Wednesday, March 12, 2008

More Work for Mother 7 -- 1890-1920: The Golden Age for Half the Country's Women

A middle-class lady of the late 19th century reads the newspaper in the afternoon in leisure time afforded to her through the combination of technology and hired help.

This is the seventh 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.

Please feel free to comment with corrections or musings or more information. See More Work for Mother 4 -- Enter the Stove for some very interesting comments.

The years of 1890 to 1920 or the end of World War I marked the golden age for women who had achieved married middle-class status. In their case, the combination of technology's bringing amenities AND the help of hired servants--either permanently in the home or for jobs such as laundry, ironing, heavy cleaning, serving, or cooking--gave women the most leisure they have ever had--before or since. In this period the middle-class standard for the home was set: "Her home was capacious, orderly, and clean. All the members of the family wore clothing that fitted properly, and they changed it with some frequency. Meals were served at set times, on clean plates; and the diet was varied enough to keep everyone reasonably healthy. Children of this class had acquired the rudiments of education even before they entered school, and their progress in school was carefully monitored."

This was a time when women had the leisure to guide their pre-school children in learning. Today, many working mothers trade their leisure time for "quality time" with their children, or their children are shorted, since relaxed time with a child is nearly impossible during the harried work week.

In the rest of this quote, Schwartz describes what I think many who want to be homemakers feel would like to live, essentially as homemakers but with the time and freedom to pursue outside interests and the flexibility to withdraw from outside activities when the family's needs require:
"...mother had other interests and enough time to indulge them (especially after the children had passed infancy); but these interests were of such a nature that when some member of the household was ill, the wife and mother could easily drop her other responsibilities to undertake the nursing that was required, and in those years it could well have been required for weeks on end. When funds were short, this comfortably situated housewife had various means to augment the family purse, but her activities did not threaten either the family's health or its level of comfort. She was, as she might have said at the time, not only 'decent' but also the mainstay of 'decency' in her community [see Miss Mattie Lou: A Follower of Christ] though she might have had difficulty in defining precisely what 'decency' was."

A large row house in Philadelphia, representative of a Victorian home in a formerly upscale neighborhood. Such a house--which I once lived in with friends in my college years--has seven bedrooms, including smaller bedrooms for maids, sleeping porches, a large "country" kitchen, pantry, and spacious downstairs rooms that can handle large parties. It is too large for one person to take care of without help.

[In addition, urbanized middle-class women who enjoyed this standard of living and additional time lived in towns in which, through neighbors, surrounding family, and church, they were integrally involved in community life. Or they lived in the large homes that we can still see in our cities--today mostly cut up into apartments and often situated in the impoverished inner city. They did not live in suburban isolation but in very close proximity to neighbors. It was in this period that women became especially active in cultural affairs and in extended themselves to those less fortunate than themselves. Such women also became a driving force in the movement for social reform. They were also available to help their extended families when need be. Their "decency"--as Schwartz calls it--AND their availability formed the social glue that kept families, including extended families, and communities together.]

Next: 1890-1920: The Impoverished Other Half

Other posts in this series:
More Work for Mother 6 -- 20th Century Pluses and Minuses
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?

No comments: