The Ironies of Household Technology

More Work For MotherEver since last year when I read that household appliances haven’t made life easier for women, I’ve been wanting to dig a little deeper into the subject. So while staying with some friends in Moscow Idaho earlier this year, I went over to the University of Idaho and checked out a copy of Ruth Cowan’s book More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Heath to the Microwave. She shares some fascinating evidence that overturns the common assumption that household technologies have given housewives more time.

Here are my notes from Cowan’s book.

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As Cowan explores the history of household technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave, a common theme that emerges is that the modern household is alienating. Modern technology has alienated women from their families by creating a sexual division of labor that is now taken for granted. Before the introduction of many of our modern technologies, it would never have occurred to families to leave all the housework to mother; however, as technologies eased the burden of housework, a perception emerged that the wife/mother should be competent to handle the household more or less unassisted. On top of that, electronic appliances have greatly increased the expectations we bring to all aspects of the household, from cleanliness to diet. What is now considered “normal” is the diet cleanliness, clothing variety, and house-size that was once regular only for the upper middle class. A theme that thus emerges from Cowan’s work is that “People use tools to do work, but tools also define and constrain the ways in which it is possible and likely that people will behave.” (p. 9)

On page 8, Cowan explains how men’s work became industrialized, thus connecting men to efficient networks that increased productivity, while the household was never industrialized, thus leaving women alone with their household technologies.

Even if we assume, as the anthropologists tell us we should, that every society will construct some sexual division of labor for itself, there is no apparent reason why, for example, men’s work could not have been incompletely industrialized instead of women’s. We might then have had communal kitchens, to which we would repair for all of our food needs, but household metal goods that we forged in smithies in our own backyards; or perhaps electronic looms in every kitchen and communal nurseries in which children of our female physicians could be cared for and reared. Clearly we have the technological and the economic capacity to have constructed our society this way, but for some complex of reasons we did not do so.

Speaking of household work in per-industrial conditions, Cowan observes how the standards we take to be normal, and which create the burden society now places on the housewife, used to be limited to the wealthy. Essentially, household technologies have created the terrible burden of making everyone feel they have a right to a lifestyle once appropriate only to the rich. Here is Cowan’s descriptions of the pre-industrial household:

Diets lacked variety, and standards of cleanliness were not what they are today. Houses were much smaller, and so were wardrobes; most people lived in one, two, or at most three rooms and wore the same articles of clothing day in and day out. There were, of course, a few people who knew what it was to sleep each night on clean sheets, or lean against a mantel that was not covered with ash, or eat a meal that consisted of more than one course; but there were very, very few such people, and they were all very rich. The poor, and even the middling comfortable, could not aspire to such creature comforts — not even those among them who were economically secure enough to own a small parcel of land and to hire one or two servants. Cleanliness of body and variety of foodstuffs were perquisites only of the very rich in ages past.

Cowan explores documents from the 19th century which show that industrialization didn’t make life easier for women since the introduction of technology into the household was parallel with (a) increasing expectations about the household (b) the retreat of the husband from household work to an external work force (a point I touched on in my article ‘Industrialization and Marriage‘). Here is what she writes about the 19th century situation:

Census statistics, articles in women’s magazines, economic histories, genre paintings, patent records, and the extant artifacts themselves all converge to tell us that hundreds of household conveniences were invented and diffused during the nineteenth century. There were hand-driven washing machines and taps for indoor cisterns, eggbeaters and pulley-driven butter churns, tinned milk and store-bought flour, porcelainized cookware, airtight heating stoves, and a multitude of additional small gadgets and large utilities, from apple parers to piped coal gas, that were intended to make housework easier. Yet, when discussed by the people who actually did housework, or by the people who watched the people who were actually doing it, it seems not to have become one whit more convenient–or less tiring–during the whole of the century. What a strange paradox that in the face of so many labor-saving devices, little labor appears to have been saved!… Labor-saving devices were invented and diffused throughout the country during those hundred years that witnessed the first stages of industrialization, but they reorganized the work processes of housework in ways that did not save the labor of the average housewife. [p. 44-45]

