. [1]

In the diaries of this time, references to servants are quite common. In the early 20th century, the Relief Society established an employment bureau to help women and young girls to find employment, often as domestic helpers.

Thirteen years before this letter was written, Church President Brigham Young was revitalizing Mormonism’s communitarian experiments: the Order of Enoch (“United Order” was a euphemism from the early published versions of the revelations that stuck). To one congregation, Young described his idea of communal living:

Now suppose we had a little society organized on the plan I mentioned at the commencement of my remarks—after the Order of Enoch—would we build our houses all alike? No. How should we live? I will tell you how I would arrange for a little family, say about a thousand persons. I would build houses expressly for their convenience in cooking, washing and every department of their domestic arrangements. Instead of having every woman getting up in the morning and fussing around a cookstove or over the fire, cooking a little food for two or three or half a dozen persons, or a dozen, as the case may be, she would have nothing to do but to go to her work. Let me have my arrangement here, a hall in which I can seat five hundred persons to eat; and I have my cooking apparatus—ranges and ovens—all prepared. And suppose we had a hall a hundred feet long with our cooking room attached to this hall; and there is a person at the farther end of the table and he should telegraph that he wanted a warm beefsteak; and this is conveyed to him by a little railway, perhaps under the table, and he or she may take her beefsteak. “What do you want to take with it?” “A cup of tea, a cup of coffee, a cup of milk, piece of toast,” or something or other, no matter what they call for, it is conveyed to them and they take it, and we can seat five hundred at once, and serve them all in a very few minutes. And when they have all eaten, the dishes are piled together, slipped under the table, and run back to the ones who wash them. We could have a few Chinamen to do that if we did not want to do it ourselves. [2]

Now, don’t go all crazy over Young’s perspective regarding race. I’m not really interested in that discussion right now. But like Cannon, Young betrays a belief that there are simply activities which are worth less than others. Motherhood and the Order of Enoch were deeply valued by Cannon and Young. Their establishment allowed for outsourcing certain activities to people outside the institutions.

Today technology has obviated much of the drudgery of Cannon’s household and Young’s visionary society. Still someone needs to take out the trash and other people are ready and willing. I worry however, that in relying on those we exclude from our vision to realize it, we obviate it entirely.


  1. Martha Hughes Cannon to Barbara Replogh, 1 May, 1885. Martha Hughes Cannon Collection, 1883-1912. LDS Church Archives.
  2. October 9, 1872, JD, 15:221.


  1. J, I recall a plaque in the Utah State Capitol honoring Martha Hughes Cannon, in which she is quoted as saying something to the effect of “women who have nothing to do but laundry, housework, and cooking must have the dullest conversations”. I always viewed that as encouraging women towards more education and greater career choices, not a class related slam. The reference to servants in this letter is somewhat less egalitarian than I had previously judged her to be.

    Class distinctions certainly got somewhat subdued in the formative years of the frontier West, but was still much more firmly entrenched in the East, where people weren’t trying to subdue a wilderness with homespun clothing and homemade tools and farm implements. Perhaps as Utah became less isolated, this class distinction may have looked more attractive to many Utah residents who were beginning to find themselves more secure, and living less hand to mouth.

  2. Forget race; I’m more interested about people in the Order of Enoch ordering tea and coffee!

    Ok, joking aside, this is a very interesting piece of history. I find repetitive menial tasks as almost a Zen-like meditative experience, and I know many others who work hard to find a spiritual sense in tasks we would consider “beneath” us. The reversal is interesting, where Young seemed willing to sweep them under the rug while others today tackle it head on and try to give them some kind of existential meaning.

  3. “Today technology has obviated much of the drudgery of Cannon’s household and Young’s visionary society.”

    Are you sure, J.? A recent NYT article was interesting:

    I’ll not argue with your point that there are some activities that are simply worth less than others- I’d actually yell it, if I could. Much of the drudgery of life is still with us- babies need to be changed and constantly cleaned up after, the housework never ends, ever- and groceries and cooked meals don’t magically appear. Only now, it seems the drugery is shared more evenly by men. But it’s still soul-deadening drudgery.

    It’s been a point of contention among feminists for years, discussing what it means when manual labor- labor that must be done, but is deadening to the intellect- is outsourced to (almost always) poorer women and immigrants.

    Ted, you can come to my house and get all Zen on my kitchen floors any day.

  4. Ted, there are two kinds of work that I think you are getting at. There certainly are some things that I find calming to the soul and mind, such as physical work that I can look at and see the accomplishment. I recently replaced some carpeting in our family room with the Costco version of Pergo hardwood laminate flooring, and found that immensely satisfying. Some kinds of physical labor are refreshing.

