Mother and child painting

7.11 The 20th Century Housewife and Beyond

The 20th Century Housewife and Beyond

Industrialization had already transformed the housewife’s life, and it was not about to stop. Gas, electricity, running water, cars, ready-made clothes revolutionized everything all over again in the 20th century. And yet the hours women spent on household tasks did not budge for most of the century for a variety of reasons. I also touch on what it meant to be a housewife in communist countries like East Germany, Hungary, and China. But basically, no matter where you were, running a household boiled down to a whole lot of work.

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

Full Transcript

The century from the 1780s to the 1890s brought profound changes for the housewife in industrialized countries like England and the US. If she was lucky, this housewife now lit her home with gas-powered lights. She almost certainly made clothes from factory-made cloth. She cooked on a cast-iron stove. And she could order an enormous number of items of all descriptions which would be delivered right to her front door. She was, you might say, living the dream.

As we talked about last week, she was also economically marginalized and burdened with skyrocketing expectations, so you can’t really win, but I think only a few women wished they were spinning cotton again.

The decades from 1890 to 1920 would radically restructure her routine again. In that time period, large numbers of English and American women got gas appliances, electricity, running water, prepared foods, ready-made clothes, and factory-made furniture (Strasser, 6). That’s huge change.

In modern times we can marvel at the way phones, computers, and the Internet have changed the way we live within living memory. But the changes in the early 20th century were much the same. For an early 20th century housewife, the way her mother did things was not necessarily a good guideline to follow. She needed help to navigate all the new tech and all the latest trends, and much like today there was an army of experts and advertisers to tell her what to do. Also much like today it was often very difficult to tell the experts and the advertisers apart.

Catherine Beecher, who I discussed last week, had died. And in her wake came not a person, but a movement. The term home economics was invented in 1899 because the proponents thought it would be taken more seriously that way (Dreilinger, 28).

The purpose of home ec in schools was partly about feminist empowerment. For example, one early organizer wanted it to include basic carpentry because both boys and girls needed to be able to independently build shelves, doors, and bookcases. Why? Because when a woman depended on a man to do such things, they “do the work as they please, not as we would like it done. Closet shelves are always too high,” she said (Dreilinger, 29).

But home ec was also about utopian vision: “The home is the organic unit of society, [and] to raise the standard of living and of life in the home is to elevate the whole social system” (Dreilinger, 30). Home ec was going to revolutionize the world, eliminate poverty, keep the home sacred as Catherine Beecher intended, but also liberate women from their traditional shackles. It was a grand vision. And it experienced a few bumps along the way.

The need for all this education came from two fronts. As I said, the housewife in this period had new technology so the actual work had changed. But she was also increasingly doing the work herself. In previous centuries, middle-class families had servants. A woman alone could not possibly do it all. The servants lived in the same house and did all the most unpleasant tasks. To take one fictional example, if you think of Mary Poppins. Mr. Banks is a bank employee, not one of the senior partners, and yet he can afford a live-in nanny, cook, and housemaid.

A maid with a vacuum cleaner in Denmark, 1912 (Wikimedia Commons)

But the early decades of the 20th century vastly expanded the jobs available. Women could work in factories or offices, and they left domestic service in droves. They didn’t want to live with their employer. They wanted better pay and more time off. Middle class housewives struggled to find help. So yes, many tasks were simplified by machines, but that did not mean the housewife had more free time. The machines were the only way she could get by without the servants, and in fact early appliances were advertised in exactly that way. These “electrical servants” gave you the peace of mind to know that when your maid quit, you’d be okay (Strasser, 78).

In 1918, a middle class housewife named Marion Woodbury published a detailed account of her own routine. Marion “did her own work” which was a common, but misleading phrase at the time. It meant she had no live-in maid. It certainly did not mean she had no help at all. Marion herself reported a 45 hour work week in which she tidied, stripped beds, put away clean clothes, cooked, sewed, took care of children, ordered groceries, and went to the market. But a laundress came on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. That woman also cleaned the bathrooms. A student from the local university came by for a couple hours every weekday afternoon to clean the lunch dishes, dust, sweep, polish, and babysit. (Cowan, 157). You will notice that this house still required at least two adults on housewifely duties to function.

Women’s magazines of this period had lots of advice for housewives who were unfortunate enough to have lost their live-in help. You could, for example, simplify meal time by having the children eat with the adult family members. Notice the implication that the expectation was they’d eat a different meal with the nurse (Cowan, 176). We are certainly a long way away from the people who later cursed the demise of traditional family dinner when the mother went out to work.

