Household Appliances

DURING THE SPRING AND SUMMER OF 1913, AN editor at the Ladies' Home Journal compiled a list of the questions she had received from readers who needed help with their domestic problems. "Woman does all the work including laundry for a family of l0--is obliged to carry all the water that is used in the house," ran one notation. "Are there any efficiency methods that would help.?"

Efficiency wasn't going to carry any buckets for this poor soul, but help was indeed on the way. First, of course, came electricity and running water, which reached most households within the first few decades of the century. With electric power came new machines that dramatically reduced the hard labor of housework. Pounding carpets, an arduous chore that involved carrying the carpets outdoors, hanging them up and battering them for dear life, disappeared with the vacuum cleaner. J. Murray Spangler, an Ohio department-store janitor, developed the first electrical suction-cleaning device for home use in 1907. He put together a machine housing an electric fan, a brush and a bag. The fan created a partial vacuum by pumping out air, the brush swept up the dirt, and dirt and air rushed into the bag. Spangler sold the patent to W. H. Hoover, and by 1926 more than half the households in Zanesville, Ohio, owned vacuum cleaners, according to a market research study done at the time. It wasn't long before "the Hoover" became a household noun all over the industrial word.

But the job women dreaded most was doing the laundry. "From all available evidence--how-to manuals, budget studies of poor people's households, diaries--it appears that women jettisoned laundry, their most hated task, whenever they had any discretionary money at all," writes Susan Strasser in "Never Done: A History of American Housework." By hiring a woman to help, or sending out men's collars and cuffs to a commercial laundry, many women could lighten the burden a bit; but even with assistance, most housekeepers did little else on Monday but the wash. Sheer muscle power got most of the dirt out: each item had to be rubbed against a washboard in hot, soapy water. Next the housewife wrung out each item and boiled the clothes briefly on top of the stove. Then came another round of soaping, rinsing and wringing. Some items had to be starched and wrung out yet again. Finally she hung everything outdoors and prayed for dry weather.

No wonder that even the rudimentary electric washing machines introduced around 1910 made such a hit. These contraptions were motor-powered washtubs that jiggled the clothes back and forth in soapy water. They eliminated hand-scrubbing, but the housewife still had to fill the washtub with water, empty it after use and feed each wet article through a wringer mounted on top of the tub. By the '20s the tub came equipped with an underwater agitator, a device of twisted metal that kept the water sloshing through the clothes, the better to force out the dirt. Fully automatic machines, which filled and emptied themselves, were developed in the '30s and became widely available after World War II. These machines needed no wringers on top because they were built with an inner, perforated drum for spin-drying--a process that uses centrifugal force to whirl the sopping clothes until they're semidry. Automatic dryers, also introduced after the war, completed the transformation of washday (although only Westinghouse thought to gladden the laundry room in 1952 with a machine that played "How Dry I Am" at the end of each cycle)

This brave new world of washing was made even easier with new cleaning agents. Since late in the 19th Century, housewives had been accustomed to buying bars of laundry soap, made from fats and lye, and scraping them into flakes for washing clothes. (Rinso, the first granulated laundry soap, appeared in 1918.) When the fats needed for making soap ran short during World War I, the Germans developed a substitute: detergent. The active ingredient in detergent is the petrochemical alkyl benzene. Treated with caustic soda (found in lye) and sulfuric acid, alkyl benzene helps detergent penetrate soiled clothing more effectively than soap. One end of a detergent molecule has a slightly negative electrical charge, and is attracted to the slightly positive charge of water. The other end is repelled by water and instead latches onto grease and grime. As dirty laundry swirls in the washing machine, the agitation pulls the molecules, and the dirt, away from the clothing.

By the 1950s, domestic drudgery seemed on the brink of disappearing altogether, at least according to the ads in women's magazines. "The Prestoematic Ironer! Relax while you iron! .... Now dry electrically--just by touching a dial!" "The new Ultramatic Caloric... It's completely automatic! Lights automatically without matches. Cooks automatically while you're out. Makes coffee automatically while you sleep." Yet from the 1920s to the 1960s, the very period during which labor-saving appliances became standard household equipment, housework not only survived, it proliferated. According to research by sociologist Joann Vanek, fulltime housewives in 1924 spent about 52 hours a week on household chores. In 1966, their counterparts spent 55 hours.

What happened? Credit an invention with a truly formidable impact on domestic life, a work in progress since the Industrial Revolution: the American Homemaker. Early in the 19th century, with every chicken she raised and every shirt she stitched, a housewife was intrinsic to the economy. But as production shifted to factories, the contribution of nonemployed women became more intangible. Picking up socks, driving kids to Brownie meetings --it all took time, but the results were transitory and the work certainly brought in no cash. In truth, middle-class women had a vital role in the factory-driven economy: they were supposed to be full-time consumers. Framing this responsibility in the noblest possible terms kept journalists and copywriters, at least, fully employed. As Vera Connolly, the editor of Woman's Day, cautioned her readers in 1988, just because they had time on their hands was no reason to get a job. "It takes from a capable young husband the privilege of being head of his family and its sole support," she explained. "Then, too, there is no job so important or so joyous as homemaking!"

