More Work for Mother The Ironies of Household Technology

In this classic work of women's history winner of the 1984 Dexter Prize from the Society for the History of Technology Ruth Schwartz Cowan shows how and why modern women devote as much time to housework as did their colonial sisters In lively and provocative prose Cowan explains how the modern conveniences—washing machines white flour vacuums commercial cotton—seemed at first to offer working class women middle class standards of comfort Over time however it became clear that these gadgets and gizmos mainly replaced work previously conducted by men children and servants Instead of living lives of leisure middle class women found themselves struggling to keep up with ever higher standards of cleanliness


10 thoughts on “More Work for Mother The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave

  1. says:

    I enjoyed reading this book but I was constantly wavering on whether I was on board with her arguments or not I completely agree with what I thought was her basic argument generally in American history over the last couple centuries technological achievements have tended to eliminate men's household work but not woman's work For example men used to have to spend a lot of time gathering fuel for fires felling and chopping up trees Then women tended the fires But as coal and oil replaced wood for fires that job started to disappear for men while women still had to tend the fires and sometimes their jobs got worse as coal fires were smoky and messy Also obviously houses have gotten bigger over time and since it was seen as 'woman's work' to clean the houses their jobs have become harder and time consuming I was a little puzzled by Cowan's argument that innovations which would help alleviate housework have failed She uses commercial laundries and ready made meal delivery services as examples and argues that these were attempted in the 1920s but didn't pan out because people valued their private lives at home and would rather purchase washing machines and cook their own food But these things didn't really die out they still exist Lots of people send their laundry out and buy ready cooked meals especially in cities It seems like the same economic calculation for everything every person needs to decide if they are willing to pay for the services Lots of people are not willing or able to pay so they do laundry at home and cook their own meals Cowan sort of gets around to writing about this at the end when she argues that what we really need to do is get rid of this idiotic idea that men can't do dishes or cook or do laundry that somehow women are the people who are supposed to do these jobs I agree with her that this is ridiculous I also felt like she should have spent at least a little time on peer pressure as a factor in woman's work She writes about advertisements but it seems like family pressure and church pressure have probably been just as important as ads Nobody wants to be the one bringing a store bought pie to a family get together if everyone else is making their own You can't contribute a recipe or several to a church cookbook if you can't cook from scratch There just tends to be this general expectation for women that they know how to cook not that they HAVE to for financial reasons but that they are ABLE to That expectation isn't really there for men except maybe for grilling Women are expected to take pride in not taking the easy way out by purchasing a ready made pie Maybe I just have this on the brain because I read this over Thanksgiving


  2. says:

    There’s a parable that I heard recently that sums this book up pretty well frog soup You can’t just drop a frog into boiling water but if the water starts out cold and the heat is ever so gradually increased before you or the frog knows it there is no frog and no water but instead a pot of soup More Work for Mother can be broken down into a number of constituent parts each a synecdoche on its own but my favorite bit of “soup” is the vacuum cleanerSuch is the tale before cleaning the rugs required someone physically strong—typically the husband—to lift and carry heavy rugs Then someone with much energy and spare time—typically the children—beat the rugs The remaining task sweeping the area where the rug once lay was left to the wife En totale the work of cleaning a rug was very intense and rarely done spring cleaning was once a year—the spring duh—for a reason But now oh now in this wonderful atomic future the rugs they must be clean because it is ever so simple to flip the switch and push the electronic sweeper around a bit Guess who gets to run the vacuum while the rest of the household is excused from the lifting and the beating? Well yes it is mother And what chores supplanted lifting the rugs or beating the rugs while mother vacuums? Nothing of course the home is a place of leisure For men And children The frog gets a bit hotterThere are many examples each interesting in their own way White flour was surprisingly and particularly interesting from a historical standpoint the steam engine unshackled mills from rivers and shifted industrial concentration to centralized factories allowing the growth of urbanization White flour “ is composed of very small particles of the endosperm of the grain and lacks the germ and the bran” It didn’t spoil as quickly as the whole grains ground at the local grist it fact it keep long enough to be shipped overseas to feed the foreign armies of the Napoleonic Wars Once those wars were over the industrial mills—created and optimized to grind ultrafine white flour—flooded US markets with cheap white flour which used to be the province of socio economic posturing between the wealthy cakes and fluffy breads became de rigueurThat’s pretty great right? Cheap flour No need for the laborious work of hauling grains to the gristmill a task typically relegated to the physically stronger male of the household No need for hand grinding grain a tedious task usually left for children Everyone has time thanks to white flour Oh butwell everyone but mother The course flours that were produced by hand grinding or grist milling of wheat and rye were prepared into “quickbreads” porridges and griddle cakes none of which required complex or laborious preparations Yeast breads when prepared by the standard technique of the time required hard labor in the kneading and considerable attention to details particularly in maintaining yeast cultures And what chores supplanted reaping and hauling the grain or hand grinding while mother kneads or whisks? You guessed it nothing of course the home is a place of leisure For men and children remember? The frog becomes the soupOh but don’t worry mother technology will save you The eggbeater which was invented and marketed during the middle decades of the 19th century may have eased the burden of this work somewhat but unfortunately the popularity of the beater was accompanied by the popularity of angel food cakes in which eggs are the only leavening and yolks and whites are beaten separately—thus doubling the work Angel food cake has fallen out of favor probably because it takes the same effort of buy an Entenmann’s pound cake as it does to buy angel food cake which is to say none What we obtain too cheap we esteem too lightly it is dearness only that gives every thing its value Thomas Paine but for dessertsMore Work for Mother remains timeless and is a comprehensive text that should be required reading by every technological futurist who believes progress makes life better by default It explains the ever expanding desires of society better than anything I’ve ever read easy to wash clothes because of washing machines? Clothes should be cleaner Easy to bathe because of running water water heaters bathtubs? Personal hygiene must be improved Easy to contact people because of telephones? Everyone must be available twenty four hours a day Ad astra infinitum forever and ever Enjoy your soup