Of course, there already were women who went out to work, but by and large, the magazines were not concerned with the burdens of housewives who were so far from being able to hire help that they were seeking employment themselves. The realities there were grim. These women lived in crowded conditions. Their homes and apartments offered no privacy and no storage. These women had no time to tidy, clean, cook, or sew. Many such women worked in factories, but they were also what remained of the domestic servants. In the 19th century, domestic help had largely been single. In the 20th, they were largely married. So they spent their days doing housework for another (and probably whiter) family. They had no time or energy for their own housework.

The evidence of such conditions is not hard to find. Poor children had high rates of malnutrition and infant mortality. The more well-to-do frequently complained that the poor stank and looked dirty. It was rude to say so, but it was also true. That’s what happens when your family works the dirtiest jobs, when no one does the laundry, and when you have no bathtub or sink. A woman’s very life was on the line, as she ran herself ragged to provide both money and housework, both in appalling conditions. In one mill, the mortality rate for married women mill workers was three times higher than that of the single women who worked there (Cowan, 70).

And of course the social stigma was there on top of the actual physical burden. As discussed last week, Catherine Beecher had already made caring for home a family and moral duty. The women’s magazines now deliberately used guilt as an appeal. Advertisers were told that guilt, embarrassment, and insecurity were surefire ways to get women to buy. For example, one ad promoting electricity (and vacuum cleaners) said “This is the test of the successful mother—she puts first things first. She does not give to sweeping the time that belongs to her children” (quoted in Strasser, 78).

The explicit message was that if a family was not clean, healthy, happy, and looking good, then it was the housewife’s fault because remedies for all of that existed (Gowan 187-188). She had to buy special baby food or her baby would get sick. She had to use special cleaners or her family would get sick. She had to have immaculate clothes or people would think she was too lazy to make any for her children. She had to give her daughter white shoes or she’d be ostracized at a party.

And on top of all that, she was supposed to like it.

In the early 20th century, Christine Frederick, author of Household Engineering, was all about saving time and effort.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The point was to “enable the homemaker to have leisure time to devote to interests which are more important than the mere mechanics of living.” She even felt the need to include a list of what to do with your spare time. But finding a job was not on it. On the contrary, “Our greatest enemy” she wrote elsewhere, “is the woman with the career” (quoted in Strasser, 218). Why? Because homemaking should be stimulating, artistic, and interesting enough.

All of this was out of reach for many, and perhaps most, married women. I will place two photos on the website.

One is a 1935 picture of Mrs. Benjamin Javits and her two children.

Image: Library of Congress

Her husband was a New York lawyer. They are posed in a beautiful garden, complete with a neoclassical statue. Their clothes are clean, their hair is tidy, all have shoes and look pleasant, especially the boy.

Contrast that with a 1938 photo of a sharecropping family in Alabama.

Image: Library of Congress

They are seated inside a house with uneven floorboards and a portion of the floor is just dirt. Their clothes are filthy. Mom’s dress has a hole in it. Dad isn’t wearing a shirt. Only one of the six has shoes. All of them look exhausted, including the girl who looks eight years old. The only possible exception is the boy who looks about four. His shirt is badly buttoned, and he isn’t wearing any pants, or indeed underwear, at all. But he is smiling. This is clearly a family that is suffering because no one has the time or energy to do the things Marion Woodbury did, even though there are two adult women in the picture.

For the women who could actually afford to be housewives, the time involved was holding steady, despite the new appliances. In a landmark study Joann Vanek found that American women did almost as much housework in 1968 as they did in 1926 (Schenone, 271, Strasser, 251).

Let’s take a look through the tasks I covered in this series to see why. I started with laundry, which many women felt was the absolute worst. By the end of the 19th century, there were many commercial laundries and also professional laundresses. As a housewife, the easiest way to do laundry is not to buy a washing machine, but to simply to get someone else to do the whole job, kit and kaboodle, without worrying about the technical side at all. So for many, many women the result of getting a washing machine was that laundry came back to them. It was added to their list. And remember dryers came later. Wrinkle-free, color-fast fabrics came much later.

I went on to sewing. It is absolutely true that this got easier in the 20th century as more ready-made clothes were available. But sewing went out gradually. It was a long time before the majority of housewives not only did not sew their own skirts, but actually didn’t know how even if they had wanted to.

Lighting undoubtedly got easier. No question there. But housecleaning, not so much. Again, a great many housewives of the 19th century paid someone else to do the scrubbing and would never have deigned to get down on the floor themselves. Not true for the 20th century housewife. Also, she now has larger house and a bathroom. Great when you need to go. Not so great when it’s time to clean.

