Technologically, the typical American home of 1900 wasn’t so different from the typical home of 1500. Bereft of modern equipment, it had no electricity. Although some rich families had indoor plumbing, most did not. Family members were responsible for ferrying each drop of water in and out of the house.
The following decades brought a bevy of labor-saving appliances. Air conditioning and modern toilets, for starters. But also refrigerators and freezers, electric irons, vacuum cleaners, and dishwashers.
These machines worked miracles. Electric stoves made food prep faster. Automatic washers and dryers cut the time needed to clean a load of clothes. Refrigerators meant that housewives and the help didn’t have to worry about buying fresh food every other day.
Each of these innovations could have saved hours of labor. But none of them did. At first, these new machines compensated for the decline in home servants. (They helped cause that decline, as well.) Then housework expanded to fill the available hours. In 1920, full-time housewives spent 51 hours a week on housework, according to Juliet Schor, an economist and the author of The Overworked American. In the 1950s, they worked 52 hours a week. In the 1960s, they worked 53 hours. Half a century of labor-saving technology does not appear to have saved the typical housewife even one minute of labor.
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This might seem impossible. But there are three simple reasons for this—and each has clear implications for why a combination of individual psychology and structural forces makes it so hard for Americans to find more time, even in an economy that is becoming ever more rich and technologically sophisticated.
Better technology means higher expectations—and higher expectations create more work.
For most of history, humans blithely languished in their own filth. Most families’ clothes were washed on a semi-annual basis, and body odor was inescapable. The fleet of housework technologies that sprang into the world between the late-19th and mid-20th century created new norms of cleanliness—for our floors, our clothes, ourselves.
New norms meant more work. Automatic washers and dryers raised our expectations for clean clothes and encouraged people to go out and buy new shirts and pants; housewives therefore had more loads of laundry to wash, dry, and fold. As one 1920s housewife wrote, of her new dusting and mopping and furniture-polish technology, “because we housewives of today have the tools to reach it, we dig every day after dust that grandmother left to a spring cataclysm.”
New home tech also created new kinds of work that absorbed the extra time. For example, refrigerators made it easier to keep food fresh and electric ovens made it faster to cook. But housewives used this convenience to spend more time driving to the supermarket to buy fresh produce to stock the fridge. Between the 1920s and the 1960s, Schor writes, time spent prepping food fell by about 10 hours a week. But time spent shopping for food increased, in part thanks to another 20th-century invention: the supermarket.