May 31, 2006

Housework Never Ends

The standard line on the washing machine is that it saves labor. So does the iron, the dishwasher, and the vacuum cleaner. They're magical appliances. Some critics of the French economy and its 35-hour work week are fond of noting that the French don't actually have more leisure time than Americans, because they can't afford as many fancy electric appliances, so they spend more time doing housework. On the other side of this is Betty Friedan, who wrote in The Feminine Mystique that those nifty appliances don't actually reduce the amount of work housewives have to do around the house because "housewifery expands to fill the time available."

Well, it's possible that Betty Friedan was right, in a way. Granted, the dishwasher and washing machine really do save time and energy. I have no intention of hand-washing my clothes and neither do you. It's quicker this way. But what's interesting is that in the past century, a variety of "labor-saving" appliances have been invented and adapted by millions of people across the United States, and yet, somewhat surprisingly, hours spent on work around the house might actually be higher today than they were in 1900.

That's one rather striking conclusion in the middle of "A Century of Work and Leisure," by Valerie A. Ramey and Neville Francis. Although the data is sort of patchy, they estimate that the hours spent on housework by "non-employed women" stayed roughly constant between 1912 and the 1960s, and dipped only slightly after that. The simplest explanation here is that, back in the early 1900s, a lot of housework simply didn't get done, especially in poorer households. Women still worked around the house, but stuff remained dirty. In that case, appliances haven't saved time so much as simply allowed more cleaning to get done in a given amount of time.

Here's another way to look at it, though: studies asking housewives to keep time diaries found that women between 1912 and the 1960s who had electric appliances spent no less time on their housework than those without appliances. Many homes without washing machines and irons, for instance, simply hired laundresses or sent their laundry to commercial facilities, both of which were relatively cheap during this time, thanks to large-scale immigration.

Meanwhile, just as "labor-saving" appliances were becoming increasingly common, the public was becoming increasingly aware of the importance of cleanliness, so the demand for housework rose dramatically. As Friedan noted, housewives with washing machines were suddenly expected to wash the sheets twice a week. The same goes for child care. Despite the fact that families in the early 20th century had more kids, parents—especially mothers—in the postwar period actually spent more time with their kids, perhaps spurred, Ramey and Francis write, by "widely-publicized studies on the effects of parental interaction on children's development."

Meanwhile, "employed men" nowadays seem to do much more housework than they did in the early part of the century—an average of 16 hours a week versus virtually nothing in the 1920s. That's less than half of the roughly 45 hours a week spent by housewives, and less than the 25 hours a week spent by employed women. At any rate, if you add all these up, families as a whole spend about as much time doing housework today as they did in 1912. They presumably get better results for their work—clothes are cleaner, dishes are cleaner, the kids probably study harder—but they don't necessarily have more leisure.
-- Brad Plumer 6:57 PM || ||