Thursday, March 27, 2008

On a Happier Note

I made this dress for my lovely niece Maris for her 11th birthday. It's black and white with grey. The rick-rack edging helped the look a lot. Although this dress is not at all complicated, it took me quite a long time, most likely because I was very tentative about what I was doing since this is the first real clothing sewing project I have done in a very long time. I liked the result. My niece is quite petite, so I cut the dress pretty short. I liked the fabric a lot for her. I made it from the Simplicity 5234 pattern. Now my daughter wants me to make her a dress, and we have picked out the pattern but we haven't found a fabric yet.

Friday, March 21, 2008

And Where Are the Children?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2006 there were 73,664,000 million children in the United States (under 18). Who takes care of them?

49,661,000 live with both their parents or 67 percent
17,161,000 live with their mother only
3,458,000 live with their father only
3,383,000 live with neither parent. Of those:
772,000 live with a grandmother and grandfather
669,000 live with a grandmother only
63,000 live with a grandfather only

1,900,000 live with neither parents nor grandparents. I do not know how many of these children live in orphanages or in foster homes.

There are 10,404,000 households in which women are the single head of the household--that is, women head the household and have dependent children. Nearly a third of these had an annual income of under $10,000.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Stay at Home Moms: Not So Many

Painting by the beloved Swedish artist Carl Larsson of his wife Karin nursing one of their eight children. Karin Larsson was an artist in her own right but stopped painting when she married. However, she continued to design and weave textiles, such as the cloth on the table, in her lovely home, as she raised their children.

I was surprised to learn that the percentage of stay-at-home moms in the USA is not very high. In 2006, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were approximately 26.5 million married households in the United States with children under the age of 18. Of these married households, in only 7,923,000 the mother is not in the workforce--or 29.8 percent. That is, only 30 percent of married women with children stay at home to care for their younguns. (I do not know how the Census Bureau counts mothers who work out of their homes in all kinds of cottage industry or those who spend time helping their husbands in small businesses run from homes but I have a feeling they are included in the 7.9 million.)

This means that by far the greater number of the nation's children are living with a mother who is in the labor force--either a mother who is married and working or a single mother who is working or a mother who is working and living with a man to whom she is not married. Surely the proportions of mothers in the labor force must be far higher for unmarried women with children.

I find this to be an unfortunate statistic, and hopefully the percentage of stay at home mothers will grow over the course of the next years.

I recently asked my daughter, who is now 18, how she would feel if she were married and had children and stayed at home with them, and then went to a cocktail party or some-such function in which people were talking about their careers, and she were asked, "And what do you do?" Would she be embarrassed to say, "Oh, I take care of my kids at home"? She said, "No, why would I feel embarrassed?"

That was good news to me. I pressed her to make sure she meant it. I told her that even though I think it is far better for women to stay at home with their children, I would feel ashamed to say it in front of a group of people who were all talking about their careers. This shame is completely counter to my views about staying at home with children and counter to what I even would have liked have done in my life but did not do for reasons that need no elaboration. Such shame comes purely from counterculture conditioning over the period of the 1970s and 1980s. That's bad news about me, but it is good news to see that my daughter has no such feelings. I hope that her views are the wave of the future and not my own residual feelings.

I would like to know what other people think of the advantages of staying at home with children and also the disadvantages and difficulties. I would like to make a kind of list of these, but I would like to hear from other people first. So please don't hesitate to let me know what you think. Very much obliged in advance.

P.S. There are so many wonderful blogs written by stay at home mothers and I hope they are both inspiring and known to young women with children who are making decisions about whether to work or not.

Friday, March 14, 2008

More Work for Mother 9 -- 1920 to Now

The magazine Working Mother--a reflection of where mothers are today.

This is the ninth and final 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 sum:
1920-1940: The Golden Age of the homemaker was over. First off, most middle and upper middle class women ceased to have servants. Brakes on immigration dried up this labor force, and hired help became more expensive. The lady of the house was for the first time doing all the housework or nearly all of it alone--without substantial help from the rest of her family or from hired help. One result of this change was the move toward smaller homes (the Sears kit bungalow, for instance) that could be maintained by only one person. In the 1930s, of course, most middle-class women were struggling to keep their family's head above water under the conditions of the Great Depression.

