The period between 1900 and 1930 showed a marked change in the way that household labor was organized and performed, especially among urban families. The changes were threefold: improvement in municipal sanitation, water supply, and heat and light; changes in domestic technology, including the introduction of household appliances such as the refrigerator, the washing machine, and electric or gas stoves; and the decline of live-in domestic servants among the middle class, which increased the domestic work of women. Food provision and preparation already had changed with the increasing use of commercial bakeries, the widespread production and use of canned goods, chain grocery stores, and electrical appliances for the preparation of food. Ready-made clothing began to be more widely available in the 1880s, especially for men; by 1900, new styles of dress, including the introduction of the shirtwaist and the increased availability of children’s clothing, reduced the amount of sewing done in the home. The purchasing of groceries, clothing, and household items further changed as chain food and department stores and new forms of urban and suburban transport, including the automobile, made possible the use of downtown shopping districts and centralized stores rather than neighborhood shops. These changes also shifted the burden of obtaining household goods almost entirely to women.
Improvements in access to and quality of public utilities changed the daily routine of urban women doing household work. Fetching water from public pumps, long a major and dreaded chore for women and children, was no longer necessary in an era of running tap water and water closets. Indoor plumbing throughout the house, including heated water, however, led to a demand for cleaner kitchens and bathrooms. Gas and then electric lighting became widespread in urban areas; so, too, did oil and gas furnaces for heating and gas ranges for food preparation. By 1930, nearly 50 percent of households did their cooking with
From a young age girls were trained for the housework that was expected of them when they matured. (Library of Congress)
Gas. The price of electric energy and appliances dropped significantly, so that more than one-third of all residences were wired for electricity by 1920. During the ensuing decade, electric washing machines, vacuum cleaners, sewing machines, and reliable refrigerators became cheaper and more available. Electric toasters, cake mixers, irons, and food grinders were more popular. Among rural households there were fewer changes, especially due to the lack of a rural electrical supply. It would not be until the 1930s that farmsteads saw the widespread adoption of household appliances and indoor plumbing.
The overall impact of these developments was to alter the division of labor within the household and shift the burden even more heavily onto women. Indoor plumbing and gas stoves removed the need to fetch water and chop wood or shovel coal, but these tasks had normally been shared among household members. In contrast, the addition of new appliances for cooking and cleaning, such as the power vacuum and the partially mechanized washing machine, caused household work to multiply. Heightened standards of cleanliness, abetted by fears of infection and enhanced by the hard sell of advertising, steadily increased the number of meals cooked, clothes washed, and rooms cleaned.
Further, child care remained the responsibility of women in the household, even as children spent less time at home. Public education, including new kindergarten programs and compulsory schooling laws, removed children from the care of their parents and siblings for long hours, and new high schools offered adolescents extended schooling and time outside the family. These changes meant that older children were no longer available to supervise younger siblings. Further, new forms of recreation, especially those designed for youth, and continued patterns of employment among young adults meant less help with household chores. At the same time, there were increased expectations for women within motherhood. Hysteria about the new sexual behavior of Jazz Age youth gave rise to the criticism that the New Woman was a poor parent. Spending time with younger children, and devoting increased time to keeping a clean and well-regulated household, increased women’s household labor and lengthened their domestic work day.
See also MARRIAGE AND FAMILY LIFE.
Further reading: Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technologies from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (New York: Basic Books, 1983); Susan Strasser, Never Done: A History of American Housework (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982).
Work, wage See labor and labor movement.