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Evolution of the Home

Updated on July 22, 2014

Introduction

Until fairly recently in our history domestic work has been considered the work of females. During the 19th and the greater part of the 20th centuries it was even considered improper for a man to know how about or perform any household chores. To do so would break the unspoken agreement between the sexes that gave women dominion over the home in return for limited participation in society outside of the home. In their domestic role, women or housewives were responsible for the health, hygiene, and spiritual guidance of her family and her home. As a wife and a mother, a woman was expected to offer emotional support to her husband as he pursued his work in the larger world while performing duties at home of equal importance to his.

Good Housekeeping

A cover of "Good Housekeeping" magazine, 1908
A cover of "Good Housekeeping" magazine, 1908 | Source

Traditional Gender Roles: A Woman's Place in the Home

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Education and Training

Yet in the 19th and 20th centuries training to be a housewife was not part of any formal education, and it was believed that women suffered in their role as a result. Two women, Catherine Beecher and Christine Frederick, individually took it upon themselves to educate women to make them better able to perform their roles. Both women suggested that housewives should adopt a systematic approach to their work. Frederick modeled her process, household engineering, after the type of scientific management that had revolutionized industrial work. This led to a mixing of the domestic sphere with the outer world. In the 20th century industry spilled over increasingly in other ways as well as new tools were created to make housework easier. Manufactures hoped these new tools such as the vacuum, washing machine, and refrigerator would revolutionize the home just as new agricultural implements had revolutionized farming.

Woman at stove c. 1945
Woman at stove c. 1945 | Source

Stoves

In colonial times the fireplace provided both heat and a fire for cooking. Yet when Benjamin Franklin invented the Franklin Stove it greatly increased the heating capacity of a fire. Heating and cooking stoves developed from there. One of the primary roles of the housewife was to ensure the health of her family. This includes providing proper meals where cooking is a necessity, as a result, the kitchen had become the domain of the housewife. In American homes, until the 20th century, the kitchen was typically segregated from the main space of the home giving women privacy while performing their duties. However, with the growth of the arts and crafts movement, the fashion of home interiors changed. Homes became simpler and more functional and kitchen became centrally located allowing the housewife show off her prowess and new functional goods.

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The Woman's Domain

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Laundry

As the person primarily concerned with the health of her family, the housewife of the 19th and early 20th centuries was expected wash all of the clothes and linens of the household. Standard practice during the turn of the century was to hold weekly washdays on Mondays. Washday was an all-day affair and preparation officially began on Sundays when clothes were sorted and left to soak. Water in a copper wash boiler was heated over a wood burning stove. Clothes were placed in the boiling water along with chips from cut up soap bars. Some clothes were scrubbed by hand on a rough washboard to get them clean. After the clothes had been thoroughly cleaned, they were placed in the rinse water. A product called “bluing” was put in rinse water to freshen and lighten clothes. Clothes were run through a wringer to remove any excess soap and to promote drying before being hung to dry over-night. Tuesdays were for ironing clothes from Monday’s washday. As part of her home engineering, housework authority Christine Frederick, suggested that housewives move washday to Tuesday to give wives more time to spend with their husbands on Sundays. New machines promised to change washday dramatically by significantly reducing the amount of time and energy going into laundry.

Housewife Shopping

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Vacuuming

Women responsible for the hygiene of their homes spend considerable time removing the dirt and dust brought into the home. They have used the simple tools of a broom and a dustpan for centuries. However, the broom and the dustpan were not nearly as effective as they would hope on carpeted surfaces. As housing developed more American households added wall to wall carpet in their homes. The carpet sweeper was invented in the mid-19th century as a quiet method of improved floor cleaning. Later through the use of bellows suction technology was enhanced and a manual vacuum was created. Most manual vacuums needed two people to operate them. When electric vacuums entered the market many American could not afford the initial cost, while many rural American homes had no use for them as they had no electricity.

Advertizing in the 1920s

The Rise of the Female Consumer

As women began to have more time and focus on activities other than housework, society struggled to keep them in the home leading to a new role for the housewife, professional consumer- a natural progression for the housewife as the primary shopper of the household. Advertising for these new household goods targeted the housewife as the primary shopper of the household. Frederick served as a female consultant to select advertising companies helping to promote the success of women’s changed role as consumers. One advertising method was to try to boost the self-esteem of housewives, declaring publicly that they worked harder than their husbands and deserved whichever new product so that they too could enjoy some leisure time. Society hoped that by boosting the importance of housework and allowing women to pursue a limited amount of non-domestic activities they would remain in the home. Yet an increasing number of women began break social boundaries that had limited them before. More women were joining the workforce, many finding factory work easier than housework, the number of young marriage dropped significantly, and women proceeded to win the right to vote as they pursued other interests beyond the domestic sphere.

Advertizing in the Early 20th Century

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    • old albion profile image

      Graham Lee 2 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      An excellent hub. Presentation and content are tip top, it's amazing what women can do. I'm only a man :-).

      Graham.

    • poetryman6969 profile image

      poetryman6969 2 years ago

      I think we are all glad that for most of us the kill it, gut it, clean it, and cook it days are gone!