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This Day in Labor History: August 9, 1910


On August 9, 1910, the first patent was issued for the electric washing machine. I am going to use this seemingly random event as a jumping off point to explore one of the most forgotten labor sectors in American history—unpaid domestic labor in the home. Like many household technologies of the twentieth century, the washing machine created radical changes to housework, almost entirely done by women. While Americans almost always embrace technological advances with the zeal of religious converts, in fact the larger effects of household technologies have been complex and not always great for the women engaged in domestic labor in the home.

I’m basing this argument off Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s 1983 book More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technologies from the Open Hearth to the Microwave. As Cowan points out, housework is the first form of labor humans are exposed to and through most of western history, it is the sector of work to which women have been delegated. The key transformation in this history was the arrival of the Industrial Revolution to the home in the late 19th century. Women always did productive labor, often unpaid, but in the earlier period that included canning, sewing, and other tasks that might bring income into the household. Women continued to produce domestic tasks in an industrialized household, but now the consumption of that work stayed solely within the home. The labor became entirely reproductive.

Cowan shows that despite the bold promises of industrial technology entering the household, the ultimate effects were complex. New technologies were sold as freeing women from generations of the boring drudgery that was household labor. There was a long history of trying to do this—many of the 19th century transcendental communities experimented in communal household labor precisely to free women to do more interesting things. When these went nowhere, the middle class hired people to do it for them. Technology again promised middle-class women a life of leisure. But while new tools may have made work easier, but it also meant that women had to do that work more often. The vacuum cleaner meant women cleaned their floors far more often than their mothers. The washing machine made cleaning clothes far easier. It also raised standards of cleanliness, meaning that women had to do laundry more often. Multiply this task by all the other tasks a woman now had to do to meet newly elevated middle-class standards of housework and you are talking a lot of work.

The washing machine itself came about as part of a larger process transforming the American home: electricity. In 1907, only 8% of American homes were wired for electricity, a number that jumped to almost 35% by 1920. With electricity, companies began developing a wide array of new appliances to sell to the modernized home. Electric fans, sewing machines, vacuum cleaners, and washing machines flooded the market. Soon electric stoves and refrigerators would follow. Taken together, these would revolutionize household labor. The work of women had increasingly separated from that of men in the 19th century (although this was often more true in aspiration than reality for the working class) with the rise of the doctrine of separate spheres and the creation of the modern factory. This would only increase with new technologies in the 20th. It also made household workers far more productive.

One change these appliances created was a decline in hired domestic labor. Middle-class women often hired a laundress to do work. The electric machine meant the expense of hired help was not necessary. In 1900, there 1 was servant for every 15 households. By 1950, that dropped to 1 for every 42. But it also meant that the middle-class woman actually did the laundry herself now, and usually several times a week. The woman of the household did just as much work as before, but now without the help. Add to this the movement of children away from work (increasingly, even chores at home) to schools and the rise of a youth culture, and with each passing year, women became more like the sole worker in a factory of never-ending meals, laundry, diaper-changes, vacuuming, floor washing, window washing, dusting, etc.

Technologies did not inevitably lead us down this road. Cowan also argues for the possibility of eliminating much reproductive labor through these technologies, a road not taken. She looks at the history of commercial laundries, noting they peaked in the 1920s, when the new technologies made it possible to take that sector of work out of the home entirely. But the electric washing machine killed the commercial laundry. Cowan argues, “The decline of the commercial laundry is, in fact, one of the few instances we have of a household function appearing to be well on its way to departing from the home—only to return.” (107). The creation of the modern automatic machine in the late 1930s made this history. While many at the time and today looked at washing machines as a good investment because of the cost of doing laundry, Cowan points out that only makes sense if you calculate women’s time as worth nothing. Given the significant labor of doing laundry yourself, especially if you have a family, valuing your time even at the minimum wage may make commercial laundries a sensible option. Yet even today, most people either have their own laundry machines or do it themselves at laundromats.