“If you had been a housewife living before 1800, you would have cooked and baked aplenty, but your husband would have done much of the preparation – such as chopping wood, shelling corn, and pounding grain into meal; and your children would have helped as well, helping with such seasonal tasks as making sausages. But with the coming of industrialization, your life and theirs would have changed radically. The cast-iron cooking stove, the automatic flour mill, and factory-produced food and clothing, meant that you bore the whole burden of housework. For your husband and your children, the house became a place of leisure. The kitchen became a place in which men had no useful role to play, and the shop became a place in which men were more comfortable behind, rather than in front, of the counter.” [p. 47]

As pre-ground flour became more readily available to housewives, the types of foods they were expected to cook changed. White bread that was light, sweet and tender, became a status symbol. So on the one hand, cooking became easier, but the fact that it was easier meant that the expectations placed on women increased.

The eggbeater, which was invented and marketed during the middle decades of the century, may have eased the burden of this work somewhat; but unfortunately the popularity of the beater was accompanied by the popularity of angel food cakes, in which eggs are the only leavening, and yolks and whites are beaten separately — thus doubling the work.
In short, whether it was bread or cakes that she was routinely preparing, the nineteenth-century housewife whose household…had converted from the product of the local grist mill to the product of the far-off flour factory, would have found, for a variety of reasons, that she was spending considerably more time working with that flour than her grandmother had–and her husband considerably less than his grandfather. The advent of industrialized flour brought with it a profound shift in the responsiblities and time allocations of the two sexes vis à vis their work in their own homes; men’s share in domestic activity began to disappear, while women’s share increased. Thus, housework was becoming truly ‘women’s work’ – and not an obligation shared by both sexes.” [p. 53]

Speaking elsewhere about the early stages of industrialization in the 19th century, Cowan offers a fascinating description of the different way industrialization affected women versus the husband and children:

“As each generation of fathers ceased to cut, haul, and split wood, each generation of sons knew less and less about how it should be done – and more and more about how to find and to keep a job that paid wages. Each generation of mothers, on the other hand, would have found the burden of their domestic chores more or less the same–perhaps even heavier–and thus would have been less likely to look outside their homes for employment, unless dire necessity intervened. Each generation of young girls, consequently, continued to be trained in the pursuits of domesticity–despite the fact that their brothers had gone on to other sorts of enterprise.

And what was true of cooking was true of other household chores as well. As the nineteenth century wore on, in almost every aspect of household work, industrialization served to eliminate the work that men (and children) had once been assigned to do, while at the same time leaving the work of women either [p 64] untouched or even augmented. Factories made boots and shoes (this was one of the ten leading industries in the United States in 1860), so men no longer had to work in leather at home. Factories also made pottery and tin ware, so men no longer had to whittle. Piped household water (which was introduced in several eastern cities even before the Civil War and was fairly common in middle-class homes throughout the country by the end of the century) meant that children no longer had to be burdened with perpetual bucket carrying. The growth of the meat-packing industry, coupled with the introduction of refrigerated transport in the 1870s and 1880s, meant that men no longer spent much time in butchering. Virtually all of the stereotypically male household occupations were eliminated by technological and economic innovations during the nineteenth century, and many of those that had previously been allotted to children were gone as well.

But not so with the occupations of women. If the advent of manufactured cloth eliminated the need for women to spin (as well as for men to weave and children to card), it did not in the least affect the need for them to sew–and sewing was the part of clothing preparation which had always been exclusively female. Indeed, the advent of manufactured cloth seems to have been accompanied by an increase in the amount of clothing that people expected to own – and since ready-made clothing had not yet appeared on the scene, there was a radical increase in the amount of sewing that had to be done.” [63-64]

Manufactured cloth also served to augment women’s work by increasing the amount of household laundry that had to be done, laundry–like sewing–having been one of those tasks that had long been exclusively female. Prior to industrialization, much of the clothing that people wore was virtually unwashable: the woven woolen goods, the alpacas and felts and leathers of which outer clothing was made, were cleaned by brushing; and the linen of knitted wools of which underclothing was composed, although potentially washable, were in fact rarely laundered. When cotton replaced linen and wool as the most frequently utilized fabric, laundering increased; indeed one of cotton’s attractions as a fabric was that it could be washed fairly easily. This development was no doubt viewed as an improvement by many people, but there is no question that it altered the pattern of women’s household labor for the worse. In the diaries and letters of nineteenth-century women, laundering appears, for the first time, as a weekly–and a dreaded–chore. Since it was exceedingly hard work (what with the rubbing, wringing, toting, and ironing), children rarely became involved in it. Whether done by a female servant or by the housewife herself, laundry was a major component of women’s work in the nineteenth century–and arduous work at that.