Time spent shopping expanded enormously, as I covered in episode 7.5. What I didn’t mention was a related issue. How do you even get to the market? Transportation was not a huge drain for most housewives of the past because goods were either homemade or delivered to you by the iceman, milkman, tin peddler, or whatever. Even doctors, seamstresses, undertakers, and the kids’ piano teacher made house calls.

The average housewife might take a short walk to the town store or a neighbor’s house. But if transport was needed, it was a man’s job to hitch up the horses and go to town.

By 1920, a large number of Americans could afford a car (Cowan, 827). Women, amazingly, were allowed to drive. That meant freedom and liberation and lots and lots of errands.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Delivery boys got fired. Even Sears and Montgomery Ward, the champions of mail-order goods, opened department stores. Doctors decided you could come to them, even if you were gravely ill (Cowan, 84).

So sure, some tasks got easier, but the new housewife got to enjoy a lot of time standing in line, idling at stoplights, and sitting in waiting rooms. Sure they’re not as physically demanding as hauling your own water, but they still take time.

And then there’s cooking. Certain innovations like canned food should have made the housewife’s job easier. And on some days of the year, they did. But when factory-made glass jars became cheap, home canning the garden’s produce was added to the to-do list. That is a big, big job. Many women learned to do it from the government-hired home ec experts at the county extension office, who came around assessed the needs, and tried to help. By and large, they were really intending to help, but giving help is always a tricky thing. Some experts, fresh off their dietitian training, were really peddling the Anglo-Saxon diet. Did these poor people use garlic? Or tortillas? That wasn’t in the official manuals, so let’s train them out of that. Ethnic food wasn’t yet trendy, and many women felt criticized.

In 1937, Emily Post, the queen of good manners, added a chapter called Mrs. Three-in-one which explained how to give a dinner party and be a guest, a waitress, and the cook all at the same time. No guides before had needed such a chapter because any housewife in a position to give dinner parties at all had a maid and a cook (Cowan, 180). By 1950, a housewife alone could manage what the 1850 housewife needed three or four servants to manage (Cowan, 100). Technology was good. But the housewife was both very busy and, quite possibly, lonely.

The years after World War II saw a rise in housewifery. Some, but not all, of the desperately poor women from earlier in the century benefitted from the economic boom. In black communities the rise of the black housewife was a triumph because it meant their men were finally earning enough to support a family.

The magazine Ebony celebrated it with these words: “Today in thousands of Negro homes, the Negro mother has come home—come home perhaps for the first time since 1619 when the first Negro families landed at Jamestown, Virginia . . . The cooking over which the ‘white folks’ used to go into ecstasies is now reserved for her own family” (quoted in Dreilinger, 132).

A housewife was a status symbol, a way of signaling to the world that we are not poor. If a wife wanted to work, many men took it as a personal affront, an accusation that they were not earning enough.

An ad from 1947. Ready made food ready at the drop of “his” hat. (Wikimedia Commons)

The idea that staying home was a moral duty had not gone anywhere either. It was being actively promoted with statements like “If women in any field don’t do a good job as homemakers, they don’t really make a lasting contribution to the world” (Flemmie Kitrell, quoted in Dreilinger 135). The irony was that many of the professional home economists saying so were married women with children who were not following their own advice.

By the end of the 1950s, home ec classes were in full swing for girls, but they were a far cry from the female empowerment education that the early organizers had envisioned. Now, the point of learning was not to save yourself money, time, or labor, but to please your family and specifically about attracting and holding on to your man. If he strayed it was because you didn’t do a good job. If your children were unhappy or disobedient, it was because you didn’t do a good job. You must be endlessly available for their every whim, or you are not doing a good job (Dreilinger, 138, 151)

An ad from 1948. Buy these shoes for this year’s “helpless-lady” look. (Wikimedia Commons)

By the 1960s, a degree in home economics, which had been a serious qualification for decent jobs, was now something to get while you waited for a husband. In part that was because women who were interested in nutrition, chemistry, health, and biology could now more easily major in those subjects, rather than approaching them sideways through home ec as they had done before (Dreilinger, 194).

The trouble was that capitalist societies valued money and a housewife didn’t make any. Society constantly told her she was not as important as the men (especially now that machines made her life so easy), but they simultaneously took her labor for granted. She had conveniences beyond the wildest dreams of Catherine Beecher, and yet many housewives were still discouraged.

Certainly, if you believed the feminists that was so.

Betty Friedan’s 1963 bestseller The Feminine Mystique called it “the problem that has no name.” She launched a career in women’s activism. Her efforts were praised by many, and also criticized by many, both for being too liberal and also for being too conservative (Michals).

