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.
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 Farm work has been greatly reduced, but it has been replaced by work in the labor force.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.
What Domestic Work?
Gershuny and Harms unearthed in government archives the time budgets that over 500 rural women filled out in the 1920s. They then located those women in U.S. Census records, allowing them to add more information about each family, such as how many children the women had. They compared these time budgets (which reported on almost 3,700 days) to reports by rural women in a 1975 time-budget study and in time-budget surveys conducted from 2003 to 2011.
Gershuny and Harms found, in contrast to Vanek, a sharp drop in the average amount of time rural women spent “cooking, clearing, and cleaning”: from about 4½ hours a day in the 1920s to under 3 hours in 1975 and to under 2 hours in the 2000s. Other chores never took as much time as this set, but laundering and mending also took fewer minutes a day. Modern women spent more time, instead, doing farm or paid work–up from an average of 1 hour a day to about 3½ hours a day. Shopping time grew from about ½ hour a day to about 1½ hours. (Buying prepared food and factory-made clothing replaced do-it-yourself.) And taking care of others–children or adults–grew by about the same amount.
The authors looked more closely at those of the women who were employed less than an hour a day. For them, too, cooking-clearing-cleaning declined sharply from the 1920s to the 2000s–by about 2 hours a day–and the key increase in time on domestic tasks was in shopping, about 1 hour more, and in doing child and adult care, about 1:20 hours more. In general, rural women’s “free” time increased over the decades, the amount of increase varying from just a few minutes more to a couple of hours more depending on whether the women worked and on how many children of what ages they had.
This new story, then, is that labor-saving technologies did save considerable housework time, but not nearly as much time in overall domestic duties. In part, that is because many more women worked (see, e.g., here) and because women did more shopping. The most interesting shift in time, however, was to greater attention to child care.
Attending to Children
The authors focus on time devoted to child care–as do other, larger-scale studies that compare all women, not just rural ones (and compare men’s time, too), from the 1960s into the 2000s (e.g., here). More time with children–most evident among middle-class Americans–Gershuny and Harms (as well as others) argue, can be explained in two ways. One is that parents are now doing more explicit child care rather than folding child supervision into other activities. For example, instead of having the child play in the kitchen while cleaning dishes, parents just play with the child. (Let the dishwasher run or just let the dishes pile up.) The other factor is that parents are deliberately setting aside more time to “invest” in their children’s development, perhaps in response to the sense that children need more parental “investment” if they are going to succeed in a more competitive, or at least, a more ambitious world.
Indeed, the latest data suggest that many Americans are lowering their housekeeping standards–even if keeping house is so much more easier and quicker than in grandma’s day–in order to spend time with their children.