Like clothmaking, some female chores disappeared during the century, but almost every one was replaced by other chores, equally time and energy consuming. Candlemaking became a lost art. In its place there were the glass globes of oil and the gas lamps from which soot had to be removed almost every day – a chore that housewives were advised not to assign either to children or to servants, since the globes could not survive rough handling. Waste-water systems (commonly known as ‘water closets’) eliminated the chore of collecting ‘slops’ but added the chore of cleaning toilets. Furthermore, in those cities in which the cleaning of outhouses and cesspools had been a commercial enterprise undertaken by men, the water closet privatized this work–and shifted it to women. Home canning equipment made it possible to preserve more fruits and vegetables for consumption during the winter but vastly increased the amount of work that women were expected to do when the season was “on.”

Small wonder, then, that so many people commented on the exhaustion and ill health of American women during the nineteenth-century. Industrialization had introduced many novelties to their homes and probably had, overall, improved their standard of living–but they still had a great deal of hard work to do. With the exception of the very poorest women, or those who were dwelling on the most primitive frontiers, American women living towards the end of the century probably ate a more varied diet, suffered less from the cold, enjoyed more space and more luxuries in their homes, and kept their bodies and their clothes cleaner than their mothers and grandmothers who had lived earlier. These improvements had not, however, lifted the burden of women’s domestic cares, in spite of radical changes in the patterns of daily work at home. The processes of housework had changed in such a way that adult males and small children of both sexes were no longer needed to do domestic labor: wood did not have to be chopped, nor water carried, nor grain hauled to the mill. Men and children could be spared, to the schools, to the factories, to the offices of the burgeoning industrial economy. Adult women and their grown daughters, on the other hand, could not be spared: meals still had to be cooked; sick children had to be tended; infants to be nursed; clothes to be made, mended, and laundered–and industrialization had done nothing at all to ease the burden of those particular chores.

Industrialization, at least in these its earlier phases, had in fact created the material conditions under which the doctrine of separate [p. 67] spheres–could take root and flourish. Merchant flour, cast-iron stoves, municipal water, and manufactured boots had made it possible for men to work at wage labor without endangering (indeed, with some chance of improving) the standard of living of their families. As time wore on, the need to pay cash for flour, or for coal, or for any of the other commodities that were so swiftly appearing on the market, ensured that, once having entered the market for wage labor, men would stay there. Once that had happened, they ceased to train their sons in the multitudinous crafts that had been the heritage of men’s work at home–preparing fuel, mending ironware, working in leather, building fireplaces, making cider, butchering pigs–and then the process was complete. A new generation of men came into adulthood having learned the skills needed to work for wages, not the skills needed to work at home. For these men the doctrine of separate spheres served to make sense of the new patterns by which they were living, and it was this new pattern of living and thinking that they taught to their sons.

For women the transition to the industrial order was different. Merchant flour, cast-iron stoves, municipal water, and manufactured boots did not free them from their labors. Insofar as these commodities allowed men and boys to leave their homes, and insofar as these commodities also created new jobs that only women could perform, women were tied even more strongly than they had been before to their cast-iron hearths. Angel food cakes, strawberry preserves, clean clothes, ironed ruffles, and leavened bread may have made life easier and pleasanter for their families, but they also kept women working at home.” p. 65-67

With regard to the idea of “separate spheres” (i.e., the wife’s work is inside the home, while the husband’s work is outside the home), Cowan traces two stages that occurred. The first stage occurred in the 19th century when household technology altered the nature of household work to allow the notion of “separate spheres” for men and women to develop. The twentieth century saw the second stage in which advertisers, inventors, entrepreneurs and consumers simply assumed the notion of separate spheres as normal. The invention of the automobile added a new dynamic to this, bringing with it the expectation that the burden of connecting the household to services and merchants should rest not with the merchant or service-provider, but with the housewife.