    But Tracy is dead on in that something that needs to be done, and then when you are done it needs to be done again, such as housework or dishes, is frustrating and demeaning. I find no satisfaction in something that is never done, and undone in a moment. so yeah, after your done with Tracy’s floors, you can Zen all over my backyard.

  5. This is not on topic, but the post reminded me of a passage I read a while back in a bio of Karl Marx. A detractor of dialectical materialism asked Marx who in his utopian world of equality was going to take out the trash. Marx turned to the detractor and said simply, “You.”

  6. Sorry, “after you’re done with Tracy’s floors”. Doh.

  7. Hmm, I have to agree with Ted. A couple nights ago, I saw that our home was getting quite cluttered, so I decided to just do a deep cleaning of the bathroom and kitchen. There was a kind of moment of Zen during the work, and definitely afterward.

    I’m not sure I would classify housework as drudgery. I recognize that it’s not fun, but after recently finishing The Imitation of Christ by Kempis, I have gained an appreciation for simple things and menial work, and the opportunities to practice mindfulness thereby. Life is about what we do but it’s also about gaining the proper mental attitude toward all things.

  8. Tracy, I’m well aware that there is a lot of drudgery to be had, but I submit that it is a small fraction of the labor that would be required without automated dishwashers, clothing washer/dryers, electric or gas furnaces and cooking appliances, refrigerators, automobiles and the like. Imagine washing those diapers by hand! Though I think we have invented more need for drudgery with all of these things; we expect a very, very high relative quality of life.

    KevinF, I’m not sure if it was simply class. As a physician and politician, she had many experiences that led her to find meaning in things outside of housework. That said, I’d be quite interested in what exactly she thought motherhood was. I imagine something quite different than her modern coreligionists.

    Ted, I think that often people with means find meaning in the menial. Nibley comes to mind (I have to resist the urge to react sarcastically every time I hear the great professor reject all things except farming and teaching). That said, I think some of the most important things anyone has every done for me was to take care of my physical body.

  9. Thomas Parkin says:

    “even if we have to be poor let us not waste our talents in the cauldron of modern nothingness ”

    All other issues aside, this was pretty much the motto of the first half of my life.

    Picturing an episode where Kwai Chang Caine visits a Mormon colony. hee hee.

    As to taking out the trash … I’ll do it, why not? ~

  10. I can’t imagine hauling my laundry down to the river, J! You are right. I would certainly not have time to be doing what I am doing now- back in school full time as a single mother of three. That is really only possible with modern advancements.

  11. Haha, apparently I’ve been recruited for housework.

    Certainly people find spiritual fulfillment in some places over others. I’ve never, for example, found Seminary to be terribly spiritual, but at the same time, I’ve met people who developed real testimonies there. I would assume that in Zion, there would be some people (like me) who wouldn’t mind taking out the trash, as long as I don’t have to cut stone for the temples we’re building or something. I don’t think I would enjoy cutting stone very much. We all have roles, and stone cutting isn’t mine.

  12. harpchil says:

    I had a similar discussion with my college roommate several years ago. He asked, “Who digs ditches in Zion?” I answered “The elders quorum,” just to be funny, but I wondered how far I was from the truth.

    Ted, I think you might be on to something. Somehow we end up finding people who are well-suited for different tasks and find meaning there. The question arises, though, what happens when everyone in a community doesn’t like to do dishes? I can only see two possible answers. First, we can revert back to Brigham’s minority-of-the day sort of comment, finding someone who is so desperate that they’ll do anything. The problem is that seems to go against the whole idea of Zion to me.

    Another option would be to create duty rosters, like we had in the Army. My ward is currently trying to do something like that with various service projects, going on splits with the missionaries, etc. The idea is that everyone participates more evenly, and therefore receives the blessings associated with those activities. Here, though, the problem becomes, what if there is someone who is very well-suited for a certain task and loves to do it, but only gets the opportunity to very rarely? We see that in most of our callings in the church, already. I got a BA in music, taking all of the conducting classes I could. I would love to direct the ward choir, and I think I’d do a decent job. Our current director can’t even keep her beat pattern straight and doesn’t know how to rehearse a choir at all.

    So, how do we get around that? Or is that part of Zion – learning to love things you hate because you’re contributing to the greater good (even though you think you’d contribute more by doing something else)?

