In this classic work of women's history (winner of the 1984 Dexter Prize from the Society for the History of Technology), Ruth Schwartz Cowan shows how and why modern women devote as much time to housework as did their colonial sisters. In lively and provocative prose, Cowan explains how the modern conveniences--washing machines, white flour, vacuums, commercial cotton--seemed at first to offer working-class women middle-class standards of comfort. Over time, however, it became clear that these gadgets and gizmos mainly replaced work previously conducted by men, children, and servants. Instead of living lives of leisure, middle-class women found themselves struggling to keep up with ever higher standards of cleanliness.
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(229mm x 152mm x 17mm)
Publisher: The Perseus Books Group
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US Kirkus Review »
The ironies revolve around the idea that household industrialization has led to less work for father, more work for mother; the basic fallacy lies in equating the open hearth and the microwave. True, Prof. Cowan (History, SUNY/Stony Brook) achieves a clearer, sharper focus on the technological improvements than Susan Strasser's exposition of this thesis, Never Done (1982). She also has recourse to a hypothetical Connecticut couple to guide us through the changing times and technologies. Nonetheless, the book reduces to one big feminist point applied - rather flatly - to a mass of detail. If the pre-Industrial household was based on the labor of both spouses, then the early stages of industrialization paved the way for increasing inequality. "Merchant flour, cast-iron stoves, municipal water, and manufactured boots did not free [women] from their labors. Insofar as these commodities allowed men and boys to leave their homes and. . . created new jobs that only women could perform, women were tied even more strongly. . . to their cast-iron hearths." Further industrialization did move many tasks out of the house - clothes-making, health, food-preserving-but expanded the time relegated to transportation. "The automobile had become, to the American housewife of the middle classes, what the cast-iron stove. . . would have been to her counterpart of 1850 - the vehicle through which she did much of her most significant work." The "golden years" of housework were 1900-1920, when the average middle-class woman could count on some domestic help, and before she was expected to hold down a job too. While new appliances helped poor women achieve "basic amenities that their mother could not have attained," the disappearance of servants has meant that "women who had been in comfortable circumstances before the war. . . were under increasing pressure. . . to shoulder the burden of housework alone." Add in outside employment and the result is more work for mother. But there's an apples and oranges problem here: is labor to be judged by hours alone? Does driving to ballet classes match beating the rugs? (Does a microwave take the time or the trouble of an open hearth?) Strong on research, short on common sense. (Kirkus Reviews)
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Author Biography - Ruth Schwartz Cowan
Ruth Schwartz Cowan is associate professor of history at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.