During the nineteenth century, many household goods and services were delivered virtually to the doorsteps of the people who had purchased them – and many others were offered for sale in retail establishments located a short walk from the houses in which people lived. Peddlers carried pots and pans, linens, and medicines to farmhouses [p. 80] and to houses and to the halls and stairways of urban tenements. Seamstresses almost always came to the homes of the women and children for whom they were fashioning clothing; and tailors occasionally provided the same service for men. Milk, ice, and coal were regularly delivered directly to the kitchens and basements of middle-class urban dwellers and not infrequently also into the homes (or at least to the curbsides) of those who were poor. Butchers, greengrocers, coffee merchants, and bakers employed delivery boys to take orders from and then carry purchases back to the homes of their more prosperous customers. Smoked, dried, and pickled fish, fruits and vegetables, second-hand clothing, and linens were routinely sold from pushcarts that lined the curbs and traveled the back alleys of poor neighborhoods. Knife sharpeners traveled the streets with flintstones and grindstones on their back or in their carts, and frequently so did the men who repaired shoes and other leathergoods. Bakeries and grocery stores were located in every city neighborhood, so that housewives, children, and servants could “run out” for extra supplies whenever they were needed. Even doctors made house calls. Under ordinary circumstances the individual urban householder, whether rich or poor, rarely had to travel far from his or her own doorstep in order to have access to the goods and services required for sustenance. For rural householders such convenience was not feasible; what shopping there was to be done in rural areas usually waited for the weekly, monthly, or even, in some cases, the annual trip into town or arrival of the peddler.

In the latter decades of the nineteenth-century and the early twentieth-century, this pattern of shopping began to change. Department stores started going up in urban areas. The automobile brought with it the expectation that the burden for connecting householders with services should rest with the housewife and not with the person providing the service. Coming as it did after technology had already served to entrench the doctrine of separate spheres, it was natural that driving would be seen to be woman’s work. The Great Depression also played a part in solidifying this growing trend, since the merchants and service-providers who still did travel to the household could no longer afford to do so and still compete with the bigger centralized businesses and chain stores. “Interestingly enough,” she writes, “when the automobile began to replace feet and horses as the prime mode of transportation, women began to replace men as household suppliers of the service.” Cowan continues:

As the nation shifted from an economy dominated by the horse to an economy dominated by the automobile – and as the Depression created stiff competition among retailers for shares of a declining market – delivery services of all kinds began to disappear. The owners of grocery shops and butcher’s markets began to fire their delivery boys in an effort to lower prices and thus more effectively to compete with the chain stores and supermarkets which were cropping up throughout the land. Some of the chain stores began to eliminate these services as the Depression deepened. After the Second World War, mail-order companies such as Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward discovered they could compete effectively with department stores by opening retail outlets of their own, thus converting their mail-order customers into shoppers. Department stores discovered that many of their customers had moved out of the central city neighborhoods and so opened suburban branches – which were accessible only by car. Physicians discovered that they could stop making house calls and require that all ambulatory; patients (in itself an ironic euphemism) be brought to their offices – without losing a significant number of patients. [p. 84]

These various individual and corporate decisions were spread out over two decades, but they all conspired in the same direction – to shift the burden of providing transportation services from the seller to the buyer. By the end of the 1930s, the general notion that businesses could offer lower prices by cutting back on services to customers was ingrained in the pattern of business relations. The growth of suburban communities in the postwar years did little to alter that pattern: as more and more businesses converted to the “self-service” concept, more and more households became dependent upon “herself” to provide the service.

By midcentury the time that housewives had once spent in preserving strawberries and stitching petticoats was being spent in driving to stores, shopping, and waiting in lines; and the energy that had once gone into bedside care of the sick was now diverted into driving a feverish child to the doctor, or racing to the railroad station to pick up a relative, or taking the baseball team to the next town for a game. The automobile had become, to the American housewife of the middle classes, what the cast-iron stove in the kitchen would have been to her counterpart of 1850 – the vehicle through which she did much of her most significant work, and the work locale where she could most often be found.” [p. 85]

Advertisers played a role in this process, working hard to connect cars with women in the popular imagination. Cowan quotes a poem that Rudolf E Anderston cited in The Story of the American Automobile (1950 on p. 198) that first appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly in 1907

Like the breeze in its flight, or the passage of light,
Or swift as the fall of a star.
She comes and she goes in a nimbus of dust
A goddess enthrone on a car.
The maid of the motor, behold her erect
With muscles as steady as steel.
Her hand on the level and always in front
The girl in the automobile.

