Monday, March 17, 2008

The Other Half

Under the Gables continues the informative series on the history of housework in America. Life in the tenements around the turn of the century was not pleasant.
For these working women, it was almost impossible to keep their homes clean and orderly. Quarters were cramped, an entire family or more living in a single room or at most four rooms. Beds were shared; privacy was nonexistent in such homes. There was little if any storage space and therefore "everything that was needed for living and for working was out in the open nearly all the time: the pots and pans jostled with the sewing machine, the clothing jostled with the broom, the table was rarely cleared (where else would the utensils be put?) the toys (such as they were) mingled with the shoes (such as they were),... Beds became chairs, and sometimes doors became beds; one table might be used for preparing food, for eating it, for stitching garments, or gluing artificial flowers, or butchering a chicken. The towel with which people wiped their hands might wipe a baby's bottom or the floor or the table or the pots."
For middle class women, however, it was the Golden Age:
The years of 1890 to 1920 or the end of World War I marked the golden age for women who had achieved married middle-class status. In their case, the combination of technology's bringing amenities AND the help of hired servants--either permanently in the home or for jobs such as laundry, ironing, heavy cleaning, serving, or cooking--gave women the most leisure they have ever had--before or since. In this period the middle-class standard for the home was set: "Her home was capacious, orderly, and clean. All the members of the family wore clothing that fitted properly, and they changed it with some frequency. Meals were served at set times, on clean plates; and the diet was varied enough to keep everyone reasonably healthy. Children of this class had acquired the rudiments of education even before they entered school, and their progress in school was carefully monitored."