Nothing is more fascinating than a paradox. Why have women, supposedly greatly aided by the development of labor saving technology, continued to suffer from a tremendous domestic burden in housework? Why have their hours stayed roughly the same despite the addition of electricity, vacuum cleaners, dish washers, gas stoves, central heating, cars, and store-bought groceries? And why has the role of the housewife persisted so stubbornly in its individualism and unpaid, almost pre-industrial labor organization, compared to the rest of society which has undergone a massive process of concentration, commercialization, and formalization? Ruth Cowan’s exploration of these and other quests in More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave helps to spark a real fascination for the subject of housework, its history, and how it has been peculiarly affected by the technological transformations which have shook society.
There are many excellent parts of the book. One of the best of these is its great treatment, quantitatively when it becomes possible in the early 20th century, of the amount of time spent by housewives on their housework. This shows conclusively that it has tended to vary around 50 hours or so per week, with the proliferation of labor-saving devices only serving to replace the domestic servants previously used and to increase the amount of housework done by the housewife herself. The effect of this has been to enable the creation of smaller households, and for the standards of cleanliness and salubrity to rise dramatically, but to not actually ease the burden upon the female head of the household. And often labor-saving devices, in what is probably her key point, have not actually saved female labor time: rather they have saved the male labor time and enabled their role to be removed from the equation, shifting a household from a mutual supporting organization of sexually defined work into one of male public work and female private work. Carlton shows this with the transformation of the hearth to the stove, which saved men much time in removing their requirements for cutting wood for it, but which did not transform women’s time devoted to it - and in the 19th century, actually increased it.
The qualitative aspect is also fascinating. There is a very good description of the styles and nature of housework over time, be it in the pre-industrial era on an independent farming household, the early 20th century with both the poor and the well-off, and the state of a housewife at the end of the 20th century. Be it in the discussion of the hard labor of life on a farm, the dismal existence of the poor in their crowded and dirty tenement buildings, the increasing individual attention and perfectionism displayed in upper class homes, or the dispassionate, impartial, but hauntingly recognizable routine of a housewife close to today, it sparks an interest to inquire to older family members when certain things changed. When did the endless hours of ironing clothes, seemingly alien to the life of an average, exceedingly casual Californian, disappear, or how many hours does one think that one’s parents might have spent on housework compared to one’s grandparents?
Perhaps the most intriguing argument advanced is rather anthropological in nature: that there is nothing inevitable about the structures of housework and work that we have adopted. Different types could have come to be: there were projects for apartment hotels, with joint dining rooms, for cooked food delivery service (and here we seem to have seen a renaissance of this early 20th century suggestion with the dramatic growth of UberEats or DoorDash!), central vacuum cleaners, and the laundry mat, which all saw some degree of usage - the laundry mat particularly, since it saw real and widespread implementation and seemed to be well on the way to replacing home laundry until its steam was (literally) robbed by the electric washer-dryer. There is no reason to assume that dining halls, laundromats, grocery delivery (as was very common in the 19th century), gas rather than electric refrigerators, and a whole host of other developments could not have dramatically circumscribed and reduced the role of the housewife, transforming many private and domestic functions into public and commercialized ones - but they did not. Rather, the division of work into private and public sphere emerged the unchallenged victory. Of course, women almost regardless of social position work in full time, paid employment at almost the same rate as men these days. The stay-at-home housewife from the past is mostly gone. Cowan combines this with the rest of her argument to show that the proliferation of labor saving devices didn’t free up female time to the extent that they were bored and with too much spare time on their hands, but rather that women were drawn to employment out of an interest in the monetary rewards to secure the new necessities of life, the hosts of appliances and consumer goods, the new standard of living that was expected in America. The proliferation of labor saving devices rather ensured that this was just supportable enough, instead of completely impossible like before.
The question of what an alternative path might have been is one which is fascinating and somewhat unexplored in the book, as to what degree some of Carlton’s examples of alternative organizations of housework actually did come into lasting usage elsewhere. The socialist states did their militant best to attempt to do away with the family, with the Soviet Union’s communal apartments, kommunalka, being the most visible of this. Did the other advanced capitalist states other than the United States show any pronounced differences, such as European cities which have tended to maintain higher urbanization as compared to suburbanization rates and a larger number of small tradition stores as opposed to American-style supermarkets, which notably impacted the regime of a housewife? Although in Europe the vast majority of shopping is done in supermarkets these days, even if the bakery might offer a pleasant snack at lunchtime…. If there is ever a new edition published, investigating whether the rise of the app and gig economy has seen any real alteration, as there is a return to the late 19th century delivery economy. Certainly, for the first time, before the 2019 onwards pandemic, an important milestone of more food purchases being made in the form of restaurants, and delivery than home cooked meals has been reached.
A splendid book to examine the question of how household work changed over the past centuries, the emergence of private and public spheres of labor, and which examines how things could have been different if a different system of technological and social production was adopted. Well worth the read and a genuine classic of domestic history.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.