During the 1920s, the prices of washing machines, sewing machines and vacuum cleaners fell, so that they were no longer a luxury reserved for rich people, but tools that were accessible for almost everyone to enjoy. Since this meant that standards of cleanliness increased, the time-saving value of these devices was neutralized. Women’s work became easier, but now there was more of it. Also, there was less help. Domestic servants became unnecessary; laundresses had been the most numerous of specialized houseservants, but after the washing machine women were expected to do all the washing themselves. Meanwhile, men and children continued to spend most of their time outside the home, leaving wives isolated in their suburban houses.

“By the 1920s and 1930s, most men were employed (when employment was available) outside their homes, and most children spent most of their youth in school.”

“…as we all know, standards of personal and household cleanliness have increased markedly during the twentieth century (sheets, underclothes, table linens are changed more frequently; floors, carpets, fixtures are kept freer of dust and grime); or – to put it somewhat more accurately – more people are becoming accustomed to living at standards of cleanliness that were once possible only for the rich.”

“Household appliances eliminate some labor but create other labor, and it is significant that the labor they often eliminated were the steps that had traditionally involved children and men. The oven or stove is a good example of this….

See Also

“Consider for a moment the three parts of the work process of cooking which are directly connected to the appliance that we call a stove: fuel must be supplied, pots must be trended, and, subsequently, the appliance must be cleaned. Modernization of the fuel-supply systems for stoves eliminated only one of those steps, the first; and that was the step which, in the coal and wood economy, was most likely to be assigned to the men and boys in the family….

“The advent of the electrically powered washing machines (as well as of synthetic washable fabrics) coincided with the advent of ‘do-it-yourself’ laundry, so that the woman endowed with a Bendix would have found it easier to do her laundry but, simultaneously, would have done more laundry, and more of it herself, than either her mother or her grandmother had.” p. 98

“Some of the work that was eliminated by modernization was work that men and children – not women – had previously done: carrying coal, carrying water, chopping wood, removing ashes, stoking furnaces, cleaning lamps, beating rugs. Some of the work was made easier, but [p. 99] its volume increased: sheets and underwear were changed more frequently, so there was more laundry to be done; diets became more varied, so cooking was more complex; houses grew larger so there were more surfaces to be cleaned….Finally some of the work that had previously been allocated to commercial agencies actually returned to the domain of the housewife – laundry, rug cleaning, drapery cleaning, floor polishing – as new appliances were invented to make the work feasible for the average housewife, and the costs of labor (all labor, that is , except the labor of the housewife) continued to escalate in the postwar years.”

“…modern technology enabled the American housewife of 1950 to produce singlehandedly what her counterpart of 1850 needed a staff of three or four to produce: a middle-class standard of health and cleanliness for herself, her spouse, and her children.”

Understanding these ironies enables us to refute two common myths about technology in the 20th-century household. The first myth is that significant production no longer occurs in the household; the second is that housewives have been freed from time-consuming labor.

“Our commonly received notions about the impact of twentieth-century household technology have thus deceived us on two crucial grounds. They have led us to believe that households no long produce anything important, and that, consequently, housewives no longer have anything particularly time consuming to do. Both notions are false, deriving from an incomplete understanding of the nature of these particular technological changes. Modern labor-saving devices eliminated drudgery, not labor. Households are the locales in which our society produces healthy people, and housewives are the workers who are responsible for almost all of the stages in that production process. Before industrialization, women fed, clothed, and nursed their families by preparing (with the help of their husbands and children) food, clothing, and medication. In the post-industrial age, women feed, clothe, and nurse their families (without much direct assistance from anyone else) by cooking, cleaning, driving, shopping, and waiting. The nature of the work has changed, but the goal is still there and so is the necessity for time-consuming labor.”