  3. says:

    MCLPretty interesting I think she makes her case that technology hasn't necessarily saved much work for women but I would have liked her to spend a little time exploring the suggestions for alternatives


  4. says:

    I sought out this scholarly work after finding it hidden among the references of another recent work that book had two women's names among its references In the notes of this book P234 249 I counted 113 names I could be sure were female Index P251 257 I counted 30 names I could be sure were female Looking at the American home from pre industrial days when a household made most of what it required and traded for the rest to modern times the author asks what work was assigned to men or women and how each changed She finds that a woman's work was laborious and heavy before piped water and electric or gas supply Thus people often weren't very clean and their homes were poorly lit and crowded As work became available in cities and manufactured goods circulated the concept of a housewife was invented This was a woman whose labour was all or mostly at home cleaning feeding clothing the family Nursing the sick was part of her work also midwifery and laying out the dead The author says that work traditionally assigned to men like gathering firewood hunting meat and driving the cart shrank or vanished and women got to do that work The reason was electric and gas power shops and cars The author never mentions that the men looked after the horses harness and carts a job in itself Women had appliances invented for them but the early ones were not much improvement like washing machines which still required sopping and mangling then ironing Families needed to earn to pay for stoves which needed cleaning and blacking refrigerators sewing machines washing machines cars electric cookers better washing machines electric irons vacuums and Some women worked in every time period so we get to see the richer and poorer homes and jobs and we note that a woman always had staff if she was wealthy or a woman for a day a week if she was poor to do the heavy work usually washing and cleaning The cost of labour rose as immigrant women reduced in number and the Depression made hiring people impossible for the poor Thus machinery was all the necessary if children were to get to school clean and fed and a man to his work I noted no mention of people with disabilities what happened if someone had polio lost an arm or went blind? Were they not mentioned in the literature?I also saw little mention of the children being made to do work except in the chapter where we are told that girls learned from their mothers and boys from their fathers what tasks to do and how The later chapters show children at school or at play when older kids were pressed into service to mind younger ones and help with cooking and cleaning or piecework for an outside employer in reality Certainly in my home I regretted being taught how to make a pot of tea and answer the door as it seemed I was always called upon This despite the fact that by five I had read several books in which the boys got to go out and have adventures but the girls had to stay home and help around the house so I had decided that I was going to be like a boy I really enjoyed reading about the households of America in all their variations The photos and drawings of the day are particularly good The author seems to have found no shortage of sources from accounts of daily lives to theses on plumbing or gas refrigeratorsI borrowed this book from the Dublin Business School library This is an unbiased review


  5. says:

