Never Done: A History of American Housework
© 1982 Susan Strasser
Every time I turn around there’s something else to do
Cook a meal or mend a sock or sweep a floor or two…
(“Gonna Be an Engineer”, Peggy Seeger)
Never Done: A History of American Houswork is a history of the American home, focusing on the work done within it, one which demonstrates how households became centers of consumption, instead of production. It’s a marvelously meaty work, divided into sections that not only show how chores evolved, but other elements within the household – like the now abandoned practice of taking in boarders. But more than a history of the home, it’s the story of American housewives, whose labors used to provide material value, not just aesthetic comfort; their chores carried meaning beyond keeping the carpet free of dust and the dishwasher full.
Those who complain about the chore of laundry today – “Put the clothes into the washer! Take them out! Put them into the dryer! Take them out!! When will it ever end?” are, in a word, wimps. Maintaining a household’s laundry- – clothes, towels, sheets – used to entail an entire week of labor, beginning with extended soaks before laborious hand-washing period, which included a separate ‘bluing’ phase to preserve the whiteness of said sheets. And at the same time, mother laundress would be cooking full meals from scratch, often tending a fire to do – and depending on where she lived, usually fetching entire tubs of water per day to do the washing, cooking, and cleaning with. And the cleaning! Cleaning meant more than washing the dishes and dusting the tables. Cooking with fire or oil meant soot, and processing food from scratch produced grease, and this soot and grease got everywhere; little wonder spring cleaning was seen with such dread. And at the same time, household materials had to be produced – preserves for the winter, candles for the night, clothes for the children. And we complain about vacuuming!
Such labors were eased first by fundamental innovations – the introduction of indoor plumbing, gas lines, and electricity – and then by convenience appliances (washing machines, which in their first stages still required an awful lot of work) gadgets (which did most of the work) and still later by completely processed goods (ready-made meals, disposable utensils) that took the work out of it completely. After having witnessed the demands of household labor prior to the late 19th century, the appearance of such aides is welcome….but the avalanche of consumer goods that appears in the final chapters gives one pause. As industry left the home – as the services that ran it became things to be purchased – the home and housework lost its meaning; decaying into chores,. Strasser covers the response of women to this, the attempt to elevate Home Economics to the status of business and industry by making it more ‘efficient’’ – but ultimately, the home was abandoned as women chose instead to pursue careers, and in fact had to help pay for all the new services and products they were being acculturated to expect. After growing up on canned biscuits, after all, who wants to start making dough by hand?
Although our lives have plainly become easier, there’s a certain wistfulness to the author’s writing; in some of the interviews, mothers express regret over some of the way their lives have changed. One in particular misses the time she spent with her kids washing dishes after supper; such moments of togetherness are increasingly hard to find, and emphasized the importance of the family taking care of one another’s needs; a childhood chore like keeping one’s bedroom straightened doesn’t make that connection. Strasser is more distinctly uncomfortable with the reduction of wives and mothers – of people in general – into consumers, something she presumably explores further in Satisfaction Guaranteed, and touched on in Waste and Want.
Never Done was Strasser’s first work, and it’s quite an introduction. It’s slightly more academic than Waste and Want, but considering how broad an audience Waste and Want was written for, that’s not saying much: this is still very lively, closer to narrative history than textbook — and yet it’s carrying as much information as a text, covering virtually everything that happens within its walls. This is wonderful social and domestic history.