By the Window (1890) by Fritz von Uhde

7.10 Industrialization Hits the Housewife

Industrialization Hits the Housewife

Industrialization came in with a bang, and the housewife’s life would never be the same again, but unfortunately, that does not mean her life got any easier. This episode covers what happened to housewives in the US and western Europe as industrialization got rolling in the 18th century and carried on through the 19th.

This episode is part of the series Comfort for a Discouraged Housewife.

Full Transcript

The traditional narrative is that industry came in and made life easy for housewives. And superficially that’s true. In 1733 John Kay invented the flying shuttle and weaving got enormously easier, at least for housewives who had access to that shuttle. In 1764 James Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny and boom, just like that, hand spinning was taken entirely off the household chore list, at least for housewives who had access to store-bought thread. The industrialization of whale hunting and then in 1854 the refinement of crude oil into kerosene meant housewives didn’t have to make candles or rushlights. Trains and steamships meant goods of all descriptions were shipped to you, so no more making your own lye. No more grinding your own grain. No more churning your own butter.

It sounds very much as though housewives are increasingly living a life of idleness and luxury with nothing to do but sit on the couch and eat bonbons, right?

And yet, the comments from women themselves do not bear that out.

In 1795, Martha Moore Ballard wrote “A woman’s work is never done, and happy she whose strength holds out to the end of the [sun’s] rays” (quoted in Cowan, 43).

In 1845 Harriet Beecher Stowe, who is still a housewife at this point,  wrote in a letter “I am sick of the smell of sour milk, and sour meat, and sour everything and the clothes will not dry and no wet thing ever does, and everything smells moldy; and altogether I feel as if I never wanted to eat again . . . and . . . my unfortunate household has no main spring, for nobody feels any kind of responsibility to do a thing in time, place, or manner, except as I oversee it” (McFarland, 46).

In 1862, Gro Svendsen, a young Norwegian immigrant wrote home to her parents “We are told that the women of America have much leisure time but I haven’t yet met any American woman who thought so!” (Svendsen, 28).

1885 Lois Walker Morris, a housewife in Utah wrote in her diary, “Tue 24th arose before 6. W[eather] fine, did housework and ironing; repairing in the eve feel almost sick with fatigue” (Milewski, 426)

These women span almost a century in time, one of the most momentous centuries in history, their access to technology was vastly different, and yet their complaints sound remarkably similar. You’d hardly know one complaint from the next.

So are housewives just whiners? Or is something else going on? In case you’re in any doubt, yes, something else is going on.

Furansu nyōjin / French Housewife and Her Husband (1861) by Utagora Yoshitora from JSTOR Open Access

As I talked about last week, the pre-industrial housewife was a joint economic partner with the husband in providing for the needs of the family. Industrialization brought profound changes for housewives, but the changes for the husband were initially even more dramatic. A housewife was originally responsible for ensuring that her family were fed, clothed, clean, and healthy. Industrialization changed the tools she used to accomplish that, but the responsibility remained the same. For the husband, it was different. In pre-industrial times, a husband who owned or rented land provided the family with raw materials like grain and flax and wool and meat. He also provided some finished products for the family, possibly like furniture and tools and shoes.

Industrialization meant you bought your cloth. So there was no need to grow flax or shear sheep. The husband’s contribution there has been completely eliminated. The housewife does get out of spinning and weaving, but not sewing. She still has a job to do.

Or take providing the daily bread. In many places, the man grew the wheat or whatever grain. Depending on time and place it might also be his job to grind it, or at least to hitch up the horses and take it to the local miller. If you order your flour from the general store, his job has been eliminated. But someone still has to roll that flour out in a tortilla, flip it in a pancake, or bake it in a loaf. The housewife still has a job to do.

It’s the same with meat. If you buy your beef, the husband does not have to do the feeding, watering, mucking out, and slaughtering, but the housewife still has to do the cooking.