  13. Displeasure in what you’re doing is a always a mortal hurdle we must learn to jump. Even when doing things you love, you will hit those points of monotony where even if this is your favorite thing to do overall, this certain aspect of it is certainly your least favorite thing to do of your favorite thing to do. We learn to overcome those temporary moments of blah and move on.

    However, systematically denying ourselves of opportunities to do what we love and to shine at it sounds more like hell than Zion. There will probably come a day when I must cut stone for the temples (maybe once every ten days or something) but if Jesus assigned me to be a stone cutter as a full-time calling when he explicitly knew I hated it, there had better be a darn good reason.

  14. C Jones says:

    I am just finishing the book,Keeping House: The Litany of Everyday Life by Margaret Kim Peterson. It’s a pretty tall order to take all our conflicted ideas about housework and turn them into something almost spiritual, but this author manages it.

    She points out that Jesus was all about the housekeeping/food/husbandry references. “. . . For I was hungry and ye gave me food, naked and ye clothed me…” and all that. In Psalm 104, God is “portrayed as a great housekeeper, pitching a tent, clothing the earth with light and water, bringing order out of chaos.” In Genesis, God sets the first humans in a home he has made for them, and he feeds, clothes, and shelters his people throughout the exodus.

    From the intro:
    ” … keeping house is not just about ‘making a home for my family.’ Of course housework is about making a home, but a Christian home, properly understood, is not just for one’s own family. A Christian home overflows it’s boundaries; it is an outpost of the kingdom of God, where the hungry are fed, and the naked are clothed and there is room enough for everyone.”

    It’s given me a whole new paradigm with which to view repetitive tasks of keeping house. At least some of the time.

  15. One word: robots.

  16. When the robots turn on us, smb, I’ll think of you.

  17. I would take out the trash just to feel like a martyr.

  18. Latter-day Guy says:

    Not really related, but this post reminded me of something wonderful.

  19. I think it’s interesting that Brigham drew his examples from women’s work. Quite possibly he felt that most traditional women’s work was menial drudgery, but it’s still intriguing. I would have thought that men speaking to men would have been full of complaints about men’s tasks that they hated — why focus on washing the dishes rather than on the drudgery of mucking out the cow sheds? Doesn’t doing the dishes sound pretty sweet in comparison?

  20. Intriguing questions, Ardis.

  21. How many wives did Brigham Young have again? :)

  22. Brian-A says:

    Brigham Young describes something close to the system Orderville would use from 1875 to 1880. They didn’t have the miniature railway or the immigrant dishwashers, but they use one communal dining hall for the whole town. Cooking and dishwashing assignments rotated.

    What happens to low-wage tasks when there are no poor among a people depends on the economic system in place. In a market economy, wages adjust until the amount of drudgery outsourced meets the supply of labor for those tasks. In my ward (though not yet Zion), assignments are made, often alphabetically. My turn to take out the meetinghouse trash and to clean the rest of the building comes in August.

  23. Stephanie says:

    In my home, everyone takes out the trash, everyone empties or loads the dishwasher, everyone scrubs toilets. While I have children in the house I am training, I don’t want a housekeeper. I want my children to know that they are responsible for keeping our home clean. We all live here – we all work to keep it clean. That is Zion to me. I am not interested in mess halls.

    Tis not the bringing of noble spirits into the world — to me, a mother is woman’s brightest glory — that dwarfs talent, and retards her intellectual advancement but it is the multiplicity of household drudgery which only belongs to servants

    I have mixed feelings while reading this quote. On the one hand, I do feel that all the household drudgery I do is retarding my intellectual advancement. On the other hand, I feel so strongly that my children (four sons and a daughter) need to see me working and need for me to teach them how to work in the home. I want sons who know that they are responsible for housework when they get married. I don’t believe that egalitarianism is necessarily how you split the jobs at any given point in time, but how you view the ownership of those jobs. I want my kids to own housework – therefore, I teach them that it belongs to all of us.

    And when the kids leave, it will be such a piece of cake to keep this place clean that I won’t need a housekeeper then either. And I’ll have more time to become intellectual and do a little good then, too.

  24. Stephanie says:

    The fact that my husband owns housework and jumps right in when he is home helps with that, too.

  25. I’m picking up where Stephanie left off with my initial thought on this. I’m opposed to sending the work of to servants as well because of the necessity of teaching a work ethic to young children. Family work is where children learn to work. I don’t mind the household duties, *IF* I have the help of the other people living in that house. Is that a big enough if for you?

    Perhaps Margaret Cannon felt it was less inflammatory to say delegate the household duties to servants because she might have really offended social constraints if she said that husbands have the duty to share the household responsibility equally with their wives so she can be free to pursue her talents and advancement–if the thought had crossed her mind, maybe it hadn’t.

