Glenn Uminowicz - July 2008
The Housekeeper’s “Electric Servants”
Executive Director, Historical Society of Talbot County
Several buildings on the downtown campus of the Historical Society of Talbot County are equipped with kitchens. The museum-studio built by architect H. Chandlee Forman and later donated to HSTC includes a reproduction colonial hearth. Throughout the year, volunteer Doris Pullman conducts open-hearth cooking demonstrations using her reproduction kitchenware.
Pullman illustrates a time when meal preparation proved laborious and seemed never-ending. Until the cast-iron stove became widely available in the 1840s, cooking food involved hauling wood, maintaining a fire, boiling vegetables in a large cauldron, baking biscuits in covered pots topped with warm coals, and frying pork or other foods on “iron spiders” that looked like frying pans with legs. Cooking over an open hearth was decidedly dangerous. Scalds, burns and catching a sleeve or an apron in the fire were regular occurrences.
The modern kitchen in the main museum building’s 1980s addition stands in sharp contrast to the open hearth. With its electric stove, refrigerator, dishwasher and microwave, this workspace epitomizes what historians now refer to as the “industrialized kitchen” of the late 20th century.
Historian Loretta Lorance observed, “In a Darwinian view of the history of household technology it is easy to accept that today’s home has naturally benefited from the progress of science and technology. And, if the path of this progression were traced, the beginnings would be found long before the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution.”
Between the open hearth and the late-20th-century kitchen, however, Lorance insisted there lay a specific “point of conjunction between the home, technology and readily available energy.” That point is the decade of the 1920s. At the center of that conjunction stood the housewife, her domestic servants and household appliances. As technology produced more opportunities for women in the workplace, fewer chose to put in long hours for low wages as domestics. Those still willing to serve demanded higher wages that were beyond the means of some middle-class families.
As early as 1890, the local Easton newspaper published an article on the developing “servant problem.” In 1914, an advertisement in the Denton Journal offered a technological solution to the situation. The ad copy read, “Your wife cannot keep a maid—she is cross when you get home at night. And why? You have not given her UP-TO-DATE implements to work with.”
The American Butter Cutting Machine Company chided farmers for purchasing cultivators for themselves while refusing to present their wives with manually operated washing machines like the one pictured in the ad. Such husbands should be “Butted Into.” (The ad included a cartoon of a goat impacting the posterior of an offending farmer.)
By the 1920s, the housewife and her appliances became increasingly linked to a readily available source of energy—electricity. In 1924, for example, the Easton newspaper ran a full-page ad for “FRIGIDAIRE Electric Refrigeration” that offered a process so flexible that it could be adapted for any home. Consumers could either buy a new refrigerator from the company or have an icebox retrofitted using a Frigidaire cooling unit and compressor.
By the end of the 1920s, the refrigerator stood among an ever-increasing array of “electric servants” that appliance manufacturers insisted made housework less strenuous and time consuming. To convince housewives that their products would cleanly, safely, and efficiently decrease housework, electric companies and appliance manufacturers utilized articles, demonstrations, and advertisements. Not only would electricity benefit the housewife by easing her workload and solving her servant problem, it would do so in a safe and healthy manner.
In 1931, the Denton newspaper ran an illustrated article supplied by Westinghouse Electric that epitomized the promotional techniques perfected in the previous decade. The story referenced an all-electric display kitchen in Cleveland that served as an “amazing example of efficiency, convenience and time-saving elements assembled into a unit for the housewife.” The “production line of this kitchen” was arranged for efficiency with appliances strategically placed to “save steps.” Westinghouse boasted, “For the first time in woman’s history, she has been given a workspace comparable to that of her husband.” A day would soon dawn when housewives would experience “emancipation from unnecessary fatigue and unpleasant working conditions” and enjoy the freedom to pursue personal interests.
For decades, appliance manufactures declared to housekeepers that their products provided a better life, liberty from hours of drudgery, and the freedom to pursue happiness during increased hours of leisure. By the 1970s, however, historians began to question those claims.
In 1974, Joann Vanek published research indicating that housekeepers in the 1970s spent no less time doing housework than their counterparts in the 1920s. She pointed out that technology had not altered the primary assignment of housework to women, although the emphasis on what kinds of activities they engaged in changed. In the 1970s, women spent less time in food preparation and housecleaning. Compared to the 1920s, however, they expended four times more hours on childcare and shopping. On average, women spent the equivalent of one working day per week on the road or in stores, driving the kids to after school activities and buying food and clothing. Because their families owned more clothes and washed them more often, the amount of time spent doing laundry actually increased compared to fifty years earlier. Vanek concluded, “For married women in full-time jobs, the workday is probably longer than it was for their grandmothers.”
A University of Michigan study released this April concerning time spent doing housework by married women appears to support the above conclusion. A woman who says “I do” commits on average to seven more hours of housework per week than if she remained single. On average, her partner will contribute one hour less per week than if he remained a bachelor.
In fairness, other recent studies have shown that, with each passing generation, married men are increasingly involved in childcare and doing housework. Male participation in the former likely results from a higher priority placed on spending time with children by both parents. By one estimate, men’s overall contribution to housework has increased by fifteen percent over the last forty years. In addition, men are likely to increase their contribution to family work the longer they and their spouse maintain a two-income household. Research by psychologist Joshua Coleman also indicates that wives express greater sexual interest and affection for husbands who share household chores.
Over the last several decades, the amount of time women spend on housework declined and men appear more willing to take on more of the load. Yet technology has still not altered the primary assignment of housework to women. In More Work for Mother (1983), Ruth Schwartz Cowan noted, “Housework history is also the history of tools.” The history of the development and marketing of those tools has focused on women. Feminized technology can hardly be effective against gender bias.
The history of the microwave oven serves as a case in point. The appliance traces its origins back to 1945, when Raytheon Corporation officials were searching for a replacement for lucrative World War II military contracts. Company engineers targeted the restaurant market for microwave sales. They produced a 670 pound behemoth that stood 62 inches tall and measured nearly two feet deep and wide. It required a 220-volt line and a water pipe to cool the radar tube. This was no kitchen appliance.
Raytheon experienced its greatest success with the microwave after acquiring Amana, an appliance manufacturer. The design of the oven was changed to appeal to women and a new low-voltage tube allowed the device to work on regular house current.
In the mid-1960s, the company hired 26-year-old JoAnne Anderson to market the revamped product. Anderson used her Air Force training to mobilize a battalion of “Amana demonstrators” that she dispatched to department stores. She issued guidelines on what to wear, what to say, and especially what to cook. She favored Lazy Maple bacon because it had “a marvelous odor, and it traveled from one department to another department. Customers followed the smell and ended up in the appliance department.” At demonstrations and in television and newspaper ads, Anderson heralded the microwave oven as “THE GREATEST DISCOVERY SINCE FIRE.”
Anderson labeled the microwave oven a “woman’s appliance.” Couples shopped for refrigerators, but a microwave was “bought by a woman—alone.” It fit into her role as a mother, since it allowed her to safely teach youngsters how to cook. Like a Tupperware Party hostess, Anderson insisted that her demonstrators must “always dress, look, and act like a lady.”
In a journal article published in 2003, Susan Vincent concluded that Tupperware helped mediate the tensions between women’s domestic and income-earning roles. The company is a profit-making enterprise based on sociability among women that allows them to participate from both the household and income-earning sides.
Tupperware now manufactures microwave-safe containers. In the 21st century, we can savor the smell of our Lazy Maple bacon when it comes from the microwave, eat some right now, and easily save some for later. But for all our advances in household technology, the hand that puts the bacon in the oven and later in the fridge most likely belongs to a woman.