For those struggling to make ends meet, in these two decades, these families continued to face a precarious economic life. However, their home conditions improved. Many of these families were moving into home ownership thanks to building and loan associations (remember It's a Wonderful Life?) These homes were not spacious--often only four rooms but they were wired for electricity, have running water, an indoor bathroom, a gas range, and a telephone. "In the period after the First World War, the diffusion of these amenities combined with public health measures that were becoming more prevalent (purification and inspection of milk, water treatment plants, sewers for poor neighborhoods, diphtheria inoculations, regular refuse collection, fortification of certain foods with vitamins, certification of meat and poultry supplies) meant that the standard of living for this generation was considerably higher (or rather the standards of death and illness considerably lower) than it had been for their parents." However, this amelioration of the conditions of life did not extend to rural areas or to African Americans. Even by the time that the United States entered World War II, one-third of American homes lack the amenities of running water, an indoor bathroom, and central heating. And everywhere, lower-income women continued to work very hard both inside and outside the home.

In the postwar 1940s and 1950s, these amenities continued to be diffused to the rest of the population, and appliances were increasingly introduced into American homes. In an intriguing section, Schwartz shows that in the 1950s, the routine day of a housewife with children was pretty much the same--whether she was the wife of an attorney or the wife of a plumber.

Going into the last quarter of the 20th century, being a homemaker remained the equivalent of a full-time job. Citing John P. Robinson's 1977 study, How Americans Spend Time, Schwartz reports that "housewives who are not employed in the labor market spend, roughly speaking, fifty hours a week doing housework; housewives who are employed in the labor market spend, again roughly speaking, thirty-five hours on their work in and for their homes." This amount of work correlates with all other reports on women's work in the home in this period, she says. Thus, Schwartz argues correctly that no introduction of technology has freed up women--as it did earlier for men--to enter the work force.

Today, a mother with a full-time job can be working up to 80 hours a week, as her weekends are used for doing all the chores she could not perform during the work week. In short, only the lucky half of the women of 1890-1920 enjoyed a hiatus in the amount of work they perform in the home. Technology has increased women's productivity, but it has not eliminated work. Nevertheless, Schwartz points out, that is the common misunderstanding with its corollary that housework is not real work because it is not measured in money terms. I will be posting more on the working mother but this concludes the report on More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave, a fascinating study.

Corrections, reflections, and additions are welcome!

Other posts in this series:
More Work for Mother 8 -- 1890-1920: The Impoverished Other Half
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?

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?

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?

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?

Thursday, March 6, 2008

More Work for Mother 5 -- 19th Century Pluses and Minuses

Wash Day. With the emergence of cotton, the laundry increased, and in the 19th century it was an arduous task. These white sheets and other linens were likely boiled and then blued.

This is the fifth 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.

The 19th century brought about a fundamental change in the division of labor in the home: Technology and mass-produced objects for the home freed men to take up jobs in industry. They also needed the jobs to acquire the cash to buy the mass-produced goods. "In almost every aspect of household work, industrialization served to eliminate the work that men (and children) had once been assigned to, while at the same time leaving the work of women either untouched or even augmented."

Working in leather to make shoes, whittling to make implements, butchering, getting grains to the mill for grinding, carrying water inside to the house (usually a child's job) are among the activities in the home that were eliminated."
Women's activities changed far less in the home. The mass production of cloth eliminated weaving, carding, and spinning, but it did not eliminate sewing. The sewing machine eliminated seamstresses but not sewing inside the household.
Laundry increased, because heretofore the materials that people wore were unwashable--woven woolen goods, felts, and leather. Linen was usually brushed. A big advantage of cotton was that it was easier to wash. Hence, laundry, one of the more onerous tasks in the home, was drastically increased.
Candle making became a lost art, but women then had to spend time washing the globes of oil and gas lamps. "In those cities in which the cleaning of outhouses and cesspools had been a commercial enterprise undertaken by men, the water closet privatized this work--and shifted it to women.
Home canning equipment increased women's work when the season was "on."

Girl Carrying Water by Winslow Homer. Water pipelines into the home eliminated this task, which was a usually a chore for children.

Despite the money to be earned by women in factories, most factory women were either single or in extreme poverty. "For the rest, the material conditions of domestic life during the first phases of industrialization required women to stay at home so as to protect (and even to enhance) the standard of living of their families: when women were absent, meals were irregular, infant mortality was high, clothes were dirtier, and houses poorly maintained."

