In my previous post, I discussed the role of women in promoting the arts and intellectual study in their communities. This led me to some thought about the factors that enabled women such as the Gifford sisters to be active in their communities. Women like the Giffords were from the upper middle-class, and this afforded them certain privileges, access to education (either schools or tutors) and the means to travel and meet artists and intellectuals being two of the most important. But we can’t overlook a critical element in their lives: they had the money to pay other people to do their cooking, laundry, and housework, which freed up their own time to study, write, travel, and socialize with other like-minded women.
This is not something to be ignored. Running a household was time-consuming for women in the 19th century (as it still is for many women). Take a moment to ponder the advancements we take for granted today. There was no electricity in most homes before 1900, so baking and cooking had to be completed using wood-burning or coal-burning stoves (coal stoves were particularly dirty, and coal residue had to be cleaned daily off the stove, walls and floor in the kitchen). These stoves needed to be started before dawn so as to cook breakfast (and breakfast cereals were not widely available until the 1890s). Getting the ovens to the correct temperature to bake bread, pies, and cakes or to roast meat could be tricky, and the kitchen itself grew very hot. There obviously were no refrigerators, so housewives relied on blocks of ice to keep milk, cheese, and butter from going bad, but the lack of refrigeration required them to shop daily for meat and dairy products, although one convenience not widely available anymore was the daily visit from the milkman.
Keeping the rest of the house clean wasn’t easy, either. Rugs and carpets needed to be swept or pulled up, taken outside, and beaten to get crumbs and other debris off of them. Dust and dirt were constant problems, particularly in warm weather, when doors and windows were left open to bring in fresh air, but also brought in dust from the streets (before automobiles became popular in the early 20th century, few roads or city streets were paved).
Then there was the chore of doing the laundry. Before washing machines became popular, this task was done completely by hand, and usually took an entire day: water had to be heated up on the stove, then divided into several wash tubs: one for detergent (lye soap, which was very hard on the skin), a tub for rinsing, another tub for bluing (which removed other stains), then again for rinsing. The process was made somewhat easier by the end of the 19th century, when wringer washers became available, but lifting wet laundry was still back-breaking labor. Of course, the wet clothing, towels, sheets, and other items still had to hung up to dry, outside in good weather, inside in bad.
Another entire day was set aside for ironing the dry clothes. Irons made out of cast-iron (hence the term “irons”) had to be heated up on the stove while the laundress applied starch to the dried clothes. While one iron was being used, at least one other was being re-heated. In the age before rayon, polyester and nylon, almost everything had to be ironed.
However, if we put this in a social context, it is easier to understand how a typical housewife could get this all completed. First of all, families tended to be larger, and girls from an early age were expected to help with these chores. Unmarried adult women did not move out of their family’s home when they completed their education, nor did most of them seek paid employment; they basically paid for their housing and food with their household labor. My great-grandmother, for example, came from a family of nine children; two of her older sisters never married nor left the family household, instead taking on responsibilities for childcare of younger siblings or nieces or nephews or handling household chores.
Even if there weren’t family members available to provide free labor, there were many other women in the community who would work cheaply. Many women, particularly immigrant or African-Americans, needed to work outside of their own homes, either to supplement their husband’s or father’s income or because they were the sole breadwinner, and without other skills, they were forced to sell their labor cheaply. Families like the Giffords in Syracuse could afford to hire someone to shop for and cook their food, and also could pay someone to do the laundry and ironing. Some families sent their laundry out to commercial laundries, but in fact, there was such a large labor pool of household workers that most middle-class families relied on at least one household worker well into the twentieth century: my grandmother sent the laundry out weekly to a someone who returned it washed and ironed, and also hired a baby-nurse to take care of my father. Many middle-class families hired someone to do major cleanings several times a year, as well as someone to tend to the lawn in warm weather.
But new “labor-saving” devices, and social changes impacted this system by the early 20th century. The availability of electrical service in urban areas and smaller communities by the 1920s, as well as the introduction of installment buying, enabled housewives to purchase vacuum cleaners, electric stoves, and refrigerators (still called “iceboxes” and tiny by today’s standards), thus freeing them from daily shopping and hard physical labor.
The irony is though, as social historians frequently point out, while such devices made household chores “easier”, such “conveniences” did not necessarily give the housewife more time for leisure: since she no longer could justify hiring other people to do the laundry, cooking, or shopping when she had new appliances, she had to do them instead.
While the wealthy and upper-middle class women still might have some “help” around the house, most middle-class women by the 1930s were expected by society to do their own housework, cooking and laundry. After all, didn’t they have new technologies to do it? And, for the women who had provided their labor, this social change made their skills unmarketable. The Great Depression was particularly hard on this group, and even government programs instituted by the New Deal did little to address their situation. Few New Deal programs employed women (except for the WPA’s Sewing Schools division, which was not terribly popular with Congress), and Social Security refused to include household laborers in the system until the late 1950s.
I am amused by television commercials advertising services providing household help and child-care, because they demonstrate that despite new technology and social advancements, household chores are still problematic. Women- and men- can go out and get good-paying jobs, but still have to come home to deal with cooking, laundry, and the countless other tasks involved in daily living.