Thursday, March 13, 2008

More Work for Mother 8 -- 1890-1920: The Impoverished Other Half

A tenement mother with her children and her hard-labored wash. As if to emphasize the precariousness of life for the "other half," note the child standing up over the rail.

This is the eighth 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 other poorer half was by all accounts considerably larger than 50 percent of the population in the last decade of the 19th century. "The matriarch of the hard-press family might have lived in a tenement in a large urban area, a dilapidated frame house in a small city, a row house in a company town, a collapsing farmhouse on a small plot of land, or even a log cabin. She shared this dwelling with her husband (if he had neither died nor deserted), a fairly large number of children, and perhaps an in-law, or a cousin who was lodging with her until finding a job and a spouse; or boarders whose rent helped to make ends meet; or an orphaned niece or nephew." For the impoverished half, whatever his labor, the income of the man of the house is not sufficient to meet the family's bare necessities and therefore the mother had to supplement the income with either "hard labor in the fields, piecework, laundry, or boarders at home, domestic service or drudgery in the factories."

Photo of a New York City tenement at the turn of the century taken by Lewis Hine. No room for people or things, no way to keep clean.

For these working women, it was almost impossible to keep their homes clean and orderly. Quarters were cramped, an entire family or more living in a single room or at most four rooms. Beds were shared; privacy was nonexistent in such homes. There was little if any storage space and therefore "everything that was needed for living and for working was out in th eoen nearly all the time: the pots and pans jostled with the sewing machine, the clothing jostled with the broom, the table was rarely cleared (where else would the utensils be put?) the toys (such as they were) mingled with the shoes (such as they were),... Beds became chairs, and sometimes doors became beds; one table might be used for preparing food, for eating it, for stitching garments, or gluing artificial flowers, or butchering a chicken. The towel with which people wiped their hands might wipe a baby's bottom or the floor or the table or the pots." [I think the opening scenes of the movie Angela's Ashes, which take place in New York, give a good sense of the squalor of such houses and the difficulties in maintaining them.]

Wash as a symbol that things are improving.

Water had to be brought in from outside. Very few homes of the "other half" had bathrooms.Fuel was scarce. In the cities, hours were spent, usually by the mother and children, in scouring the streets for coal and hauling it home. Such families lived on one-pot meals--gruels, soups, stews--bread, macaroni, and oatmeal. "Malnutrition was found everywhere." Infant mortality was very high among this 50%+ of households. Aside from her work bringing in money, the mother had no amenities in helping her to do her own household work, especially the laundry. Often tenements did not even contain sinks. "Some women have a feeling that cleanliness is a condition only for hte rich," Schwartz quotes one home economist of the time remarking. Even so, from the point that they arrived on Ellis Island, immigrants were advised continually to maintain cleanliness. "Housewives were struggling to do laundry and to provide facilities for bathing. In this context, the laundry that hung from many tenement windows was more than just laundry; it was a signal and symbol that the housewife had found time to do the laundry, and that fact might well have meant that the fortunes and the prospects of the family were improving."

A cotton mill worker. The mortality rate for married women mill workers was three times higher than that of unmarried women.

"The housewife of the poorer classes was truly overburdened." She not only had to perform her own household chores under extremely difficult circumstances but at least 25% of married women among these classes worked in factories and far more women worked as laundresses, maids, and other such occupations, or did piecework in their homes. While engaged in outside work, most of these women had no money to hire someone to take care of their children. Children were watched by a combination of neighbors, older children, and relatives, or left to their own devices. Therefore, her working caused a serious threat to the children of the family and also to her own health. In Fall River, Massachusetts, for instance, the mortality rate for married women millworkers was three times higher than for single women mill workers, and four times higher than that for married women who did not work in the mills.

A family does piecework in their home. Most married women had to supplement the family income in some way as a matter of survival--despite the fact that their housing still lacked the amenities technology had achieved for the middle-class home.

Next: More Work for Mother -- 1920 to Now

Other posts in this series:
More Work for Mother 7 -- 1890-1920: The Golden Age for the Half the Country's Women
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?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Linda,
What you describe is still within the living memory of most members of the Baby Boomer generation whose grandparents immigrated to the United States at or around the turn of the century, and who married and raised the World War II generation in the conditions of the urban tenement. I hope that this part of American history, and the struggle of many families to make their way up the economic ladder to improve their lot in life, is somehow preserved and passed down the Generation X and the so-called millennials, who probably cannot imagine the workload assumed by their great-grandmothers and even their grandmothers.