Thus, by the end of the 19th century, instead of the man and wife working in the same sphere in a mutual enterprise--their home or homestead--the man and wife worked in two different domains, with the woman at home and, more and more, men working outside the home in industry and for the market. Within the home itself, there was no net decrease in the work performed by the lady of the house.

[Perhaps as equally important, the lady of the house faced increasing isolation in her work within the home. The changes were fueled also by urbanization (and vice versa), and in the rural areas, the family--in particular children--were still very much involved in helping make food--by harvesting and further processing the goods in the vegetable garden and orchards.]

Next: 20th Century Pluses and Minuses

Other posts in this series:
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?

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

More Work for Mother 4 -- Enter the Stove

The stove was resisted by many, because there was such emotional attachment to the idea of the family gathering around the open hearth. Here is a family gathered round the fire on the frontier, where technological advances were slower to arrive.

This is the fourth 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 the beginning of the 19th century, women cooked over an open hearth. By the 1870s, they cooked on cast-iron stoves. Stoves began to enter the ordinary household by the 1830s and at first were used for both cooking and heating. As time went on, these functions were split and as early as the 1860s, upper-class homes began to be heated with centralized heating from a furnace. But particularly those with a heritage in the British Isles resisted the turn toward the enclosed stove. Schwartz quotes early stove industry historian Albert Bolles: "The old-fashioned fireplace will never cease to be loved for the beautiful atmosphere it imparts to a room, and the snug and cheerful effect of an open-wood fire. When stoves were first introduced, a feeling of unutterable repugnance was felt by all classes toward adopting them and they were used chiefly in school houses, courtrooms, bar-rooms, shops, and other public and rough places. For the home, nothing but the fireplace would do. The open fire was the true centre of home-life, and it seemed perfectly impossible to everybody to bring up a family around a stove."

The first consumer durable eased the fuel problem but complicated cooking and cleaning chores.

Nevertheless, the stove made its way into homes because they were cheaper to fuel , and the price of firewood was rising steadily. Burning coal in the open hearth created dirt and soot all over the walls, which was difficult to deal with. So for reasons of fuel, families turned to the stove. Stoves were also far more efficient than the hearth in heating an entire room.
[I saw one of these once when I was a little girl and my mother took me to visit the mother of my grandfather's second wife. This elderly lady lived on a farm and wore a long dress and a frontier bonnet. Even at the age of five, I realized I had been transported back in time. In the center of the farmhouse front room was a monstrous black cast-iron stove on which she cooked us a meal. Most impressive.]

Schwartz writes that "the most important activity that was radically altered by the presence of the stove was fuel gathering." It halved the amount of fuel used and therefore halved the work of cutting, hauling, and splitting the wood--most of which was done by men or boys. "The labor involved in cooking, which was the female share of the work, seems barely to have been affected at all." Stove fires were just as hard to monitor and keep at the right temperature as hearth fires. However, now it was possible to "boil potatoes, simmer a soup, and bake an apple pie for dinner all at the same time; this combination would have been impossible on a hearth."

Giving this capability, the cast-iron stove spelled the end of the one-pot meal and thereby probably increased the time the woman of the house spent cooking. The American diet became more varied, but cooking chores became more complex. And at the end of each day, the stove had to be cleaned, a new job for Mom.

Next: The 19th Century -- Pluses and Minuses

Other posts in this series:
More Work for Mother 3 -- The Flour Revolution

More Work for Mother 2 -- Keeping House in Colonial America

More Work for Mother?

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?

More Work for Mother 2 -- Keeping House in Colonial America

The kitchen at Mount Vernon, which is in a building separated from the main house. Being the kitchen of a wealthy man (Mt. Vernon was an industrial complex of 13 square miles), it is not indicative of that of an ordinary man and wife, but it does show the hearth and the iron pots. At the turn of the 18th century, two iron pots cost the equivalent of a bed.

Thanks so much for the thoughtful comments on the first post on More Work for Mother.

The book More Work for Mother: The Ironies Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwaveby Ruth Cowan Schwartz surveys housekeeping from the time of colonial America through the postwar years of the 20th century. The period of colonial America deals with the time before industrialization reshaped the household and it is generally supposed that in this time, the home was primarily a place of production rather than a place of consumption--this is a common phrase dealing with the difference between the pre-industrialized and post-industrialization home. I will post reports on each phase in history that she surveys, beginning here with colonial period, which is the baseline from which she measures change thereafter. Please keep in mind that I a reporting on More Work for Mother. I will put my comments in brackets.