    Like other readers, here I’m put off by the blatant classism. In part, because it denigrates the social opportunities for those who are serving, even taking into account that the servants can choose that employment (if they were free from SES constraints).

  26. John Mansfield says:

    I had looked a couple times for that Brghan Young quote about communal kitchens, so it is a relief to see I hadn’t imagined it.

    The Israelis have wrestled with such Zion-building concerns, too. To create the sort of country they wanted it was important to them not to import temporary labor; they were creating a Jewish state and the founders were leftists. Hiring Palestinians, particularly in the agricultural sector was felt OK, though, since they were people of that land also. Then the increasing violence from about 1987 on made hiring Palestinians problematic. By that time the agricultural sector depended on them, so despite philosophical objections, importation of temporary laborers from places like Thailand began. Visas for domestic household labor is still off limits; Israeli homes have to cleaned by Israelis. See the recent book Foreign Workers in Israel: Global Perspectives by Israel Drori for a better description than my little sketch, or David Bartram’s article “Foreign Workers in Israel: History and Theory,” in International Migration Review.

  27. Jenne, I suspect that there is a limit to the amount of work you are willing to do in the home. As I mentioned above, modern technology has reduced the amount of labor required, and if you have family members available, all the better.

    And you are tight that she would have bucked social constraints by demanding her husband to help – as a polygamist, she was essentially a single mother. Generally, polygamist women (especially those of prominent men) did not have much access to their husbands.

    I imagine that most readers here that are put off by having servants in the home are much more comfortable with the same people manufacturing virtually everything they use or cleaning for and serving them when they are outside of the home.

  28. I will.

    If taking out the trash is the price of living in Zion, then I’ll take out the trash. Where do I sign up?

  29. John Mansfield says:

    Besides the boon of technology, there are also antibiotics. Before penicillin, maintaining the daily cleanliness of households, so that infections wouldn’t start, had an importance we have no experience with. An ear infection could end up killing a person.

  30. Naismith says:

    Okay, first off, our cleaning service is legal, insured, bonded and well compensated. We pay $70 every other week for them to do about 90 minutes of work.

    I don’t see this as morally different than taking my car to a mechanic to have the oil changed, or buying clothes off a rack rather than sewing them myself. We are paying a fair wage to someone who needs the work, in order to create more time for us to spend on church work and with family. We all make choices about how we will use our time; who here spins their own thread to weave their own cloth? (If not, don’t you dare judge my family!)

    My kids still do a lot of housework, and have a great work ethic. They each cook dinner once a week, every evening they either set the table or clean up the family room, then clear the super table or help with dishes. They clean up an assigned public area once a week, mow the lawn and do yard work regularly, and during the summer have a weekly deep-cleaning task (scrubbing carpets, cleaning window blinds, shaking out and dusting the books on shelves, washing curtains, etc.). And the cleaners do not set foot in their rooms, for which they are responsible.

    But we get a lot of visitors, some from church and some from work, and we need to have the living room always clean and comfortable, and the bathroom ready to use. So we have the cleaning service.

    My husband for years has church callings that keep him away most every Tues-Wed-Thurs, and he doesn’t want to stick me with all the work. So we have the cleaning service.

    We rarely eat out when we are in town. We cook a lot from scratch, raise a garden, have two ovens, and make much more of a mess in the kitchen than if we relied on microwavable meals. So we have the cleaning service.

    Also, our older bathrooms have those 1-inch tile floors that are so hard to clean and our “tile” flooring is a better-for-our-backs Earthscapes flooring that isn’t easy to clean. So we have the cleaning service.

    And I take out the trash, while my husband does the recycling:)

  31. I think that there’s a time and a place for outside help, paid or not. I currently have a housekeeper that comes twice a month to clean the house. That’s due to the fact that my husband travels four days a week, every week, and he frequently works ’til midnight, at least. I don’t want us to have to clean during the limited time he’s home. That’s family time.

    With that said, my children are still learning the value of work. We do laundry, wash dishes, put away toys, and sweep, among other things. I would say that, for us, having a housekeeper is not a permanent situation but it does free up our time and I am more at ease playing with my kids when I’m not worrying about the heavy cleaning to be done. With their dad gone a lot, it’s good for them to have me more accessible.

  32. As a side note, I tend to be more sympathetic to Cannon than not. This post was not intended to be an attack on people who hire domestic help.

  33. harpchil says:

    Didn’t Agatha Christie say that she never thought she would ever be so rich as to own a car, or so poor that she would not have servants?

  34. Once, as a teenager, I told my dad that I wanted to work in a career that would be useful in building the New Jerusalem. He suggested that my career wouldn’t matter much there, because I would in all likelihood simply be handed a shovel and told to dig.

    I’m sympathetic to the notion that in a large enough group, individual variation in skills and desires would solve much of this issue of who does what (e.g. I don’t mind performing certain tasks around the house that my wife finds objectionable, and vice versa), but I imagine a flexible assignment system akin to a duty roster would be useful at first. I include flexibility because as with the division of labor in a strong marriage, I expect the duties to shift around occasionally as people express their preferences. Also like the strong marriage, this requires a certain level of emotional maturity from the community members.

  35. living in zion says:

    I am probably all wet here, but when I read Sis. Cannon’s comments, I saw it through the lens of polygamist wife. She could be a doctor and have intellectual pursuits because she was able to relegate raising children, housework to the other wives. And they obviously had servant help, too.
    I see it as intellectual snobbery.

    We all have different interests and talents. I love digging in the garden. I hate doing dishes. My best friend loves doing dishes and hates gardening. It a wonder we speak at all. To me, it all a matter of preference.

  36. Stephanie says:

    I’m not saying that it is never appropriate to hire a housekeeper. My point was more about owning housework. There is a big difference between being really busy and needing help in accomplishing your work, and the idea that housework is beneath you (which is what the original quote from Cannon sounds like).

  37. I don’t consider housework beneath me. In point of fact, it is usually on top of me.

  38. We have to be careful that we do not sacrifice the blessing of work for the apathy of ease. Work as an ethic, a principle, is disappearing from our cultures quickly. Though some would view changing diapers and washing dishes as demeaning, I would submit that the creation of family and community is in the details, not the abstractions.

  39. Stephanie says:

    Though some would view changing diapers and washing dishes as demeaning, I would submit that the creation of family and community is in the details, not the abstractions.

    This is beautifully said.

  40. Kristine says:

    “This post was not intended to be an attack on people who hire domestic help.”

    Interesting how conditioned we (Mormon women) seem to be to read it that way…

  41. Thanks Stephanie.

    PS: I’ll take out the trash as long as I can compost the majority first. :-)

  42. Mommie Dearest says:

    You can hire domestic help if you can afford it and it doesn’t violate your ethics, but you cannot possibly hire enough help to completely free yourself from dealing with your own trash, and still keep that freedom. Face it, we live in a world of domestic entropy and there is no way to be rid of tedious chores except temporarily, by getting them done.

    Stephanie and Mr Stephanie’s kids will be good at this, I presume.

  43. FireTag says:

    No one takes out the garbage. In Zion we will all be capable of performing the loaves to fishes miracle in reverse. :D

  44. John Turner says:

    My preference is for my wife to change the diapers, tie them up in plastic grocery bags, and then leave them by the door for me to take out to the garbage can at my leisure. Unfortunately, she seems to prefer taking out the trash as well.

  45. Naismith says:

    I can’t believe nobody else brought this up, but when my husband served a mission, they had a housekeeper, cook and houseboy. All their meals were cooked, laundry done, shoes polished, and yes, I assume somebody else took out the trash. This meant he was expected to clock more work hours.

    In that poor country, it would have been viewed as selfish not to provide jobs if you could, but to insist on doing it themselves.

    This experience has influenced our view on the ethics of hiring someone else to help.

  46. At my house, Jesus takes out the trash.

  47. I am reminded of the Zen saying:

    Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.
    After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.

    DKL (#46),

    If we turn our lives over to Jesus, I guess He does everything for us. However, at our house, He has subcontracted out the trash duties to me.

  48. CS Eric, you misunderstand. We’ve hired an Hispanic boy named Jesus to take out our trash.

  49. CS Eric says:


    And you probably pay him more than I get for trash-taking out duties.

  50. I like Jordan’s thoughts on a related question:

    Basically, living in Zion will hopefully entail a shift in our attitudes about labor. Taking out the trash will not be viewed as unworthy work. A lawyer will not be valued more than a sweepboy in the house of the Lord. Perhaps something other than the profit motive will influence our activities?

  51. This guy does a pretty good job taking out the trash…

  52. Stephanie says:

    Chris, thank you for sharing that! I watched it twice with my kids. My oldest said, “Wow, that’s a great dad”, and the next said, “I wish our dad was a garbage man so he could take us to Disneyland”.

  53. It's a series of tubes says:

    If John 14:3-17 is any indication, in Zion we will all take out the trash, and gladly.