Image: Wikimedia Commons

There is sometimes an assumption that all women are in favor of what the women’s movement called women’s rights. But such was and is not the case. Many women had dedicated their lives to what they truly believed was their highest calling. They felt affronted by the idea that they were unhappy, downtrodden, submissive, and that their labor would have been better spent in a high-powered career. And no matter what you think about the gender relations or female empowerment, you can hardly blame them for taking offense at some of the rhetoric. It was hardly flattering, for example, when feminist Robin Morgan told a group of home ec teachers that their classes were “the final icing on the cake, the nail in the coffin, after which [the American young woman] is a limp, jabbering mass of jelly waiting for marriage” (quoted in Dreilinger, 242).

And even if a housewife was unhappy, what else was she supposed to do? Inching through a traffic jam in order to drop the kids at soccer practice while you pick up frozen, prepared meals for dinner may not be wildly fulfilling, but it still did have to be done if you were going to maintain your social status as a middle-class American family. If all women left home for the office; it was not at all clear who would get that other stuff done.

And now finally, finally I have something to say about women who were neither British nor American. The industrial revolution had rolled out differently in the rest of the world. It hit later and unevenly as cheap western products flooded their markets but without necessarily a corresponding economic boom. The owners of the factories might be half a world away, and they weren’t hiring in your neighborhood.

One of many possible responses to the problems of capitalism was communism. Capitalist societies devalued the housewife because she made no money. Communist countries did not value anyone for money, so that was no problem. Instead they valued you for the hours of labor you gave to the state and they all knew that women were good workers. Women had lots and lots of hours to give. Under persuasion or under coercion, whatever worked.

Compared with capitalist nations the communist rate of female participation in the workforce was very high. 70%, 80%, even 90% depending on the place and time. Every communist regime also recognized that if women were at work all day, someone was going to have to handle all the traditional housewifely tasks.

How exactly this played out depended on the country, and I’m not going to cover all of them. But here are a few.

East Germany signed women up for jobs and training at an impressive rate in the 60s. But the institutionalized daycare for kids 0 to 3 had space for only 10% of the kids in that age group, and most women had to feed and clothe their families without the benefit of a fridge or washer. They worked full-time jobs, but their husbands still expected to return in the evening “to a clean apartment, quiet children, and a waiting dinner (Harsh, 93). The state tried to help. They made daycares that were for week-long care, or even long-term boarding institutions. But they were not popular. Mothers were not happy. Children were not happy. Many women preferred part-time work, which alarmed a party concerned about labor shortages. The reason for the demand? Kinder und küche, said one internal report. Children and kitchen (Harsch, 95). The number of women working part-time.

In Hungary, the policies were such that you had the official state economy in which both men and women worked. But you also had a second economy in which families owned businesses or took private jobs. This was legal and the second economy was actually bigger that the state economy. Women typically worked in the state economy, but afterwards went home to cook, clean, and child care, while her husband went to his second and even third job. It was good for the family finances, but hard. The wife’s labor was absolutely necessary. Single men and women had a lower standard of living because they could not handle the triple burden of state job, private job, and daily needs. Married men could do it only because the wife was handling the daily needs for him. And it was a heavy load for everyone involved (Matniya, 363-364).

China was utterly single-minded in its attempt to rationalize production. The party saw little value in the old methods of dividing labor. In particular they wanted a strong cotton industry, which would precede railroads and heavy industries. Accordingly, they built textile factories very quickly. The rural women were sent out into the fields to take over agricultural work, while the men went into industry. This happened very quickly. In 1955, a woman in Shaanxi province worked an average on 30-50 days in the field. In 1956, she worked 140 days in the field (Eyferth, Women’s Work, 385). It’s just one year later!

In theory, she could do this because she would now be buying her family cloth from the state-run factory. The business would boom, farming families would be well-clothed, and everyone would be happy, especially the Communist party. As usual, reality failed to live up to expectations. In the real world, the rations allotted each family were too small and the prices too high. It made more economic sense for a woman to work all day in the fields, collect her ration coupons, and sell them on the black market. To clothe her family she would pilfer cotton from the state-owned fields or buy it on the black market. She would rise early to make breakfast, work a full day in the fields, make dinner, do household chores, put the children to bed, and then begin hand spinning that cotton into thread and weaving that thread into cloth, and sewing that cloth into clothes. Yes, even in the second half of the 20th century, millions of women were still clothing their families by starting with a cotton plant. Many of these women are still alive, and they remember being very, very tired (Eyferth).

At times, the state insisted on brutal and unsustainable hours. These workers are out in the fields at night. It’s difficult to tell, but at least one appears to be a woman. (Wikimedia Commons)

Researcher Jason Eyferth wrote “the knowledge, never openly admitted, that rural women would make up for shortages by working overtime made it possible for the state to systematically under supply the countryside” (Eyferth, Less for More, 79).

