Domestic Labor

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Domestic Labor

Between the birth of the new Republic and the advent of the Civil War, a great transformation occurred in domestic labor. This transformation was not a result of inventions that made housework easier but rather of market penetration and the reallocation of tasks within the household. The American colonial farmstead, although never self-sufficient, had been the site of much household production. However, by the 1840s and 1850s the market revolution had taught women that it was to their advantage to buy many mass-produced items (including candles, soap, and cloth) rather than making them at home. Domestic labor was transformed from an integral part of the family economy, producing goods that could be obtained nowhere else, to a vaguely discredited activity that paid no wages. In North and South alike, most middle- and upper-class families, and many farm families, had always had servants, but the nature of servitude was changing as the definition of domestic labor changed.

domestic labor in the north

In the North the allocation of tasks within the household depended on location and social status. Frontier women, assisted by children, had the most onerous domestic burden, as is evident in documents like the diary of Martha Ballard, a Maine midwife. Their labor was unrelenting and thought to be detrimental to health, with tasks like washing, brewing, or baking consuming entire days' work. Daily cooking required the kindling and tending of fires and the provision of vast amounts of wood—theoretically a man's job that devolved onto women when men were absent. Cooking, laundry, and personal hygiene also required large amounts of water, often carried in from wells some distance from the farmhouse. In addition to these daily tasks, women were responsible for child care, sewing for clothing production and maintenance, animal husbandry, gardening, and seasonal or occasional work, such as candle making, soap making, and butter and cheese making. Although some tasks, like warping looms in preparation for weaving, were farmed out to specialists, frontier households also engaged in spinning and weaving their own cloth, especially if there were teenage daughters at home needing to outfit their own future households.

In contrast with toiling farm women, urban middle-class women hired household "helps" to do heavier tasks while they supervised. In the first decades of the Republic, as in the colonial period, many native-born teenagers were sent out to service other households, either as a form of domestic apprenticeship or out of economic need. These young women, who formed emotional bonds with the families they served, coexisted alongside wives of "cottagers" who got paid to help with household work.

By the 1820s and 1830s, the stigma of heavy and dirty domestic work, and the appearance of opportunities for factory work and work outside the home, or outwork, led native-born white women to desert domestic jobs. They were replaced by Irish immigrants. Although their work schedules kept them moving from dawn until late in the evening, Irish women were said to prefer domestic work, which enabled them to earn money to pay for the migration of family members, to save money for their old age, and to donate to causes they found worthy. The expectation that a live-in domestic worker would be a member of the household (although not an equal member) did not disappear, despite yawning cultural differences between mistress and maid. Households that were unable to find and keep live-in domestic servants relied on a piecework system, in which women living within their own homes did extra washing, sewing, and other such chores for families in the community. This arrangement allowed women to participate in the cash economy while still retaining autonomy over the way in which these chores were completed.

domestic labor in the south

Southern domestic labor was organized on a two-track system. Yeoman households without slaves resembled farm households throughout the North, with women still accomplishing much of the household production and heavily weighed down by their tasks. In contrast, in Southern planter households domestic labor was largely carried out by slaves. House servants included not only women but also children who were too young to work as field hands. Slaves worked in Southern households as cooks, provided child care, and even served as wet nurses. Many of these slaves had a double burden, as they were responsible for cooking, sewing, and cleaning within their own households in the slave quarter as well as for the maintenance of the Big House. Plantation mistresses taught the slaves their tasks, superintended their work, and planned household consumption, including the feeding and clothing of the workforce.

Like their Northern counterparts, many antebellum Southerners felt that it was more ladylike for women to devolve the heavier tasks of household upkeep onto servants if they could afford to do so. As a result, even yeoman households rented single slave women or children to work at domestic tasks. Hirers had to pay these slaves' owners an annual hiring fee and also provide the slaves with food, shelter, and clothing. Hiring slaves to perform domestic tasks did not necessarily help yeoman families climb the economic ladder by acquiring more land and slaves, but it did help them to feel as though they were higher up in the hierarchical social order of the South.

Jeanne Boydston, one of the most prominent historians of domestic labor, has pointed out that as the division between the public world of commerce and the private world of the house became more distinct, women took less pride in, and received less credit for, their unpaid work around the home. At the same time, however, housework done well contributed to the family economy, as when working class women took in boarders and their children scavenged fuel from local docks. Furthermore, for many rural and urban women alike, "domestic labor" meant labor performed for the market within the home, as well as unpaid labor to keep the family economy running. Whether they were shoemakers' wives stitching shoes or rural women plaiting straw hats and straw brooms, women and girls prefigured much of the tenement-based outwork that would characterize the second half of the nineteenth century.

See alsoDomestic Life; Economic Development; Immigration and Immigrants: Ireland; Market Revolution; Women: Professions; Work: Work Ethic .


Barton, Keith C. "'Good Cooks and Washers': Slave Hiring, Domestic Labor, and the Market in Bourbon County, Kentucky." Journal of American History 84, no. 2 (1997): 436–460.

Boydston, Jeanne. Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Clark, Christopher. The Roots of Rural Capitalism: Western Massachusetts, 1780–1860. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Diner, Hasia R. Erin's Daughters in America: Irish Immigrant Women in the Nineteenth Century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.

Izard, Holly V. "The Ward Family and Their 'Helps': Domestic Work, Workers, and Relationships on a New England Farm, 1787–1866." Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 103, no. 1 (1993): 61–91.

Stansell, Christine. City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789–1860. New York: Knopf, 1986.

Jamie L. Bronstein

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Domestic Labor

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