Mohun, Arwen Palmer
MOHUN, Arwen Palmer
CAREER: University of Delaware, Newark, associate professor of history and director, of University of Delaware-Hagley program in the history of technology and industrialization. Consultant for National Museum of American History and Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site.
(Editor, with Roger Horowitz) His and Hers: Gender,Consumption, and Technology, University Press of Virginia, 1998.
(Editor, with Nina E. Lerman and Ruth Oldenziel) Gender and Technology: A Reader, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 2003.
Contributor to periodicals, including Journal of Design History, Technology and Culture, and Gender and History.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Better Safe than Sorry: Technology and Risk in Industrializing America, a book "dealing with the relationship between the process of industrialization and changing ideas and practices regarding risk and safety."
SIDELIGHTS: An associate professor of history at the University of Delaware, Arwen Palmer Mohun specializes in the cultural and social history of technology. Her academic work explores the history and development of industrialization, technology, gender, food, and the post-U.S. Civil War development of America itself, noted a biographer on the University of Delaware Web site. Mohun's teaching and research interests cover numerous broad topics, including notions of acceptable and unacceptable risk, the changing material context of industrial societies, and issues of gender and technology.
With His and Hers: Gender, Consumption, and Technology Mohun and co-editor Roger Horowitz offer eight essays on North American consumption between 1840 and 1960. Examining manufacturers of glassware, chocolates, automobiles, phonographs, radios, and appliances, as well as businesses such as luxury hotels and utility companies, the contributors show that these companies had to learn what consumers wanted using go-betweens such as home economists and buyers. The essays also examine the role of gender in consumption patterns, noting that the stereotype of men as producers and women and consumers is incorrect. David E. Nye wrote in American Historical Review that "although this volume . . . originated in a conference, it coheres better than most such works and is essential reading for historians who seek to link technology, consumption, and gender."
In Steam Laundries: Gender, Technology, and Work in the United States and Great Britain, 1880-1940 Mohun writes that she wants to look "anew at the bigger picture of industrialization," using the steam laundry industries in the United States and in Britain as a case history. "Mohun's overarching task is to examine the ways in which gender shaped technology and technology shaped gender in this peculiar industrial arena," noted Jenrose Fitzgerald in Journal of Women's History.
"The demand for laundry grew out of the discovery, in the nineteenth century, of links between dirt and disease, and from the emergence of clean clothes as a sign of social superiority," remarked a reviewer in Economist. Lack of adequate water supplies and the presence of airborne pollutants that would settle on clothes drying outside prompted city dwellers to seek different options for doing the wash. Commercial laundries first appeared in the 1840s, and early on laundry owners attempted to operate them like factories. Their employees interacted directly with consumers. These customers were female, as were most of the workers, but the employers were all male. "Although laundry was gendered as female, and continued to be even after mechanization, technological developments brought men into the laundries to do the heaviest work, such as loading the washing machines," commented Ruth Percy in Labour/Le Travail. Mohun examines these gender patterns, as well as the reasons these laundries expanded, as women moved away from doing their own laundry, or using individual washerwomen to clean their clothes, and opted for the less-personal and supposedly more hygienic industrial laundry. The large steam laundries, however, found it difficult to operate with the same type of efficiency as the factories that manufactured clothes. The needs of individual customers, with clothing requiring varied types of treatment, prevented laundries from operating on a level equivalent to mass production. Working conditions were also difficult and unpleasant, even dangerous. "Most workers were unskilled and were often exploited, being expected to toil in appalling conditions of steam-filled, ammonia-impregnated rooms, while standing in water and lacking fresh air," observed Margaret Walsh in Business History. Though the continual advancement of technology allowed the steam laundries to come into existence in the first place, later innovations led to their eventual decline. As more homes were fitted with electricity and running water, more women returned to doing laundry at home, and the steam laundries slowly vanished.
Mohun's Steam Laundries: Gender, Technology, and Work in the United States and Great Britain, 1880-1940 "is a highly ambitious project, and she succeeds remarkably well in rethinking processes of industrialization, technological innovation, and entrepeneurialism in local, national and transatlantic contexts," commented Fitzgerald. In the Times Literary Supplement, Jay Kleinberg wrote that the book "is an important contribution to our understanding of the gendered history of technology in Britain and the United States." Mohun's "focus, not only on laundry workers, male and female, but also on laundry owners, reformers and unions, the place of laundries in society, and the importance of the consumer, produces an interesting and original labor history," Percy concluded.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Mohun, Arwen Palmer, Steam Laundries: Gender,Technology, and Work in the United States and Great Britain, 1880-1940, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1999.
American Historical Review, December, 1991, David E. Nye, review of His and Hers: Gender, Consumption, and Technology, pp. 1630-1631.
Business History, July, 2000, Margaret Walsh, review of Steam Laundries: Gender, Technology, and Work in the United States and Great Britain, 1880-1940, p. 176.
Economist, May 3, 2003, review of Steam Laundries.
Journal of Women's History, autumn, 2000, Jenrose
Fitzgerald, review of Steam Laundries, p. 207.
Labour/Le Travail, spring, 2002, Ruth Percy, review of Steam Laundries, p. 323.
Times Literary Supplement, October 22, 1999, Jay Kleinberg, review of Steam Laundries, p. 37.
University of Delaware Web site,http://www.udel.edu/
(November 16, 2004).*