Washing Day Reform

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Washing Day Reform


By: Anonymous

Date: 1890

Source: Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

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The term "women's work" has little meaning in an era when most jobs can be held by both men and women, and equality in hiring, pay, and promotion is guaranteed by federal law. Historically the term included a pejorative implication, a suggestion that men and women were genetically suited for specific types of labor, and the work allocated to women was generally beneath the dignity of a man to perform. Women's work frequently included childcare, cooking meals, and cleaning the home; in many cultures the true definition of woman's work amounted to completing the tasks assigned by her husband. Despite television hostess Martha Stewart's ability to make basic household tasks appear fascinating and entertaining, the term "housework" implies drudgery and boredom to most women today.

Housework in the nineteenth century was time-consuming and physically demanding. Cooking took place on a wood or coal stove that required continuous fueling and that continually heated the kitchen, even during the summer. Historians estimate the daily fuel usage of a coal stove at around fifty pounds, some of which had to be removed as ashes after being burned. Food preparation typically involved numerous preliminary steps: live chickens had to be killed, plucked, and cleaned; flour had to be sifted before use; and nuts had to be shelled. In many homes water was carried inside one bucket at a time as needed, and was slowly heated on the stove before use.

Between the numerous tasks required to prepare meals, women of the 1800s were also expected to clean the house. Nineteenth century houses were filled with sources of soot and ash, including the previously mentioned stove, along with fireplaces and kerosene lamps, all of which created a constant film on walls and curtains. Lamps also had to be fueled and trimmed daily. Most homes had wooden floors, which required sweeping, and large rugs that were periodically taken outside and beaten with a large metal tool to loosen accumulated dust.

Of all the tasks required in the home, washing clothes was one of the more demanding. The process began with carrying water, an average of fifty gallons per load. Clothes were normally soaked overnight in tubs, then rubbed across rough washboards with lye soap to remove stains. Once scrubbed the clothes were transferred to fresh tubs in which they were boiled while being stirred with a stick. The clothes were then rinsed—white clothes were rinsed a second time in laundry bluing—and the garments were carried outside to line dry. Ironing and starching were optional steps.

The coming of the Industrial Revolution and the twentieth century brought the promise of relief for overworked housewives. In quick succession enterprising inventors developed practical electric irons, vacuum cleaners, and toasters. As more homes installed plumbing, the task of carrying water disappeared, and by the 1920s many middle class wives could eagerly anticipate the arrival of a modern electric washing machine in their homes.



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The modern home is far cleaner, more comfortable, and safer than homes of the nineteenth century. Many home cleaning and meal preparation tasks have become automated, freeing women (and in some cases, men) for other tasks. Despite numerous technological advances and the development of countless labor saving devices, a strange irony exists in the fact that full-time housewives today work approximately the same number of hours caring for their homes as their grandmothers did in the 1920's.

Several factors play a role in this unexpected outcome. While modern housewives spend no time carrying water, they do spend large blocks of time traveling to the supermarket and the discount store to purchase cleaning products and groceries. Modern housewives enjoy the convenience of electric dishwashers; however they also load and unload several times as many dishes as their grandmothers owned, reducing the time savings somewhat. And whereas home cleaning has become far less labor intensive, standards of cleanliness are far higher and homes are several times larger, making the task less physically demanding but in many cases just as time-consuming. Finally, labor-saving devices must be purchased, maintained, and repaired, raising their total cost of ownership and in some cases reducing the actual amount of time they save.

Like most other inventions, home labor-saving devices invariably produce unexpected outcomes for their owners, in some cases actually increasing the amount of time required to complete the task. Despite such experiences the market for labor-saving cleaning tools and products remains vibrant. In the 1990s the first home robotic vacuums became available, promising to keep floors clean automatically; by the turn of the century more than 1 million Roombas had been sold.



Brewer, Priscilla. From Fireplace to Cookstove: Technology and the Domestic Ideal in America. New York: Syracuse University Press, 2000.

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

Stanley, Autumn. Mothers and Daughters of Invention: Notes for a Revised History of Technology. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1993.


Fox, Bonnie J. "Selling the Mechanized Household: 70 Years of Ads in Ladies Home Journal." Gender & Society. 4 (1990):25-40.

Santiago, Chiori. "It All Comes Out in the Wash." Smithsonian. 28(1997):84-92.

Web sites

CBS News. "The History of Housework." April 5, 1999 〈http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/1999/04/02/broadcasts/main41492.shtml〉 (accessed July 7, 2006).

Smithsonian Institution Libraries. "The Making of a Homemaker." 〈http://www.sil.si.edu/ondisplay/making-homemaker/〉 (accessed July 18, 2006).

U.S. Library of Congress. "The History of Household Technology with Constance Carter." 〈http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/journey/household.html〉 (accessed July 1, 2006).

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Washing Day Reform

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