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More Work for Mother?

The 20th century saw the advance of many labor-saving appliances. Vacuum cleaners were particularly targeted to women, becoming more portable by the 1920’s  and emphasizing the increased importance attributed to hygiene and health. In this catalog from the Smithsonian Libraries' Trade Literature Collection, the Hoover Company touted their vacuum not only for its hygienic benefits but for its labor-saving Hoover Company test measuring energy consumption conveniences and efficiencies for the housewife.  But, as Ruth Schwartz Cowan pointed out in her book,  More Work For Mother, the vacuum cleaner, along with other labor saving devices, may have actually increased the time devoted to house cleaning. Although families no longer had to beat the rugs outdoors(heavy lifting and stooping) the vacuum cleaner meant that women could more efficiently clean the house and maintain the household on their own. One could even say that what was gained in efficiency was lost in maintaining that very advantage. Cowan claimed that, as men and children (and for the wealthier, servants) moved into factory work, women were left with the entire household maintenance. Hoover company test measuring energy consumption while vacuumingThe inventions may have helped in saving them from strenuous labor, but the cooking and cleaning became more solitary occupations, borne exclusively by mothers in their own households. She goes on to say: “What changed most markedly was the productivity of these [women doing house work]: 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 and cleanliness for herself, her spouse and her children.”  I guess, in common parlance, we would consider this a trade-off, but it certainly shows that even with today’s innovations in household appliances (see image below), and with a healthier (or at least more dust-free) home, the more the mother seems to accomplish the more that is expected of her. All the more reason to show one’s appreciation for all her hard work.—Jim Roan

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

One Comment

  1. Very interesting, Jim! Great post. I didn’t realize that “labor-saving” machines actually created more work for the mother, as they raised expectations for household upkeep.

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