There are somewhat legitimate critiques of this line of feminist inquiry into technology and labor. For one, Cowan focuses too much on the middle class and ignores working-class women who not only lost their jobs as housekeepers through these technologies but had to find other employment and try to hold up to heightened middle-class standards of housework. Cowan also downplays just how hard some of this labor was pre-technology in order to make her larger points. I’ve read plenty of descriptions of just what doing laundry was like when you had to haul and boil water. Let’s just say that I’d embrace a new technology too. In a related point, she ignores rural women for whom these tasks were the most onerous. But this is a relatively minor critique of a brilliant book that provides an important line of argument for thinking about household labor.

This is the 71st post in this series. Other posts are archived here.

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  • For the problem of “unpaid domestic labor in the home” in the USSR or the “double burden” as it was called see Nataliia Baraskaia’s 1969 piece “A Week Like any Other” first published in Novyi Mir. It was by no means a uniquely American phenomenon.

    • Hogan

      Available in English here and here.

  • Bill Murray

    I’m basing this argument off Ruth Schwartz Cohen’s 1983 book

    You called her Cowan (which looks to be correct) throughout the rest of the piece

  • I loved that book. I read it years ago when it came out. I put it up there with Worlds of Pain, Perfection Salad, and Stephanie Coontz’s The Way We Never Were for illuminating the connections between family form, food, cleanliness, and everything else in the 19th century.

    • puzzlehunter

      Thanks for the book recommendations!

  • CaptBackslap

    I’m not sure about that assessment of the labor involved in laundry, especially since going to a commercial laundry takes a fair amount of time itself (unless you happen to have one on the way to work or something). Assuming it’s five minutes out of the way each way, that means a total of twenty minutes for drop-off and pickup. That’s roughly as much time as it takes to put two loads in, transfer them to the dryer when the timer goes off, take them out, and hang up anything that needs it. It’s not like you can’t do other things in the meantime.

    • Laundry for single people and laundry for families are really different. Commercial laundries are still going strong here, where I live. Many dry cleaners double as wash/fold/dry places too. People, especially singles living in apartments, seem to have no trouble bringing their stuff out on a regular basis. It is, in fact, easier to take your stuff out on the way to work and pick it up after than it may be to run up and downstairs for multiple loads while negotiating with your neighbors over dryer space.

      When I lived in an apartment I preferred taking multiple loads to the laundromat and doing them all at once. When our washing machine and dryer broke (several times) over the years and I had a family’s worth of laundry to do I really enjoyed bringing everything–50 pounds worth–to be done for me. A drag to take it out and pick it up but lovely to have it all done simultaneously.

      • CaptBackslap

        My perspective is definitely bachelor as hell. And it would be a pain to take my laundry out; the nearest place is ten minutes away and not anywhere near my commute route.

    • BH

      Or if you live in the right place, the laundry service will pick up, wash, fold and deliver your laundry back to you. All you have to do is put the clothes in a hamper, which is what you’d do anyway.

      • CaptBackslap

        That would be straight pimp, but I’m guessing it’s both pretty steep and limited to major metro areas.

        • BH

          It does make life much simpler. One less thing to worry about.

  • Hm, I’m in moderation? Is it because I put links in my post for three books? Let me try again with no links:

    I loved that book. I read it years ago when it came out. I put it right up there with Worlds of Pain, Lily Rubin’s book about working class marriages and families, Perfection Salad (written by a friend of my mother’s) about the history of Cooking Schools and servants in the US, and Stephanie Coontz’s The Way We Never WEre for illuminating the connections between family form, food, cleanliness and everything else in the 19th century.

    I’ll add, for the sake of discussion, that the technological changes that have occured in my own lifetime as a parent are also quite startling. When I look at the expectations of my daughters to cleanliness, comfort, and connectivity the distance we’ve travelled since the 60’s until now seems huge.

    • Joseph, A Bank!

      I actually read those books too. My girlfriend goaded me into taking a feminist studies class, and I actually loved it and took to (and never would have been exposed to, eg, bell hooks otherwise). This class was Food, Gender, Culture. Absolutely amazing and fascinating. So…seconded.

