One of the fascinating stories about Americans’ encounters with modern technology has been about how the flurry of labor-saving devices from the early twentieth century–electric lighting, central heating, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, electric and gas stoves, washing machines, dryers, full water and sewer systems, etc.–did or perhaps did not reduce the domestic workload of American women.

The conventional answer among historians, developed most fully in Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s 1980 classic, More Work for Mother (see also here), is a paradox: The time women spent in housework did not go down between, say, the 1900s and the 1960s, but stayed about the same. The reason, it is argued, is that standards for good housework rose and ate up the time savings provided by technology. No longer did gruel and cold cuts of meat make a passable meal; women now had to prepare “cuisine” each evening. No longer were monthly washings of bedclothes enough; they had to be washed weekly (and personal clothing had to be washed often enough to be changed daily). No longer was a bit of dirt and grime acceptable until spring cleaning; now homes had to be spic-n-span always.

1946 (source)

1946 (source)

Housework may have become less physically draining–no more hauling water or firewood to the kitchen; no more hand-wringing of wet clothes–and the results become more satisfying–better meals, healthier families, cleaner homes–but the time demands did not change.

A key research study behind this paradoxical story appeared in 1974. Joann Vanek compared several hundred “time-budgets” filled out by American women in the 1920s and ‘30s to those gathered from American women in the 1960s. (“Time-budget” studies ask respondents to report what they were doing in precise time segments, say, every 15 minutes, throughout the waking day.) Vanek found that among women not employed outside the home there was little difference in the amount of time they spent on domestic duties between roughly 1920 and 1970, despite all those new time-saving appliances. Given that many more women were working, Vanek concluded 40 years ago: “It appears that modern life has not shortened the woman’s work day. Farm work has been greatly reduced, but it has been replaced by work in the labor force. Indeed, for married women in fulltime jobs the work day is probably longer than it was for their grandmothers.”

In a newly-published study, Jonathan Gershuny and Teresa Atttracta Harms go back to the original time-budget reports, add more data and some new techniques, and come up with a somewhat different conclusion about technology and domestic work.

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Long-time Washington official and deal maker Leon Panetta was recently quoted–by long-time California official and deal-maker Willie Brown–reminiscing about the old days “when Republicans and Democrats often bunked together in Washington, D.C., and how that fostered a mutual respect we no longer see.” To those who view the recent decades of political polarization as rooted in deep social and economic forces, this observation seems more like nostalgia than serious analysis. But a new study of congressional polarization and congressional bunking together two centuries ago suggests that there may be something to the Panetta remark and to the idea that personal connections across party lines can build political bridges.

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The End of Good Work?

In 1879 farm laborers in Maryland destroyed harvesting machinery and left the farm owner a note:

“You will please stop your other machines or next will be your life. . . . We do not get work enough . . . we have to go into det.” In 1938 Congress examined how mechanization was displacing tens of thousands of farm workers and families. And in 1962 President Kennedy declared that machines replacing men posed the major domestic challenge of the decade.

Repeatedly, new technologies have displaced and “de-skilled” specific kinds of work. Overall, though, American workers have gone on to have better jobs in each case. A new book by economist Robert J. Gordon, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, nonetheless argues that this time the end of good work is really coming. …. See the rest of this column at the Boston Review here.

For coincidental reasons, a few recent posts have looked at the social implications of communications technologies (e.g., how 19th-century magazine publication and 21st-century internet aggregation facilitated the emergence of communities of interest). I was going to turn to other topics–maybe song lyrics–but a just-released study brings me back to the communications theme.

A research report in the Journal of Economic History suggests that early 20th-century rural road improvement led to more mail delivery which then led to more democratic, responsive politics. Ironically, this aspect of technological “modernity” seemed to boost “anti-modern” policies.

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In a number of posts over several years, I have expressed skepticism that the new e-technologies of the last couple of decades have had the deep effects on social life that much of the media–and a few academics–assert. The best evidence is that: no, the internet and smart phones did not make people lonelier, did not impoverish human conversation, did not bring a new epoch of political revolution, etc. Despite the media trope that the global web has turned everything inside out, the human fundamentals remain pretty constant.

Yet, my rebuttal does not mean that the new e-communications technologies have had no consequences. They probably have made important differences (although the data are thin), differences similar to those generated by a “technology” that is several thousand years old: the city. Cities enable all sorts of people out in the “long tails” to aggregate into “critical masses,” fostering subcultures for nearly everything from esoteric music to terrorism.

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The nomination of Hillary Clinton for president is a penultimate historic moment. Her election, like that of Barack Obama, would be historic–at least for this country. (India installed a woman head of government 50 years ago, Israel did 47 years ago, and the U.K. did 37 years ago.) You don’t need a sociologist to tell you that women’s situations have changed dramatically in the last few decades.

Just as the election of Barack Obama in 2008 highlighted the vast advances of blacks in America but did not usher in a “post-racial” or “post-racism” era, so the election of Hillary Clinton in 2016 would highlight the vast advances of women in America but will not end the tensions about women’s proper roles. Almost all Americans today say that they would vote for a woman for president, but many of them retain reservations about the gender equality such a vote implies.

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Historian Richard Brown recounts, in his important 1989 book, Knowledge is Power, how Americans of the early nineteenth century learned to take in the torrent of information that had been unleashed on them.

In the mid-eighteenth century, most Americans learned the news, be it about colonial wars, tragic shipwrecks, or new ideas about liberty, by word of mouth. Someone in the village received a personal letter or a newspaper that he would read to others in the town square. Or tavern habitués heard the “latest” from a traveler who had heard it in another tavern in another town. (See this earlier post: “18th-Century Twitterfeed.”)

Within a couple of generations, there were many more newspapers, a national postal system, lecture societies, mass public speech-making, traveling ministers sermonizing, lending libraries, novels, almanacs, and the like. This produced, Brown argued, the democratization of knowledge on the one hand, but also its privatization on the other. Individuals learned news on their own rather than in the company of others; it brought, wrote Brown, a certain loss of community.

A new, massive study by sociologist (and my Berkeley colleague) Heather Haveman provides a detailed account of one those new forms of media–the magazine. Her book, Magazines and the Making of America: Modernization, Community, and Print Culture, 1741-1860, tells how this innovative “social media” flourished and influenced American society two centuries ago. It also draws a different lesson about media and community.

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