In some households, the man had been a craftsman all along, as in a carpenter, blacksmith, cobbler, or whatever, but those men worked in a shop that was probably part of their home and often traded directly for the raw materials or goods he was not providing himself. Those jobs too were eliminated as the capitalists with cash and big machines undercut his prices and raised the expected quality. The elimination of men’s work didn’t mean men could lie around idle. Far from it. The family still needed his labor, but increasingly what they needed from him was neither raw materials nor finished goods, but cold hard cash. The big capitalists typically didn’t want your homemade goods in trade, so the only way to buy all these fancy new products was with money. You got money from jobs that were now at a factory or an office. Not in the fields surrounding your home or in the workshop attached to your home.

Prior to industrialization, the word “housework” did not exist because most people, male and female, worked in or near the house, regardless of what kind of work they did. With industrialization, the men up and left. This can be interpreted in two ways: the men left home because they were driven out by the need to find money for their families. Or the men left because they were free to explore other opportunities with all their new-found empty time.

Plenty of women were also driven to outside employment, and I’ll talk about that a bit more next week, but in no sense could you say women were free to explore other opportunities because they had a load of new free time. The historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan wrote a landmark book in the 1980s called More Work for Mother, in which she makes precisely the opposite point. The burden on women actually increased because of industrialization.

A few examples:

In colonial America cornbread was a staple, especially in the form of a johnny cake. Corn grew well here and it was easy to make.

Image: 1796 recipe from American Cookery by Amelia Simmons

But when you start buying finely processed white flour instead, what you make is yeasted white bread. I can personally attest that making yeasted white bread requires more skill, labor, and time than making cornbread. But it was now within reach for many women and a status symbol. Therefore a housewife with pretensions to upward social mobility had to make it (Cowan, 48-51).

But when you start buying finely processed white flour instead, what you make is yeasted white bread. I can personally attest that making yeasted white bread requires more skill, labor, and time than making cornbread. But it was now within reach for many women and a status symbol. Therefore a housewife with pretensions to upward social mobility had to make it (Cowan, 48-51).

Fluffy cakes were even more pretentious. In 1796, Amelia Simmons included a handful of cake recipes in her book American Cookery. I’m finding it hard to give an exact number because some of the things she calls cake would not be called cake now. But a handful would be. Only one of them says anything about frosting. None mention fillings.

By 1896, the wildly popular Fannie Farmer cookbook is an altogether different beast. The chapter on cakes has 57 recipes in it, and there’s a separate chapter for cake fillings and frostings. And still a separate one for fancy cakes and confections. Standards had certainly risen.

Fannie Farmer’s recipe for White Mountain Cream from her 1896 cookbook

And it wasn’t just about access to white flour. The industrially made cast-iron stove made it easier to make multiple dishes and even multiple courses. So women who once provided one-pot meals because that was all they could do, gradually made mealtime far more elaborate than it had been before (Cowan, 62).

It is true that factories relieved women of spinning and weaving. But cheaper cloth meant people owned far more clothes, and for a very long time the factories did not save the housewife from one single stitch of the sewing. And certainly not from laundering all those clothes (Cowan, 64).

Basically the time an industrial housewife saved in one area was eaten up by increased expectations in another area. Furthermore, she had lost the ability to share the work with her family. Traditional divisions between men’s and women’s work had always existed, but since they were all working nearby, there were times when they helped each other out. Many a woman helped in the fields at harvesttime and many a man helped cook dinner when his wife was sick or pregnant.

But now he wasn’t there to help out. If he didn’t go to work, he lost his job and that would not help anyone. Children too had always helped on the least-skilled tasks like carrying wood and milking. But increasingly they left too, some to school and some, unfortunately, to the factories. The housewife was alone in a way she never had been before.

It was still true that many households and not just rich ones, hired help or enslaved help. A woman on her own simply couldn’t do everything required to manage a household. But only in very rare cases did that mean the housewife didn’t work at all. She couldn’t afford that. So the most arduous tasks went to the servants and slaves: floors, laundry, small child care, plain sewing, etc. Often the housewife kept the tasks that required judgment and creativity: fine sewing, cooking, and the like (Cowan, 29-30).

