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 Farm work has been greatly reduced, but it has been replaced by work in the labor force.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.