Sunday, March 9, 2008

More Work for Mother 6 -- 20th Century Pluses and Minuses

This is the sixth 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.

In surveying the changes in household work in the 20th century, Schwartz examines six technological systems and shows whether the woman of the house enjoyed a net decrease in work as a result of these advances. Surveyed are the systems for food, clothing, health care, transportation, water, and energy utilities. In summary:

Grow and can your own--not any more for most households. Food processing has saved time and increased quantity and variety but decreased quality.

Food--The rise of the food processing industry created a net decrease in the amount of work performed by women in the home, although as we are constantly lamenting, easy-to-prepare food on the table has increased on the table, but quality has decreased.

Clothing--The mass production of clothing shifted time spent making clothes to time spent shopping for them, but there was a net decrease in the amount of time women had to spend to clothe their family.

Health Care--Before the changes in this industry in the 20th century, women nursed the sick; prepared medicines and may have grown their own medicinal plants; and took care of the dead. Many of these tasks were shifted out of the home onto hospitals, professional nurses, and funeral homes. This was a net decrease in work for women in the home. [Sickness, however, today poses a big problem for the working mother, since the child needs to be stayed with and/or taken to the doctor, which means one of the adults in the family must take time off to work. The degree of difficulty this poses to the parent varies with the workplace.]

Overall, industrialization and professionalization decreased the work of the mother in these three areas.

Transportation--The invention of the car created a lot of work for mother. [Society recognizes this with the term "soccer mom" to signify a mother who spends hours shuttling her children to practices and games.] In the 20th century, industry shifted the burden of delivery to the household, and that usually meant the lady of the family. [This process was worsened by the rush from the cities to the sprawl of the suburbs and the banishing of the local corner market and street vendors bringing fruits and vegetables to the door.] Gone is the egg man, the bread man, and the dairy man who brought necessities to the door at regular intervals. [And this at a time when women, by virtue of their entry into the workforce, need these deliveries more than ever.]

Water--The piping of water into the home through tap water and hot water heaters relieved the burden of fetching water from outside. However, the easy availability of water also raised standards of cleanliness. The replacement of the outhouse with bathrooms was more convenient for the family but added the burden of maintaining bathroom cleanliness, a burden that fell on the mother. At the turn of the century, higher standards of cleanliness became a symbol of status--since poorer families (that is, immigrants) did not yet have such ready access to water.

Modern appliances greatly reduced the work involved in doing the laundry and eliminated the laundress. Instead of sending out the dirty laundry, it now remained inside for mother.

Utilities--The electrification of the country allowed for the introduction of appliances of all kinds. Modernized heating and electrical appliances such as the stove and refrigerator eliminated work for mother. Women no longer had to scrape soot off the walls or clean oil lamps or polish up the cast iron stove every day. Laundry, once considered the most onerous task, became easy. However, laundry was one function that was often farmed out to the local laundress. Laundresses had been the most numerous type of household help. In this case, technological advance brought this function back into the home, but at a greatly increased level of productivity.

Schwartz summarizes the changes in the 20th century as follows: "What changed most markedly was the productivity of these workers: 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 ad cleanliness for herself, her spouse, and her children."

The Levittown kitchen. The modern housewife was far more efficient in her activities, but a lot of time heretofore spent in the home producing for the family did not go to increased leisure but to bearing the burden of shuttling children and goods in the car.

However, the shift to the automobile canceled out many of the potential benefits of the extra time that greater levels of efficiency should have brought. "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."

Next: Women's Heyday and Now

Other posts in this series:
More Work for Mother 5 -- 19th Century Pluses and Minuses
More Work for Mother 4 -- Enter the Stove
More Work for Mother 3 -- The Flour Revolution
More Work for Mother 2 -- Keeping House in Colonial America
More Work for Mother?

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