Cowan has a fascinating chapter on technological systems that might have saved women labor but were never adopted, or adopted briefly and then abandoned. The resulting irony is that the twentieth-century housewife would feel forever inadequate and always behind (because judged in comparison to others).

“…when women ask themselves whether they are successful as housewives, they frequently mean, ‘Am I successful when compared to someone else – to my mother, my grandmother, my neighbors, to women who are richer or poorer, smarter or dumber than I am.’ [p. 152]

In the early decades of the twentieth-century, it was considered not quite decent for a housewife to have to undertake household chores all by herself; by contrast, in the interwar period, advertisers perpetuated the notion that it wasn’t quit decent if a woman could not keep up with the housework by herself.

‘Really doing it yourself’ had once been considered demeaning, but attitudes were changing. In the early decades of the century, women’s magazines had repeatedly offered advice to hosuewives who were, for one unfortunate reason or another, coping with their homes singlehanded, but the emphasis in those articles had been on the word unfortunate. The housewife was told, for example, that if help was scarce, it was easiest to serve children the same food that adults were eating, although clearly it would be better for the former’s digestion and your temperament if they ate with a nursemaid in the nursery; with luck, the servant shortage would soon pass. ‘Decent’ housewives were never depicted, in those years, as doing the heavy work of their households themselves; when instructions for proper laundry work or sanitary cleaning were proffered, a telltale ‘instruct your laundress’ or ‘see that your maid’ would always slip through. In the years after the First World War, as advertisements for refrigerators, washing machines, and vacuum cleaners replaced those for iceboxes, laundry tubs, and brooms, servants disappeared from the advertisements – to be replaced by housewives, neatly manicured and elegantly coiffured, but housewives nonetheless. In those same years, the language used in the nonfiction material in women’s magazines also underwent a subtle change, coming to imply that housework was to be through of no longer as a chore but,rather, as an expression of the housewife’s personality and her affection for her family. Laundering had once been just a task to be finished as quickly as possible; now it was an expression of love. The new bride could speak her affection by washing tattle-tale gray out of her husband’s shirts. Feeding the family had once been just part of a day’s work; now it was a way to communicate deep-seated emotions….

The servantless household may have been an economic necessity for some people in the 1920s and the 1930s; but, for the first time, that necessity was widely regarded, at least in the public press, as a potential virtue. And whether or not she regarded it as a virtue, the average comfortable housewife of this generation learned to organize the work in her household without the assistance of servants or with far fewer hours of assistance than her mother had had. Where a servant had been replaced by a vacuum cleaner, the comfortable housewife was spending more time than her mother had spent getting the floors and the rugs into shape; where a laundress had been replaced by a washing machine or a deliveryman by the household automobile, a housewife was spending time and energy on chores that, in her mother’s day, had been performed by other people. No matter how a household chose to slice the cake of available resources in the interwar years, every decision to ‘do it yourself’ was a decision to increase the time that the housewife would spend at her work. In households that were prosperous, the labor saved by laborsaving devices was that not of the housewife but of her helpers. This is the most salient reason that every time-study of affluent housewives during these years (and many such studies were done, as these were the years in which home economists, like so many other Americans, were fascinated by ‘efficiency studies’) revealed that no matter how many appliances they owned or how many conveniences were at their command, they were still spending roughly the same number of hours per week at housework as their mothers had.  [p. 176-178]

These same ironies continued in the postwar years, with the paradox that more wealth brought more work, in particular more work for mother:

The social seeds planted during the 1920s and the 1930s came to fruition in teh decades following the end of the Second World War, but with an ironic twist that no one had anticipated. The diffusion of affluence in the postwar years was accompanied by both the diffusion of appliances and the disappearance of servants. As a result, women who had been in comfortable circumstances before the war (and their children and grandchildren) were under increasing pressure (both economic and ideological) to shoulder the burden of housework alone; and women in families that were economically disadvantaged before the war (and their children and grandchildren) were ever more  able to provide themselves and their families with basic amenities that their mothers could not have attained. The spread of affluence and the diffusion of amenities was accompanied not, as earlier commentators guessed, by an increase in leisure for housewives of both classes, but, rather, by increases in the amount of work that some housewives had to do, and in the level of productivity that others were able to achieve. In the first postwar generation, some women found that they were working harder inside their homes than their mothers had worked, because they employed fewer servant-hours than their mothers had employed; other women found that they were working just as hard as their mothers, but were achieving greater results. As time wore on, their daughters, members of the second postwar generation, discovered that they were working even longer hours than their mothers had worked, because of the double burden of housework and outside employment. Either way, the end result of the long historical process that began when the shooting stopped in 1945, has been more work for mother. [192-193]