    Throughout the 20th century households were transformed by a new abundance of labor saving devices from washing machines to toaster ovens and processed goods that reduced housewives’ workloads leaving them free to learn trades and professions of their own and fully participate in the modern world But in the second decade of the 21st century American women are just as chore taxed as ever lamenting of the ‘second shift’ that awaits them upon arriving home Despite the many machines now investing our homes most of the work still has to be done by hand for Parkinson’s Law holds true there as well as anywhere else work expands to fill the time available for its completion In More Work for Mother author Ruth Cowan demonstrates how gadgets and goods created new work while eliminating others and argues that women will not be free from drudgery until housework is freed from the realm of ‘femininity’ to the point that men won’t feel emasculated by laundry The devices and goods of the 19th and 20th century – refrigerators washing machines microwaves convenient bags of flour even convenient no bake cheesecake mixes even convenient instant cereal did indeed reduce a lot of labor In fact for men they reduced virtually all household work More Work for Other opens with a history of housework Although modern readers might be aware that women’s traditional role was in the home men’s traditional role was in the home as well prior to industrialism men didn’t pack a lunch pail and disappear into the country for a day at work The home and the work of most families were intimately connected typically inseparable Women may have baked bread but it was men who gathered and ground it women may have washed clothes but men chopped the wood and let children lug in the water But while men’s roles in the household largely vanished women found that work remained constant The availability of affordable clothing reduced the need for sewing and repairing but increased the burden of laundry and standards of cleanliness climbed as the ability to clean increased Laundry and scrubbing agents meant that minor stains could no longer be tolerated necessitating near daily cleaning regimens And those new labor saving devices were often fragile things needing frequent cleaning to avoid their works being gummed up Additionally for middle class or wealthier women the availability of do it yourself machines meant that retaining maids and other servants was a sinful waste – never mind that doing it themselves meant hours of their own time spent doing the labor regardless of advertisers’ claims of quick ease of use There were options that might have truly revolutionized household chores – commercial kitchens with thrice daily delivery commercial laundries cooperatives apartment hotels – but most fell by the wayside either because of cultural imperatives or because of market forces Although not as sweeping as Susan Strasser's Never Done what's lost in extensive narrative is replaced by serious analysis and an abundance of good points made Cowan notes for instance that the increase of standardized products destroyed easy class differences while in the mid 19th century a street urchin and the scion of a wealthy businessman would look as different as night and day just judging from their clothes' cleanliness today both could wear the same products and the fact that vitually all homes have water and heating means that no one is denied the ability to shower every day The interior of homes too are far closer than they once were the absence of gadgets and electricity might have once marked a hovel but these days not even campers will tolerate going without a refrigerator Her driving point is that the fact that homes are now filled with gadgets and manufactured articles doesn't mean that homes are no longer productive mothers are still 'producing' clean bathrooms fed children and presentable clothing If the labor women perform was priced as though they were in the open market people would never assume homemaking to be unproductive Ultimately Cowan believes women will be freed from drudgery only when we relax fanatic standards regarding cleanliness and the housework that remains is stripped through cultural or technological means of its traditionally female association so that men will pitch in If that argument made in 1985 has lost some of its edge in a 21st century peopled by MrMoms most of the work has not


  6. says:

    In An Introduction Housework and Its Tools she places household work within the stream of industrialization of America Household were industrialized form 1860 1960 at the same time as the idealized households emerged as retreat from a heartless world Much of the irony of this observation results from the observation that women were users of technologies that embedded them firmly within market relations all along Like the male and female workers who went out into the factories women working in the homes of America were increasingly confronted with technologies which they had not build and the internal workings of which they did not understand Since housewives cannot repair the tools with which they work houseworkers are as alienated from the tools with which they labor as assembly line people and blast furnace operators p 7 While men's work became specialized housewives in the 20th Century remained the last Janes of all Trades from which the Jacks have disappearedCowan is interested in understanding why the gendered household division of labor has proceeded as it has To do this she examines the tools of household work She examines the work process and the technological system that surrounds these tools By understanding process we come to understand who is actually doing the work By understanding system we can understand all of the parts that go into making changes in work possible For instance the system of technology which brings indoor plumbing is the underpinning of our increased standards of personal hygieneHousewifery Household Work and Household Tools under Pre Industrial Conditions draws an initial connection between the rise of capitalism in Early Modern Europe and the institution of household work Freed from feudal constraints the early modern yeomen and their wives developed a household economy It was industrialization not capitalism that lead from Housewifery and the Doctrine of Separate Spheres As industrialization drew men out of the home it left women in the home to guard a separate sphere of morality and uplift in a heartless world of industrial capitalist competition Cowan makes the essential contribution of adding in the tools of housework to help us understand the material conditions under which the doctrine of separate spheres emerges She focuses on Household Tools and Household Work by approaching what it took to create a simple one pot meal in colonial New England She finds that the process that a family undertook to cook the meal relied upon the work of both men and women each having essential parts to play in the process Men would harvest the grain and grind it into meal and women would assemble the ingredients and do the cooking on the open hearth Though these divisions were not absolute the cooperation of man and wife was essential to the family's survival Women who tried to do without men or visa versa would have live far less healthy livesThe Household Division of Labor ensured that men and women were socialized to different roles Looking at the experience of a woman named Rebecca Burlend who's husband was injured and unable to harvest the wheat crop she demonstrates how important it was that the male knowledge of how to harvest the crop was shared with Rebecca who was unable to finish the task until her husband was well enough to explain the process to her This sexual division of labor was embedded in a system which also took advantage of hired help Most families paid wages to people to help lighten the burden of housework for women and work in the fields for men There was also a hierarchy of tasks in which the work done by men was valued the most then women's work cooking the food and finally the kinds of less attractive work performed by servants scrubbing floorsIn considering The Household and the Market Economy she points out that the ideal of self sufficiency in pre industrial America needs to be examined closely Looking to the tools that people needed to survive in the household she points to two different widows situations and how having tools to produce goods for herself allowed the better off widow to stay out of the market and achieve greater efficiency through home production of goods The wealthiest of all in a community it this case a revolutionary war general upon his passing had a full accoutrement of tools to produce many household goods at home Because he was least dependent upon market forces the general came closest to achieving the ideal of autonomy from the vicissitudes of the marketThe Invention of Housework The Early Stages of Industrialization starts with a recounting of all the ways in which industrialization would seem to have had a liberating effect on women With the advent of gas powered light there was no need for candle making with the purchase of cotton cloth there was no need to make homespun any when you could get preserved milk in a can there was less pressure to milk your own cow By looking at the writings of women of the period oddly enough they seem to be worse off overworked and frequently of worse health By looking at the ways in which the processes that attended household labor as well as the system of technology which they were embedded she can explain this apparent paradox Returning to the one pot stew of the colonial New England family she notes that the one ingredient in the stew that changed with industrialization was the flower industrialization brought processed white flour into the homes of New England Examining Milling Flour and Making Bread she explains that the shift away from international flour trade after the Napoleonic Wars ended in Europe caused an oversupply of processed white flour producers looked to domestic markets to sell the white flour The growth of canals Erie 1825 for example made it less profitable for the New England farmer to grow grain so people started to buy the processed white flower grown on the frontier Next she explains that this change in the larger technical system meant that man were freed from the formerly odious and laborious chore of grinding grain But the advent of white flour meant the opposite for women The simple unleavened breads made with whole grain flower had put far less burden on women than did the new leavened white breads pastries and cakes White bread became connected with status Only negroes indians and the Irish ate the coarse breads now that all had formerly eaten Another set of innovations leading to The Evolution of the Stove also had the same effect on the balance of household labor it shifted the balance decidedly in the female direction The changes in iron production and the rise of coal and coke for fueling the forges that created the iron allowed for a efficient manufacture of iron cook stoves The innovations of Jordan Mott made the manufacture of cast iron cook stoves which used the cleaner anthracite coal Thus emerged an industry that provided the market with the first consumer durable goods The impact of this technical systems change was the lessening of male labor since felling trees and chopping wood for fuel was no longer necessary The effect on the process of cooking was that it became complicated and complex By the time of the Civil War the cast iron cook stove had replaced the open hearth and women were producing ever elaborate meals from recipes in the new cookbooks in the stores And least we forget the stove needed to be cleaned a job that fell to women as wellThe overall impact of industrialization was More Chores for Women Fewer for Men As men were freed from the labors needed for tasks like milling grain and cutting wood they increasingly worked for wages that allowed them to buy things like processed flour and cast iron cook stoves Men therefore were less available to teach their sons the techniques of household work and this male household work died out At the same time women became even tied to the domestic sphere in material terns as well as ideological The advent of manufactured cotton cloth mean a greater demand for varied clothes and these clothes had to be cleaned often as well While early in the century women might employ the help of a seamstress to produce clothes the advent of the home sewing machine meant that this burden fell largely on the wife and mother Thus we see the material conditions that went hand in hand with the woman's sphere


