February 23, 2011

Brightening the home, lightening domestic labour

In 1922 the Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health published an article entitled “The brightening of the home, and the lightening of domestic labour by electrical means” authored by C. H. Wordingham, CBE, electrical engineer.

The title alone was enough to make me curious, but also the date.  I would have thought that by 1922 the householder wouldn’t need to be sold on the benefits of domestic electricity.  But then, old habits die hard.  The writer is trying to sell electricity as a healthy alternative to gas and oil; remember that the article appears in a journal promoting public health.

There is the ready admission that the cost of appliances is still high, though prices will drop in time.  While appliances are still “mysterious” to the man in the street, in time they will become as familiar as coal scuttles and scrubbing brushes are today (i.e. then in 1922).

The article was at pains to point out the health hazards in using old technologies in the home, and thus persuade householders that electricity would be better for them.  Using gas or oil for lighting produced noxious gases and soot which damaged curtains, furnishings and books.  Rooms had to be redecorated frequently; the grime settled everywhere and after a short while a room would become dark and dingy.  Servants had to be paid to clean and wash ornaments and textiles.  Additionally, spending time in such a room took its toll on occupants’ lungs and skin.

Household dust has never ceased to be a problem.  Maids in the 1920s merely redistributed it with their feather dusters instead of removing it completely.  One solution is a “little piece of mechanism” (it is not explicitly named as a ‘vacuum cleaner’) that removes particles and traps them in a bag.

A reverse of the above appliance (presumably a hairdryer?) dries “long fair tresses” after a hair wash and is a “boon” appreciated by mothers.

Let’s not forget too the small appliances that make life more palatable: toasters, kettles, curling tongs or bed warmers.  Yes, the author admits, these are luxuries.  But the today’s luxuries become tomorrow’s essentials, such as the telephone or motor car.  (This is as true now as it ever was.)

The writer asserts that servants had come to embrace electrical appliances (makes their job easier?)  Further, knowing how to operate new technology means they can demand more in the market place.  They now have technical know-how.  The writer further concedes that less and less people (i.e. women) are content to enter domestic service.  There was easier work in shops, offices and factories.  (If I had a choice between a job on a production line and cleaning someone else’s oriental rug, I know what I would choose.)  And since good domestic help was becoming rarer to find and more expensive, it sometimes worked out better to do your own cleaning, with the aid of new domestic appliances.

The National Grid came into existence in the decade after this article so power supply would certainly have been patchy.  Combined with expensive appliances, few households at the bottom end of the social ladder would have had an electricity supply.  They managed as they had done before with existing methods.

The article claims that once people learn about labour-saving devices there is no going back, they insist on having them and follow the easiest route in carrying out domestic chores.  How true!  I’ve always had a vacuum cleaner around the house to clean up messes.  So when my old vacuum cleaner finally gave up the ghost, it was a nightmare having to learn to sweep with a brush and dustpan.

The power of electricity and labour-saving devices in the home brings another issue to the forefront: that of what to do with the time saved.  Nobody sits around in their clean home, twiddling their thumbs wondering what they can do next.  On the contrary, there seems to be even less free time available.  Ruth Schwartz Cowan1 demonstrates that new domestic technologies didn’t lighten the housewife’s load; she ended up working just as hard and just as long as in the ‘good old days.’  Cowan’s thesis is that with the new technology, the housewife no longer needed help from family members to do the chores (the weekly wash used to be a family event) so she ended up doing all the housework alone.  What is more, extra demands were made of her.  People changed their clothes more often and that meant more frequent washing and ironing.  Everyone assumed that since the housewife now had a washing machine, having to wash more clothes wouldn’t be a problem.  The assumption that labour-saving devices create more free time is a fallacy; we merely find more occupations to fill the gap.

This is one factor why I think that the time-saving features of telephone calls led to a greater sense of ‘speeding up’ in life because with the time saved, the caller would have filled his time with other duties.  If he sat around unable to do anything until he received a reply (as would be the case if he had sent a note or telegram), then what would have been the point in using a quicker technology?  Using technologies like these, either in the home or in business, means getting more done in the same amount of time.  Whether this leads to more efficiency is debatable. 

Those that use a new technology, never revert willingly to the old ways.  Once you’ve discovered the joys of telephoning, you forget all about the art of writing letters.

1More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave.

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