Managing the servants was a task in and of itself. I think it’s fair to say that masters the world over have always complained about the help, but the difficulties there have varied by the circumstances and the extent to which the help had other options. Servants were often young and inexperienced because if a girl got married, she might very well stop being your servant. In America, she might also very well not understand your instructions because there was a good chance she was a recent immigrant who didn’t speak English (Cowan, 120). If she was a slave, she might demonstrate her resentment by working slowly, breaking the tools, or pretending to be stupid. All of these handicaps and strategies were perfectly reasonable from the point of view of the servant or slave, but like all masters, most housewives didn’t notice that while they were tearing their hair out in frustration. The guides for housewives included a lot of instruction about supervision.

The burden of work would be crushing enough, but it was accompanied by a psychological burden as well. From time immemorial, women had been valued as an economic contributor to the family. True, we were never so lofty as men in political status or intellectual opportunity. True, women were paid less than men for the same work (Bennett, 7). But it was still obvious to all that a prosperous family needed the output of both husband and housewife. Everybody worked.

As men left home for work, that became a lot less obvious. There was now a distinction between home and work. The workplace was where you did work. And home was where you didn’t. Suddenly all the necessary tasks done at home are not work. They don’t count.

Those tasks certainly didn’t count when it came to tallying up the wealth in the family. In the past, wealth was calculated in land, goods, and style of living. Housewives were big contributors to that. But when wealth is counted only the actual monetary amount that enters the house, then housewives are completely useless. They add no value at all.

That was patently ridiculous, then as now. If an unpaid housewife quits, you have to pay someone else to do the work, so maybe she doesn’t bring money in but she’s certainly helping with not dishing the cash right back out. But then as now, the housewife’s work wasn’t as measurable as a man’s wages, so that point was ignorable.

There were even reasons to ignore it on purpose. Trade unions were dominated by men, and they were arguing for higher wages. They didn’t want women working for lower wages to cut them out of their jobs. They benefitted from the labor of the women at home. And they could explicitly argue that they had to be paid enough to support their wives who didn’t work. Clearly, what the wives did at home was not work (Folbre, 466-468).

It is possible to track this shift in attitude in the census. The 1811 census of Great Britain asked “What number of families in your parish, township, or place, are chiefly employed in and maintained by agriculture; how many families are chiefly employed in and maintained by Trade, Manufactures, or Handicraft?” Notice the implication that the family has a profession, not the individuals in the family. (Wall, 5; 1811 census; Folbre, 470).

By 1851, the census asked the profession of individuals. Wives, mothers, and mistresses was an occupation. By 1881 wives were in the unoccupied class, as in no profession. The optics of keeping such a large number of people in that class were considered bad. So in 1890, Alfred Marshall, the highly respected economist, said the UK should do it the way the Germans did it and call housewives dependents, instead of unoccupied. Which meant that housewives were considered at exactly the same level as their children, and equally dependent on a big strong man to take care of them. Thus, in less than a century, housewives descended from being a full contributor in the family profession to being a drain on the family finances (Folbre, 471-472).

To be sure, women and some men had something to say about this extreme devaluation. In 1889, the 20th Annual Report of the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor included this:

“It would be contrary to generally entertained opinions to include the home, that is, the housewives, under industry. To be sure, they receive no stated salary or wage, but their work is surely worth what it would cost to have it done, supposing that the housewife, as such, did no work at all. There were 372,612 housewives in Massachusetts in 1885, and only 300,999 women engaged in all other branches of industry. If a housewife were not expected nor required to work, then for the labor of 372,612 women paid service would have to be substituted. Such a demand for labor could not be supplied by the inhabitants of the State itself. Consequently, as the labor of the housewives was absolutely necessary to allow society to exist in its present form, the housewife is certainly “in industry.” As has been stated, she is excluded from the previous tables in this Part for conventional and arbitrary reasons alone. The housewife is as much a member of the army of workers as the clerk or cotton weaver, and too often supplements the toil of the day, ” in industry,” with household duties performed at home, but outside of the “in industry” classification. On this point, the position of the Bureau is consistent. This office was the first to include ” housewives ” under occupations in census taking. Previous to 1875, from a census point of view, a wife did not have an “occupation.” In the State Censuses of 1875 and 1885 the wife was included in the occupation tables. In succeeding censuses she should be lifted to her proper position and considered to be as much ” in industry” as those women engaged in any other branch of labor” (Massachusetts Bureau of Labor Statistics, 579).

But it was an argument in vain. Too many people were arguing for exactly the opposite classification.

And some of the people arguing were women themselves. These women had another strategy for coping with the devaluation of their labor, and this one had a huge impact at the time. And it still does have an impact on women, whether they are housewives or not.

The strategy was to accept economic invisibility and turn it into a virtue.

The great mover and shaker here was Catherine Beecher, sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Image: Catherine Beecher from Wikimedia Commons

These two sisters absolutely dominated the moral mindset of the United States for decades. Harriet convinced thousands that slavery was so wrong it was worth fighting a war to end it. Catherine convinced thousands more that home was sacred, that the woman who ran it was sacred too, and that a fragile society increasingly troubled by political strife and commercial avarice could only be held together by the heroic efforts of housewives and mothers.

There had been plenty of household guides before Catherine, but they had been largely practical: here’s a recipe, there’s a remedy. They were how-to manuals for a professional.

Lydia Marie Child wrote the bestselling book The American Frugal Housewife in 1829 and reissued editions of it for years.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Her introductory chapter is all about the need to save money and time. She declares in the very first paragraph: “Nothing should be thrown away so long as it is possible to make any use of it… and whatever be the size of a family, every member should be employed either in earning or saving money.” It is all very down-to-earth and practically minded.

Her introductory chapter is all about the need to save money and time. She declares in the very first paragraph: “Nothing should be thrown away so long as it is possible to make any use of it… and whatever be the size of a family, every member should be employed either in earning or saving money.” It is all very down-to-earth and practically minded.

It is a far cry from Catherine Beecher’s introduction to her 1841 bestseller A Treatise on Domestic Economy. She wrote:

“The woman, who is rearing a family of children; the woman, who labors in the schoolroom; the woman, who, in her retired chamber, earns, with her needle, the mite, which contributes to the intellectual and moral elevation of her Country; even the humble domestic, whose example and influence may be moulding and forming young minds, while her faithful services sustain a prosperous domestic state;—each and all may be animated by the consciousness, that they are agents in accomplishing the greatest work that ever was committed to human responsibility. It is the building of a glorious temple, whose base shall be coextensive with the bounds of the earth, whose summit shall pierce the skies, whose splendor shall beam on all lands; and those who hew the lowliest stone, as much as those who carve the highest capital, will be equally honored, when its top-stone shall be laid, with new rejoicings of the morning stars, and shoutings of the sons of God” (Beecher, Treatise, 38-39).

Being a housewife or doing any such related labor, was now not a profession, but a calling. And you shouldn’t need to be well paid to do the morally right thing, now should you?. To do it for money would actually be the entirely wrong motivation. In fact, we will frown on any attempts you might make to step out of the home where you are so desperately needed.

Catherine Beecher was not the only proponent of the doctrine of separate spheres, but she was very successful in promoting it. Out in the sordid world, men were acknowledged as king, but in the home, women were the superior. It was their domain, a spiritual haven against the greedy commercialism of the world outside. In the modern world, there is a tendency to sneer at Catherine’s religious idealism and the obvious holes regarding women who didn’t fit the housewife mold. No one seemed to notice that Catherine herself did not fit the mold: she never married, had no children, and maintained a successful career. But there is no doubt that Catherine’s views gave pride and purpose to generations of women who would remain tied to the same tasks either way. Catherine lifted them out of being mere drudges, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, while the real business of life happened elsewhere. The home and the kitchen are the real business of life, Catherine would have said, and housewives were lucky to be the ones doing it.