  • Purple Finch

    Along those lines, I would recommend the book “Redesigning the American Dream” by Dolores Hayden. While Hayden focuses more on architecture and the creation of suburbia, she critiques how housewives (as the primary domestic laborers) are physically isolated from one another. They are not only domestic laborers, but they reproduce labor in the form of children. Yet all of this work is hidden from public view and the workers are isolated from one another, while we only grudgingly concedes that it is “work” but heaven forbid not worth wages!

    • I definitely second that recommendation.

    • Purple Finch

      In fact it reminds me of the dichotomy we have with regards to labor and capital: capital is fluid and moves easily over international borders, labor is restricted in movement; the production of goods is viewed as related to GDP, the (re)production of labor is a private affair. And don’t you dare think otherwise you dirty hippie/commie/idon’twanttopayforyourkidsslut.

      • And law/regulation is also restricted in movement. As I’ve said before, until we make regulations and labor as mobile as capital, we won’t win.

    • Thanks for the suggestion of the Hayden book. Perfection salad has a fascinating description of the beginning of the Home Economics movement and the creation of the idea of the kitchen as laboratory in which the woman cooks and cleans up in an ergonomically logical way. Food and women’s labor, when its the labor of the housewife, become a place where architecture and the very structure of the house become integral to modern living. When cooking was something done by servants less thought and money and architechtural innovation was placed on the kitchen and on cooking and cleaning. But as people moved into cities and away from food production, and as you had to turn to strangers for your food purchases, buying and storing food safely and processing it within the house safely using hired labor became very much a concern (in some cases a moral panic kind of concern as in the case of “Typhoid” Mary, in some cases a realistic concern).

      Servants brought ease and comfort into the home, but they also needed to be supervised and had to be “trained” to do things a certain way. The early home ec movement included lessons and recipes appropriate to different classes and focused on managing servants so you could safely rely on them to purchase and manage food in the house. The movement towards creating a clean, scientific, space for food production went hand in hand with the movement first to control alien influences like servants and then the movement to get rid of servants and keep the home entirely separate from other classes wherever possible.

  • It must have been this book I read back in college. I still have the same reaction which is “OK, so then what?” What’s the take away lesson here, or even a solution.

    It would be interesting if someone revisited this topic in light of the rise in housecleaning services. When I was growing up only the very wealthy had someone come in to clean their homes (live in staff was restricted to a nanny). Now even I could afford it.

    • CaptBackslap

      The other relevant trend is the household/alternative economy (e.g., paying or bartering with a neighbor who owns a washer and dryer to do laundry). As the U.S. slides further towards being a peasant society, that sector will assume more and more importance. And that isn’t a bad thing, even though the conditions leading to it are. It should go some ways toward recreating a genuine sense of physical community.

    • Does there have to be a take away lesson?

      On the subject of housecleaning we can’t really talk about that without talking about the ways in which people’s disposable income has shifted relative to things like the cost of women’s work. For the upper classes in the olden days hiring people to cook/clean was a good use of a high male income because it created visible social goods like status, freed up the non working spouse for socially approved interactions and mothering-as-an-activity. Consumer goods that made it possible to cook/clean and keep the house up without servants transferred the work and cost to the non working spouse at a capital investment in things from the earning spouse.

      Once both men and women in the middle and upper classes were going out to work then you have a straight trade off: earn your high dollar salary for your time at work and have a messy home or spend a fraction of your hourly wage employing a house cleaner or lose the hour of work and clean the house yourself. In fact a book has just come out by a guy, I think, arguing for hiving off even more of what used to be the daily activities of a person and family and sending them off into the paid labor market. Things that it makes more sense to subcontract out are as varied as tutoring your children, potty training your children, walking your dog, watering your plants. Activities that used to be the goal of work (living) are now seen (where the money is good) as things you’d rather pay other people to do so you can work and earn uninterrupted.

      • Does there have to be a take away lesson?

        Shouldn’t there be? I mean there I was a freshman in college being told how each advantage in household convenience was really a horrible fetter around the ankle of womanhood. (Perhaps I’m being a tad hyperbolic.)

        OK, if you’re going to sit down and write a book about how bad X is … what next? Should we shun the next New Thing? Put a warning label on it? What?