But keeping house, joyously or not, wasn't going to eat up 55 hours a week in the age of technology without some serious redefining of terms. One of the first to be transformed was "clean." The old sense of "no visible dirt" had already been revised upward with the discovery of germs, but even "hygienically clean" was becoming relatively easy to achieve with dishwashers and washing machines. Gradually, the spread of automatic washers, a new standard emerged: clean clothing came to mean "has not touched human skin since.... most recent laundering." Under this definition it became reasonable to try on a blouse in the morning, grimace, and throw it into the laundry hamper. Vanek's data show that in 1928, before the invention of fully automatic washers, housewives spent about six hours a week doing laundry. In 1953, when ownership of the machines was common, the job took seven hours.

Another term that needed refurbishing was "cooking," in part to acknowledge the contribution made by convenience foods. Clarence Birdseye, a naturalist and fur trader traveling in Labrador in 1916, had been the first to understand how Inuit fish-freezing techniques could transform American dinner tables. The key was speed. When biological tissue freezes slowly, large ice crystals form within and outside the cells. When the tissue thaws, the large crystals damage the cell walls (in plants) or membranes (in animals). The result is mushy-textured vegetables and tough meat. But the Inuits laid fresh-caught fish on the ice, where it froze quickly. The crystals were small, allowing cells to retain their integrity. Their fish had the texture and flavor of the fresh catch. Birdseye went home and established Birdseye Seafoods, later expanding his business to include meat, fruits and vegetables.

Convenience foods really did cut down on cooking time. A cake-mix cake hit the oven in two minutes flat; instant mashed potatoes lived up to their name (at least the "instant" part). What's more, a growing segment of the nation's economy was devoted to manufacturing and selling convenience foods, while nobody had much of an economic stake in promoting homemade borscht. The challenge facing the food industry was to keep women excited about cooking--to make it "important" and "joyous"--just as technology was making it all but unnecessary. "Get dinner with the help of your refrigerator," suggested a 1953 story in the Woman's Home Companion. The refrigerator would "help" the housewife prepare in advance and store two separate meals, one for the adults and one for Junior. The grown-ups, for example, would have meat loaf and pie; Junior would have a hamburger and a cup of the pie filling. Miraculously, "cooking" had been made more time-consuming without in any way affecting the amount or quality of the food.

As convenience melted imperceptibly into inanity, the very concept of housework slipped free of its hard-labor connotations and drifted into the ethereal realm of "homemaking." In television commercials, homemakers were the women in dresses and high heels often pictured rhapsodizing over their new dryers. But for their real-life counterparts, homemaking had a couple of fatal flaws, primarily the tedium and the lack of tangible rewards. Hence it was vulnerable to just about any competition for the house-wife's attention. In the early 1970s, a team of sociologists interviewed 309 women in Evanston, Ill., about their domestic responsibilities. The women put in a mean of 31.5 hours a week--the first reduction in housekeeping time since the dawn of labor-saving technology. Not that technology contributed much to the new efficiency. What made the revolution wasn't vacuum cleaners; it was work--paycheck-type work.

Paychecks had always been more effective than machinery in getting women out of the house. Vanek's research shows employed women tearing through their housework in about half the time reported by at-home women. By the 1970s working women, once a minority, had become a critical mass: in the Evanston sample, 63 percent were employed full or part time. And the more time they spent at their jobs, the less household work got done by the women or anyone else. The job itself shrank; whole chunks of it broke off from disuse. Today, women employed full time are experts at keeping chores to such a minimum--don't dust the piano until you actually sneeze while walking by--that it barely qualifies as housework, much less homemaking. Call it domestic life support.

But the American Homemaker is still with us. No, she doesn't spend the day beaming at her dishwasher anymore, or exclaiming over the brightness of her waxed floors. Instead you'll find her spray-painting the doorknobs for Thanksgiving or getting up at 5 a.m. to make 14 kinds of dim sum for brunch. Technology? She loves it; in fact, she's thinking of repairing that old sewing machine in the attic and making matador outfits for all the kids in the neighborhood. Sure, she has a paying job. But as her lifetime subscription to Martha Stewart Living often reminds her, "There is no job so important or so joyous as homemaking!" As for the rest of us--the ones who would rather wear bath towels on the street than use a sewing machine again--what makes homemaking joyous today is that it isn't a job. At long last, it's a choice.