China was extreme. But women the world over were facing the same problem. Women had always worked hard. But housework no longer counted as work. Certainly not in the eyes of communist regimes, and not in the eyes of capitalist societies either. Those are exactly the words used for a housewife in American English. She “doesn’t work.” Increasingly, she worked elsewhere, either because the state told her to, or because feminists said she’d be more fulfilled that way, or because she genuinely wanted to, or because her finances required it.

But someone still has to do all the cooking, cleaning, child care, and household managing. Sure, much of it is easier than it was in the past, but it still takes time. The world over that burden still falls disproportionately on women (Heisig, 92), whether she works outside the home or not.

On the subject of unpaid care work, the McKinsey Global Institute grades countries by the level of gender inequality. The grades are extremely high inequality, high inequality, and medium inequality. There is no country in the world that they rank at low or nonexistent inequality, though Uganda comes the closest (Mckinsey). The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development reaches similar conclusions by calculating the number of daily minutes spent in unpaid work, divided by country and gender. There is no country on the list where the genders are equal. Denmark comes the closest (OECD).

There is no surer way to irritate a modern housewife than to blithely assume that all women work outside the home. They do not. According to the Pew Research Center, about 1 in 5 United States parents are homemakers. Most of them are mothers, but not all. 17% are now stay-at-home dads (Livingston).

For these homemakers, all the same conflicting forces are still in play. Our society continues to value paid work, both financially and also as identity. The very first question Americans often ask a new acquaintance is “What do you do for a living?” Homemakers often find that hard to answer. Some tasks have continued to get easier. For example, that whole transportation deal was interesting to read about in a world slithering its way out of a pandemic. The delivery services are now back in demand, and you can get practically anything you want dropped off at your front door. Doctors don’t do house calls, but they do have virtual appointments.

Don’t discount the homemaker’s time yet though. Because houses are bigger (more cleaning), possessions have multiplied (more organizing), and childcare standards have climbed so high they are approaching the stratosphere. Just talk to a homeschooling mom about whether she needs suggestions for her leisure time. The answer is no. And she’s got Pinterest for that anyway.

The modern world has far more opportunities for women than ever before and that’s good. I’m grateful. But the need to keep all family members fed, clothed, healthy, and happy has not gone away. And fulfilling those needs will always be of enormous value. However you and yours are managing it, I wish you well.

I’ve got a lot of major sources today, but the one I haven’t mentioned before is Danielle Dreilinger’s The Secret History of Home Economics. The others are listed on the website at along with a transcript, pictures, and a subscribe button. You can tell me your thoughts on housewives on Twitter @her_half or on Facebook. Keep it polite, though, or I’ll block you. I am now officially on break, but I will be back some unspecified Thursday in August with a brand new series. Don’t miss it! Thanks!

Selected Sources

Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave. New York, Ny, 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.

Eyferth, Jacob. “Less for More: Rural Women’s Overwork and Underconsumption in Mao’s China.” Clio. Women, Gender, History, no. 41 (2015): 65–84.

Eyferth, Jacob. “Women’s Work and the Politics of Homespun in Socialist China, 1949–1980.” International Review of Social History 57, no. 3 (2012): 365–91.

Harsch, Donna. “Between State Policy and Private Sphere: Women in the GDR in the 1960s and 1970s.” Clio. Women, Gender, History, no. 41 (2015): 85–105.

Heisig, Jan Paul. “Who Does More Housework: Rich or Poor? A Comparison of 33 Countries.” American Sociological Review 76, no. 1 (2011): 74–99.

Livingston, Gretchen. “Stay-At-Home Moms and Dads Account for about One-In-Five U.S. Parents.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 24 Sept. 2018, Accessed 12 July 2022.

Matynia, Elzbieta. “Women After Communism: A Bitter Freedom.” Social Research 61, no. 2 (1994): 351–77.

McKinsey Global Institute. “How Gender-Equal Is Your Country? MGI Examines Gender Equality across 15 Indicators.”, 28 Sept. 2015, Accessed 12 July 2022.

Michals, Debra. “Betty Friedan.” National Women’s History Museum, 2017, Accessed 12 July 2022.

OECD. “Employment : Time Spent in Paid and Unpaid Work, by Sex.”, 2017, Accessed 12 July 2022.

Schenone, Laura. A Thousand Years over a Hot Stove: A History of American Women Told through Food, Recipes, and Remembrances. W W Norton and Co Inc, 2004.

Strasser, Susan. Never Done: A History of American Housework. New York, Henry Holt, 1980.

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