Wisely, Schwartz examines a particular activity--getting the dinner on the table in a middle-class home or farm home--in colonial America and examines the labor and relations behind it. She reports on the diet of prosperous Dutch households in Albany, New York, in 1750, which she says, with differences in vegetables, etc., was generally the custom.
Breakfast--tea, bread and butter, radishes, perhaps some thinly cut cheese
Noon meal (dinner)--meat stew with turnips and cabbage
Evening meal--corn porridge with milk, left-over meat and vegetables

Colonial cookbooks reflect recipes for the rich. This was otherwise the standard fare, with vegetables and fruits when in season. The one-pot soup or stew, or casserole was the rule.

The most important point that Schwartz makes in her discussion of this period is that providing the family meal was an activity that required a division of labor between both sexes. To wit: Although the lady of the house did the cooking, the preparation of much of the food and implements relied on the man in the house. In addition, certain implements, most of those involving metal, must be bought on the market, which involves trading for goods produced by the household, usually the man. The division of labor went something like this:

The woman cooks; the man whittles many of the wooden implements she uses (spoon, etc.)
The woman churned the butter; often the man took care of the cows that gave the milk
The woman baked bread with wheat produced by the man
The woman turned flax into the linen; the man produced the flax
The woman scrubbed the floor with lye; the man produced the lye
The woman took care of infants; the man made the cradle and produced the hay used for a mattress

This division of labor kept a man and a woman together or joined them in a household in some way. Schwartz writes:
"If an 18th-century woman had attempted housekeeping without the assistance of a man (or of a good deal of cash with which to purchase the services of men), she would most likely have had markedly to lower her standard of living, to undertake tasks for which she had little training, and to work herself into a state of utter exhaustion--all of which conditions would have seriously endangered her health and probably her life. A similar fate would have befallen a man under the same circumstances had he tried to farm without the help of a woman. Small wonder that most people married and, once widowed, married again. Under the technological and economic conditions that prevailed before industrialization, survival at even a minimally comfortable standard of living required that each household contain adults (or at least grown children) of both sexes, and that each household have some minimal ability to participate in the market economy, at the very least so as to be able to acquire and maintain its tools."

[Compare this with the centrifugal forces that pull husbands and wives apart today.]

In addition to this division of labor, labor was also supplied by hired help. "I have read dozens of diaries and hundreds of letters written by people who lived in this country between 1660 and 1860, and have yet to encounter a single instance of a household that did not, at some point in its lifespan, employ 'hired' (that is, paid a wage) or 'boarded' (that is, living and working under the same roof as though they were members of family) help." This help--which may be quite temporary--acted to fill in the gaps in the division of labor between men and women in the household. [These people may also have been indentured servants and slaves, although Schwartz does not discuss this.]

Next: The Flour Revolution

Sunday, March 2, 2008

More Work for Mother ?

Women are told that over the course of especially the latter half of the 20th century, so many labor-saving devices were introduced into the home that we are largely freed from such labor and are therefore expected to join the labor force, spending up to 8 hours of the day outside the home at a workplace. Ruth Schwartz Cowan challenged this idea in her book More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave, which was published in 1983. The basic thesis of the book is that the industrialization of productive processes from the days of colonial America have changed but not appreciably reduced the workload for the woman of the house. She shows this by comparing the total social and work processes that were involved in creating a meal in colonial America and creating a meal in the home of a middle-class family in the industrializing 19th century. She also examines in detail the processes of industrialization in the food system, the clothing system, the health care system, and water and heating systems over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. At the conclusion of this survey, she summarizes her thesis in this way:

"Our commonly received notions about the impact of twentieth-century household technology have thus deceived us on two crucial grounds. They have led us to believe that households no longer produce anything particularly important, and that, consequently, housewives no longer have anything particularly time consuming to do. Both notions are false, deriving from an incomplete understanding of the nature of these particular technological changes. Modern labor-saving devices eliminated drudgery, not labor. Households are the locales in which our society produces healthy people, and housewives are the workers who are responsible for almost all of the stages in that production process. 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 assistance from anyone else) by cooking, cleaning, driving, shopping, and waiting. The nature of the work has changed, but the goal is still there and so is the necessity for time-consuming labor."

In the coming days, I will be posting some details of her historical survey of technology in the home since colonial America, which I found thoroughly fascinating.