Catherine was fully aware that housewives in general were overworked and undervalued. Addressing that was the whole point of her life’s work. She wrote:

“The number of young women whose health is crushed, ere the first few years of married life are past, would seem incredible to one who has not investigated this subject, and it would be vain to attempt to depict the sorrow, discouragement, and distress experienced in most families where the wife and mother is a perpetual invalid” (Beecher, Treatise, 5).

The answer, according to Catherine, was education.

“This evil results mainly from the fact, that young girls, especially in the more wealthy classes, are not trained for their profession. In early life, they go through a course of school training which results in great debility of constitution, while, at the same time, their physical and domestic education is almost wholly neglected. . . . The measure which, more than any other, would tend to remedy this evil, would be to place domestic economy on an equality with the other sciences in female schools. . . . [T]his method will secure a dignity and importance in the estimation of young girls, which can never be accorded while they perceive their teachers and parents practically attaching more value to every other department of science than this. When young ladies are taught the construction of their own bodies, and all the causes in domestic life which tend to weaken the constitution; when they are taught rightly to appreciate and learn the most convenient and economical modes of performing all family duties, and of employing time and money; and when they perceive the true estimate accorded to these things by teachers and friends, the grand cause of this evil will be removed. Women will be trained to secure, as of first importance, a strong and healthy constitution, and all those rules of thrift and economy that will make domestic duty easy and pleasant” (Beecher, Treatise, 5-6).

And just like that home economics was born. Only it wasn’t called that yet. But Catherine’s book was intended as a textbook, for use in school. No longer would a girl rely on her mother or common sense to teach her how to run a household. Now she had experts to teach her. This was a trend that would continue into next week’s episode on the 20th century housewife.

Catherine’s idealistic preface was followed by an enormous amount of practical information. Not all of it would belong in a modern home ec class. It has a chapter called “On the Care of Health” with information and diagrams of the skeleton and muscles. The chapter “On Cleanliness” includes dental hygiene advice. She also covers rising early, proper manners, giving in charity, how to care for the sick and for infants, how to iron, how to get rid of insects, how to propagate plants, and whether you should pay children for doing chores or not. It even explains why boys should be taught these skills as well as girls. It’s an absolute wealth of information. And she followed it up with further book after further book for decades.

By 1873 Catherine’s latest book was not a textbook for students but a guide for a housewife in the thick of the battle. She concludes with a chapter which suggests that she had figured out that for many women, domestic duty was anything but easy and pleasant. It’s called “Comfort for a Discouraged Housekeeper” and it is the inspiration for the title of this series.

Catherine beats no retreat from her lofty idealism. There is no recognition that the downside of making housekeeping a moral duty is the guilt that besets you if you aren’t doing such a great job at your moral duty.

The comfort she offers is not actually all that comforting, to be honest. There’s a fair bit about how it’s really all the fault of the parents and teachers who failed to train you properly, so you are more entitled to sympathy than blame. I suppose some might find that comforting, but I do not. But she follows that up with advice about not trying to do everything perfectly all at once. “Calculate what things you find you cannot do, and strike them off the list, as what are not among your duties” she says (Beecher, Healthkeeper, 461).

In other words, don’t even try to do everything. Set reasonable expectations and add more in when or if you can. That is the kind of comfort I can get behind, even if it does come a little hollow after 450 pages of detailed instruction about your sacred responsibilities.

All housewives probably needed the reality check between lofty ideals and the overwhelming burden, but none more so than those for whom being economically invisible was simply not an option. They had to earn. Some women entered the factories, but for the majority of the 19th century, the largest number of employed women worked at the tasks for which God and Catherine Beecher intended them: housework. If they were single, they entered domestic service, taking on all the jobs the housewife didn’t want to do herself. If they were married they took extra housework, either in the form of paying boarders (who had to be fed and clothed and cleaned like family members) or in the form of laundry and sewing that was sent out to them.