“Similarly, the extension of schooling for those who are young, the proliferation of school-related activities, and the availability of jobs for those who have finished their schooling has led to the disappearance of even those helpers upon whom the poverty-stricken housewife had once been able to depend…. Thus, there is more work for a mother to do in a modern home because there is no one left to help her with it.  Almost all of the work that once stereotypically fell to men has been mechanized. Families tend to live a considerable distance from the place where the male head of the household is employed; hence, men leave home early in the morning and return, frequently exhausted, late at night. Children spend long hours in school and,. when school is over, have ‘after-school activities,’ which someone must supervise and from which they must be transported. Older children move away from home as soon as they reasonable can, going off to college or to work. No one delivers anything (except bills and advertisements) to the door any longer, or at least not at prices that most people can afford; and domestic workers now earn salaries that have priced them out of the reach of all but the most affluent households. The advent of washing machines and dishwashers has eliminated the chores that men and children used to do as well as the accessory workers who once were willing and able to assist with the work. The end result is that, although the work is more productive (more services performed, and more goods are produced, for every hour of work) and less laborious than it used to be, for most housewives it is just as time consuming and just as demanding.”  [p. 197 &; 201]

These paradoxes persist to the present day. In his book The Big Switch, Nicholas Carr cites studies showing that whatever benefits technology may have brought to housewives, saving time is not one of the benefits:

The Big SwitchA series of studies of the time women devoted to housework back up Cowan’s observations. Research undertaken between 1912 and 19114, before the widespread adoption of electric appliances, found that the average woman spent 56 hours a week on housework. Similar studies undertaken in 1925 and 1931, after electric appliances had become common, found that they were still spending between 60 and 60 hours a week on domestic chores. A 1965 study again found little change – women were spending on average 54.5 hours per week on housework. A more recent study, published in 2006 by the National Bureau of Economic Research, also found that the hours housewives devoted to domestic work remained steady, at between 51 and 56 a week, in every decade from the 1910s through the 1960s.

Back to Cowan. At the end of her book she gives a very interesting summary of the implications of household technologies. The entire section would be too long to cite. Within this section she offers some musings on the way forward for the housewife who wishes to resist the expectations generated by technology. Her specific examples might be disputed, but the discussion is certainly worth having:

Still, while enjoying the benefits that these technological systems provide, we need not succumb entirely to the work processes that they seem to have ordained for us. If we regard these processes as unsatisfactory, we can begin to extricate ourselves from them not by destroying the technological systems with which they are associated but by revising the unwritten rules that govern the systems. Some of these rules – to change our sheets once a week and keep our sinks spotless and greaseless, to wipe the table after every meal, to flush the toilet, brush our teeth, change our clothes and wash our hair, to give music lessons to our children and keep our dirty linen literally and figuratively to ourselves – generate more housework than may really be necessary. These rules were passed down to us by members of an earlier generation (our parents) and sprang from fear of the deprivations that poverty engenders and from a desire either to rise above those deprivations or to stave them off. Now that profound poverty has ceased to be an imminent threat for most of us, the time has surely come to re-evaluate the amount of time that we spend maintaining the symbols of our status…

“We can best solve the problems that beset many working wives and their families not by returning to the way things used to be (since that is probably impossible and, in view of the ways things really used to be, hardly attractive), not by destroying the technological systems that have provided many benefits (and that much of the rest of the world is trying, for fairly good reasons, to emulate), and not by calling for the death of the family as a social institution (a call that the vast majority of people are unlikely to heed)-but by helping the next generation (and ourselves) to neutralize both the sexual connotation of washing machines and vacuum cleanings and the senseless tyranny of spotless shirts and immaculate floors.” [p. 214 & 216]

Further Reading

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