to The History of Private Life
in Late 19th Century America
By Steven Mintz
Housework in nineteenth century
America was harsh physical labor. Preparing even a simple meal
was a time and energy consuming chore. Prior to the twentieth
century, cooking was performed on a coal or wood burning stove.
Unlike an electric or a gas range, which can be turned on with
the flick of a single switch, cast iron and steel stoves were
exceptionally difficult to use.
Ashes from an old fire had to
be removed. Then, paper and kindling had to be set inside the
stove, dampers and flues had to be carefully adjusted, and a fire
lit. Since there were no thermostats to regulate the stove's temperature,
a woman had to keep an eye on the contraption all day long. Any
time the fire slackened, she had to adjust a flue or add more
Throughout the day, the stove
had to be continually fed with new supplies of coal or wood -
an average of fifty pounds a day. At least twice a day, the ash
box had to be emptied, a task which required a woman to gather
ashes and cinders in a grate and then dump them into a pan below.
Altogether, a housewife spent four hours every day sifting ashes,
adjusting dampers, lighting fires, carrying coal or wood, and
rubbing the stove with thick black wax to keep it from rusting.
It was not enough for a housewife
to know how to use a cast iron stove. She also had to know how
to prepare unprocessed foods for consumption. Prior to the 1890s,
there were few factory prepared foods. Shoppers bought poultry
that was still alive and then had to kill and pluck the birds.
Fish had to have scales removed. Green coffee had to be roasted
and ground. Loaves of sugar had to pounded, flour sifted, nuts
shelled, and raisins seeded.
Cleaning was an even more arduous
task than cooking. The soot and smoke from coal and wood burning
stoves blackened walls and dirtied drapes and carpets. Gas and
kerosene lamps left smelly deposits of black soot on furniture
and curtains. Each day, the lamp's glass chimneys had to be wiped
and wicks trimmed or replaced. Floors had to scrubbed, rugs beaten,
and windows washed. While a small minority of well-to-do families
could afford to hire a cook at $5 a week, a waitress at $3.50
a week, a laundress at $3.50 a week, and a cleaning woman and
a choreman for $1.50 a day, in the overwhelming majority of homes,
all household tasks had to be performed by a housewife and her
Housework in nineteenth century
America was a full-time job. Gro Svendsen, a Norwegian immigrant,
was astonished by how hard the typical American housewife had
to work. As she wrote her parents in l862:
We are told that the women of
America have much leisure time but I haven't yet met any woman
who thought so! Here the mistress of the house must do all the
work that the cook, the maid and the housekeeper would do in
an upper class family at home. Moreover, she must do her work
as well as these three together do it in Norway.
Before the end of the nineteenth
century, when indoor plumbing became common, chores that involved
the use of water were particularly demanding. Well?to?do urban
families had piped water or a private cistern, but the overwhelming
majority of American families got their water from a hydrant,
a pump, a well, or a stream located some distance from their house.
The mere job of bringing water into the house was exhausting.
According to calculations made in 1886, a typical North Carolina
housewife had to carry water from a pump or a well or a spring
eight to ten times each day. Washing, boiling and rinsing a single
load of laundry used about 50 gallons of water. Over the course
of a year she walked 148 miles toting water and carried over 36
tons of water.
Homes without running water also
lacked the simplest way to dispose garbage: sinks with drains.
This meant that women had to remove dirty dishwater, kitchen slops,
and, worst of all, the contents of chamberpots from their house
Laundry was the household chore
that nineteenth century housewives detested most. Rachel Haskell,
a Nevada housewife, called it "the Herculean task which women
all dread" and "the great domestic dread of the household."
On Sunday evenings, a housewife
soaked clothing in tubs of warm water. When she woke up the next
morning, she had to scrub the laundry on a rough washboard and
rub it with soap made from lye, which severely irritated her hands.
Next, she placed the laundry in big vats of boiling water and
stirred the clothes about with a long pole to prevent the clothes
from developing yellow spots. Then she lifted the clothes out
of the vats with a washstick, rinsed the clothes twice, once in
plain water and once with bluing, wrung the clothes out and hung
them out to dry. At this point, clothes would be pressed with
heavy flatirons and collars would be stiffened with starch.
The last years of the nineteenth
century witnessed a revolution in the nature of housework. Beginning
in the 1880s, with the invention of the carpet sweeper, a host
of new "labor? saving" appliances were introduced. These
included the electric iron (1903), the electric vacuum cleaner
(1907), and the electric toaster (1912). At the same time, the
first processed and canned foods appeared. In the 1870s, H.J.
Heinz introduced canned pickles and sauerkraut; in the 1880s,
Frano-American Co. introduced the first canned meals; and in the
1890s, Campbell's sold the first condensed soups. By the 1920s,
the urban middle class enjoyed a myriad of new household conveniences,
including hot and cold running water, gas stoves, automatic washing
machines, refrigerators, and vacuum cleaners.
Yet despite the introduction of
electricity, running water, and "labor-saving" household
appliances, time spent on housework did not decline. Indeed, the
typical full-time housewife today spends just as much time on
housework as her grandmother or great-grandmother. In 1924, a
typical housewife spent about 52 hours a week in housework. Half
a century later, the average full-time housewife devoted 55 hours
to housework. A housewife today spends less time cooking and cleaning
up after meals, but she spends just as much time as her ancestors
on housecleaning and even more time on shopping, household management,
laundry, and childcare.
How can this be? The answer lies
in a dramatic rise in the standards of cleanliness and childcare
expected of a housewife. As early as the 1930s, this change was
apparent to a writer in the Ladies Home Journal:
Because we housewives of today
have the tools to reach it, we dig every day after the dust
that grandmother left to spring cataclysm. If few of us have
nine children for a weekly bath, we have two or three for a
daily immersion. If our consciences don't prick us over vacant
pie shelves or empty cookie jars, they do over meals in which
a vitamin may be omitted or a calorie lacking.