Monday, March 3, 2008

More Work for Mother 3 -- The Flour Revolution

A grist mill in West Virginia--the local grist mill became a thing of the past with the flour-milling industry.

This is the third installment of a report on More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Hearth to the Microwave by Ruth Cowan Schwartz. My comments are in brackets.

Industrialization processes changed the home through the course of the 19th century, but the first intrusion of an industrial process came with the flour revolution. Changes in the traditional grist mill occurred in the 1780s and halved the amount of labor to grind wheat and also made it possible to produce superfine (white) flour. Because of its long-lasting quality, the white flour was used for export to Britain and Europe, where grain production was disrupted by war. But when the Napoleonic Wars were over, this export market dried up. The white flour was in surplus at home. At about the same time, new canals greatly cheapened the cost of transportation. It was no longer worth it to grow wheat, rye, and corn at home and grind it there or at a local grist mill for the day's meals. By 1860, flour milling was the number-one American industry, more than twice the value of the cotton industry and three times the value of the iron and ore industry.

Within the home, this shift had definite impacts on the division of labor between the man and the woman. It was generally the man that took care of growing the wheat, rye, and corn and the man who took it to the mill for grinding. "The switch from home-grown to 'store-bought' grains relieved men and boys of one of the most time-consuming of the household chores of the household chores for which they had been responsible."

What about for the lady? Before the arrival of white flour, corn was the major grain and was easy to prepare in many different ways. It was quick and easy to leaven cornmeal and make it into bread. Women also baked salt-rising bread, which was relatively easy. White flour was reserved for cakes, which were few and far between in an ordinary household.

Martha Washington's Great Cake. Cakes were an unusual treat before the white flour revolution.

With the replacement of corn and whole grains with white flour, "yeast breads began to replace quick breads on the American table." The use of white flour for everyday also became a status symbol.... Quick breads were, in short, thought to be fit only for Negroes, Indians, and the Irish." [In the South, however, cornbread and many other foods from cornmeal, continued to be diet staples.] [I am always looking for the quick bread that tastes like a real yeast bread, because the quick bread is so much easier to make. I don't mean just the kneading, but the two risings, which require monitoring over hours.]

By 1840, cakes, which were rarely mentioned by travelers in the pre-white flour days, were noticeable to travelers to the United States. Making a cake also required a lot of work, since the sugar, which was sold in a loaf, had to be broken down and the eggs and everything else thoroughly beaten.

Schwartz concludes that "the 19th-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.... Housework was becoming truly 'women's work'--and not an obligation shared by both sexes."

As for white flour, the rest is history...

Next: Enter the Stove

Other posts in this series:
More Work for Mother 2 -- Keeping House in Colonial America
More Work for Mother?

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