Such activities increased a woman’s economic value, but you don’t have to earn much to improve on zero acknowledged economic value. These jobs were generally badly paid, and they involved adding to the crushing burden housewives already faced: more work and lower social status. An 1882 article on money-making for ladies suggested taking boarders because it was practically the only way for a woman to “make money and not lose social class.” It also admitted that it “is probably as harassing an occupation as can well be found,” but this does not seem to have stopped large numbers of women from attempting it.

In some American cities in the 19th century, over half of all households contained at least one boarder (Strasser, 148-149).

Image from Wikimedia Commons

By now I hope you can see that housewives were not just whiners: yes, tasks were lightened or eliminated by industrialization, but housewives struggled in the crossfire of plummeting economic relevance, rising standards, and skyrocketing moral expectations. It is no surprise that they were sick with fatigue.

And the changes were far from over. As we head into the 20th century, industrialization will keep right on hitting, and it will expand to more than just the American and European women I was able to talk about today. But that’s next week.

The most major of my major sources for today was Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s brilliant book More Work for Mother. You can find a transcript, pictures, more sources, and a donate button on the website at I also post pictures and women’s history gems on Twitter @her_half and on Facebook at Her Half of History. If you think I should be on Instagram or somewhere else, get in touch and let me know. Feedback is welcome, especially if it’s a 5-star review. Come back next week to hear the next saga in the drama of the housewife. Thanks!

Selected Sources

Beecher, Catharine Esther. A Treatise on Domestic Economy, for the Use of Young Ladies at Home, and at School–Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book. New York, Harper, 1848, Accessed 4 July 2022.

Beecher, Catherine E. Miss Beecher’s Housekeeper and Healthkeeper. New York, Harper & Brothers, 1873, Accessed 10 Apr. 2022.

Child, Lydia Maria. The American Frugal Housewife : Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy. New York, Samuel S. and William Wood, 1832, Accessed 5 July 2022.

Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave. United States: Basic Books, 1983.

Dreilinger, Danielle. The Secret History of Home Economics : How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Live. New York, N.Y., W. W. Norton & Company, 2021.

Farmer, Fannie Merritt. The 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cook Book. New York, Gramercy Books, 1997, Accessed 5 July 2022.

Folbre, Nancy. “The Unproductive Housewife: Her Evolution in Nineteenth-Century Economic Thought.” Signs 16, no. 3 (1991): 463–84.

Massachusetts Bureau of Labor Statistics. Twentieth Annual Report of the Bureau of Statistics of Labor (1889). Boston, Wright and Potter Print. Co, 1889, Accessed 27 June 2022.

Mcfarland, Philip. Loves of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Grove Pr, 2008.

Milewski, Melissa Lambert, ed. “1885: ‘My Husband Has Thought It Wisdom to Absent Himself.’” In Before the Manifesto: The Life Writings of Mary Lois Walker Morris, 420–56. University Press of Colorado, 2007.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. “Juno (Waller) Seymour, minding the great grand-daughter of her first owner (1853).” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed July 5, 2022.

Simmons, Amelia. FIRST AMERICAN COOKBOOK : A Facsimile of American Cookery, 1796. 1796. Dover Publications, 2015, Accessed 5 July 2022.

Snell, Rachel A. “Old-Fashioned Recipes, New-Fashioned Kitchens: Technology and Women’s Recipe Collecting in the Nineteenth Century.” The Recipes Project, 21 Aug. 2014, Accessed 5 July 2022.

Svendsen, Gro. Frontier Mother. United States: Norwegian-American Historical Association, 1950.

“The 1811 Census.”,

Wall, Richard, et al. “Department of History Research Tools Census Schedules and Listings, 1801- 1831: An Introduction and Guide No 2.” 2004. Accessed 4 July 2022.

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