      • Karen

        A world where I have to pay someone to walk my dog or potty-train my kids so that I can spend more time at the office would be Hell for me. As for policy suggestions, mine would be to subsidize telecommuting. Less time stuck in traffics, less time distracted by coworkers who confuse themselves with actual friends, and more time in my own space would be better than a raise for me. Also, we need leisure, not more work.

        • JRoth

          Hear, hear.

          Actually, is this a good place to note that part of how Germans (and maybe other Europeans, I don’t know) manage their life/work/leisure/chore balance is that they own fewer clothes and wash them less often. I’m not sure how you get to that endpoint, but it’s a good one, and would be a viable option for a first world country that wanted to get there.

          • Joseph, A Bank!

            Sounds good. I’ve radically simplified my wardrobe. Light blue spread collar most days, white for court or job interview. Funny because I’m very liberal but dress very conservatively. For leisure a solid Uniqlo polo or v neck, an Oxford if I’m going out. I need to do laundry though, my shirts reek of pit no matter how strong the antiperspirant (I know I’m not alone here).

            I’m a fan of the…Scandinavian? Model of living. Somewhere in Europe. Amsterdam? Lots of biking and frequent small trips to a small grocer for fresh stuff. I already try to do that no matter how pressed for time. I might’ve been born in the wrong country.

  • I want to add that Laura Ingalls Wilder, qua farm housewife, lovingly details the kitchen her father and then later, her husband, built for her filled with cunning drawers and trap doors to the basement so that she could mix her bread and store her butter with the least fuss and movement possible. Later she had a syndicated column addressing farm wife issues (community for isolated women) and Rose Wilder Lane (the cranky libertarian) described the gorgeous fitted kitchen Almanzo built for her in the farm they retired to.

    • JRoth

      I just visited that last month! It’s a wonderful little kitchen (although I pitied her her electric stove; better than wood, I suppose).

  • JRoth

    that only makes sense if you calculate women’s time as worth nothing

    I’ve always rejected this line of argument, for a couple reasons. First of all because it implies that everyone with means should simply hire help to do every mundane task – yard work, snow shoveling, cooking, cleaning; you know, replacing a light bulb is only cheap if you value your time at nothing! – but I suspect that there never has been and never will be an economy in which the bottom half will be able to afford such luxuries, no matter how long they labor out of the home.

    Which leads me to my main objection: it wants to make wage slaves of us all. In order to avoid mowing the lawn* for 20 minutes a week, I must labor for capital for another 10; in order to avoid painting my own porch, I must labor another week (or three), for somebody else’s bottom line, under somebody else’s supervision, under somebody else’s rules. I suppose it’s the Thoreau in me, but it seems to me that freedom lies not in avoiding the laundry, but in avoiding wage slavery.

    Oh, and this is maybe an addendum to my first point, but this attitude is precisely what contributes to the overweening entitlement of the 1% – they earn enough money that they needn’t perform any menial tasks themselves, and soon anything smacking of honest labor is deprecated. Wasn’t one of that WSJ Board member’s crazy complaints about bike sharing in NYC that it got in the way of her driver? You know, driving your own vehicle is only free if you value your time at nothing.

    * a task I don’t much enjoy, but which is hard to view as more onerous than pretty much any paying work, including landscaping – pretty sure most bosses don’t let you work with a beer in one hand

  • RepubAnon

    Perhaps the self-serve scanners in grocery stores should be discussed in this context. We used to have a clerk ring up our purchases – now, we do it ourselves, less efficiently.

    • Patton Oswalt

      but that’s because A&P finally figured out that my lifetime ambition was to be a grocery store clerk

  • Johnny Sack

    Bravo Erik. When is your book coming out? I recall you discussing a manuscript.

  • Bruce Vail

    There is a memorable section of Robert Caro’s “Path to Power” where he describes the weekly ritual of wash day in Lyndon Johnson’s home region in rural Texas. Without electricity, the washing and ironing of clothes was strenuous, tedious and dangerous (the ‘sad irons’) all at the same time. According to Caro, the weekly ordeal inspired Lyndon’s devotion to rural electrification as a political issue.

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