  7. says:

    A Introduction Housework and its tools1 Industrialization of the home took place between 1860 and 19602 Household and market labor are similar in 3 waysa Both depend on non human energy sourcesb The household is part of a larger economic system we depend on others to bake our breadc Households use tools that they don't understand or manufacture3 This book looks at the history of housework and the tools with which it is performedB The Invention of Housework The Early Stages of Industrialization1 Household convienences in the 19th did not save time ex hand driven washing machine egg beaters because they reorganized the work to make it complex2 Example the flour industrya When flour mills became industrialized in 1820 they offered a new fine white flourb This increased work for mother because this flour allowed deliate cakes angel food to be baked Also white breads3 Example the stovea Cast iron cooking replaced the hearthb Stoves required less fuel and provided efficient heatingc This brought work because it allowed complex meals to be cookedd The housewife could fast broil slow simmer and bake all at the same time4 The technologies decreased work for men but increased it for womena For men Less wood had to be chopped Piped household water manufactured shoesb For women Manufactured clothers meant laundry oil lamps required the cleaning of sootC Changes in Household Technology in the 20th1 This century consists of 8 interlocking technological systems food clothing health care transportation water gas electricity petroleum2 The shift from production to consumption food clothing health care3 In order to use these technologies someone had to leave the home to get them transportation4 Household utility systems water While this decreased the need for carrying water new standards of clenlyness were adopted cleaning bathroom floors toilets5 Household utility systems gas electricity oil The only work that this removed was that done by the manD Household Technology and Work 1900 19401 The differences between the housework of the rich and poor were shrinking2 Golden years 1900 1920a The upper class had paid servants but this did not make her a lady of leisure see John's book They spent 60 hrweek cleaning providing meals dealing with childrenb Lower class Less work because they lived in tenament buildings with other families no storage areas children and mothers worked3 Between the wars 1920 1940a Upper class beginning to obtain washing machines refrigerators autos1 The was the period of the proletarianization of the household2 The washing machine did away with the laundry3 The refrigerator did away with delivery service4 The vacuum did away with the servantsE The Post War Years1 There was a spread of affluence allowing the household to have appliances and therefore increasing the complexity of work2 Housework becomes homoginized Both the upper class and lower class housewives are doing the same job3 There is work for mother in a modern home because there is no one there to help her Kids have new found after school activities that the mother is the driver for4 This is further complicated by the working mother


  8. says:

    Harder to get through than Never Done by Susan Strasser or Just a Housewife by Glenna Matthews and it covers about the same material


  9. says:

    This book is a little dated written in the early 80s but still has tons of interesting information The premise is that although household technology keeps improving women still spend the same amount of time doing housework why is that? Since this book predates there is no way for her to know that things have come full circle I hadn't realized that housewives of old had practically everything they needed delivered to them With the development of the automobile so too did mother's job change to driving around to stores and running errands all day With that lens the rise of home delivery again is a wonderful thing especially for new mothers with babies and toddlers at homeIt was also fascinating to read about the different lives led by the comfortable and the rest of us over the last 100 or so years For example she points out how tenements had no kitchen storage and just one table that served all needs homework piecework meal preparation and eating so that good manners of place settings and such were really only for the well to doIt's great stuff and essential reading for any mother struggling with why there are still so few hours in a day


  10. says:

    The argument that women entered the workforce because modern technology freed them housework has been around at least 40 years Cowan covers the counter argument that as the title says tech makes women work harder For pioneer families bread usually meant flat breads griddle cakes or other quick breads When commercialy milled white flour became widely available that meant yeast breads and later cakes which required work 20th century medicine reduced the time required to care for sick kids but the standards for child care breast feed Cook nutritious meals Keep your house sanitary went up so again it was a zero sum gameCowan looks at the impact of tech and the ways it put added demands on women men and kids usually got their load lightened or made it possible for women to work fulltime and still function as housewives She also considers alternative options that didn't become as accepted as vacuum cleaners and washing machines did hiring household help professional day care professional laundries 45 stars