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Transcript of The History of Household Technology

Transcript of video presentation by Constance Carter

Our households have changed considerably over the years. Today, we cook meals in minutes with programmable ovens, wash clothes in energy-efficient, high-performance machines, and press our clothes with cordless, electronic steam irons. If we need soap or other household necessities, we merely go to the store and find countless products at our fingertips.

But life was not always this simple. To get a glimpse of what households used to be like, let's travel back to the mid-nineteenth century using the collections at the Library of Congress. Diaries, letters, women's magazines, trade cards, and household manuals help us discover the everyday life of our feminine forebears and the challenges they faced as they struggled to keep their families fed and clothed. Life for the majority of women involved exhausting physical labor from sunup to sundown and left precious little time for leisure. A homemaker noted in her 1855 diary, "We have to work ourselves nearly to death to keep victuals on the table."

There were few labor-saving devices. Days were consumed by chopping and hauling wood, making and tending fires, pickling and canning, preparing meals, lugging and heating water, and scrubbing and ironing clothes. Families even had to make their own soap, which was a very demanding, time-consuming, unpleasant, and odorous process. One homemaker wrote, "It is not pretty work, but it's rather necessary." As menial as these tasks seemed, they were essential for sustaining daily life.

Women's popular literature of this period was full of advice about proper housekeeping. Implicit in this advice was the notion that by keeping a clean, neat, well-ordered home and filling it with warmth, inviting smells, and Christian charity, women could achieve their highest calling. A movement to elevate the status of housework found an early voice in the writings of Catharine Beecher, sister of the antislavery novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe. Beecher devoted much effort to glorifying housework and attempting to convince her readers that their daily duties, however tedious, constituted important work. She, and many others of the same mind, set out to train housewives for their calling.

Homemaking manuals and articles in women's magazines set high, if not impossible, standards for cleanliness, cheerfulness, and efficiency. You may remember the chapter on "Domestic Experiences" in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, in which Alcott observes, "Like most other young matrons, Meg began her married life with the determination to be a model housekeeper. John should find home paradise; he should always see a smiling face, should fare sumptuously every day, and never know the loss of a button." Of course, there was the day that her jelly wouldn't gel and John came home to no dinner, a jelly-strewn kitchen, and a distraught Meg! But clearly, she tried to live up to the expectations of the homemaking manuals of her day.

A 1906 article in Everyday Housekeeping concluded that homemakers must have been "made of exceptionally strong fiber. . . everything required hard, persevering, and unremitting labor." However, the realities posed by the sheer number of tasks to be completed daily stressed even the hardiest of women.

One of the nineteenth-century homemaker's most arduous and dreaded tasks was laundry. According to Helen Campbell in her Easiest Way in Housekeeping and Cooking, a weekly wash was necessary for perfect cleanliness, a state all homemakers were encouraged to achieve. Campbell chose Monday as the logical laundry day because clothing was generally changed on Sunday. Sunday's leftover lamb could also make the Monday meal, allowing the housewife to devote her entire day to washing.

Without running water, gas, or electricity, even the simplest laundry process consumed staggering amounts of time and labor. Water had to be moved from river, well, or cistern to tubs, buckets or wash boilers and then heated on a stove or over an open fire. Elizabeth Steele Wright recounted in her diary, "No rain yet, so we had to draw water from the river, it was late when we got done washing; it is hard work in hot weather." Cold weather brought more challenges. Her 1861 diary entry states, "A bright day, but very cold and our woodpile is very low, have burned the last stick so we split up some boards . . . our cistern is frozen so that we cannot pump water. We melted snow, it was tedious."

Illustrations in the Growth of Industrial Art give us insight into the evolution of the washing machine, as do some of the ads from women's magazines. In the mid-nineteenth century, clothes were cleaned by rubbing them against a fluted wood, tin, or glass washboard in a tub of hot soapy water. Bending over the tub strained the back, the lye in the soap reddened the hands, and the rubbing action bruised and tore the flesh on the knuckles. One homemaker of the time exclaimed, "We done our washing. It was a very hard job, but we lived through it."

Later in the century, clothes were washed in a wooden or galvanized tub with a dolly stick, which looks much like a four or five-legged stool on a stick. The housewife used a twisting action, first turning the dolly in one direction, then in the other to agitate the clothes. The early mechanical washers also used a dolly-like device to clean the clothes. The mechanical wringer, which was first attached to wooden washtubs, was introduced in the 1860s. While it took some muscle to crank the rollers, it was still much easier than wringing the clothes by hand. The wringer washing machine didn't become generally available until the 1880s.

If clothes needed to be whitened, they were either bleached with a blue powder in the rinse water, soaked in cream of tartar, or spread on the grass to be bleached by the sun. They were usually hung to dry on a clothesline out of doors. This was often a problem in the winter. One homemaker wrote in her diary on a cold December day, "Left our clothes out but, they cannot dry. They are frozen too hard." The clothes had to be brought indoors and draped on furniture or racks to dry. The virtues of hanging a "proper clothes line" were passed from mother to daughter. Undergarments were hung on the inside lines, shielded from view by sheets and pillowcases. In rainy weather, clothes were strung in the attic or hung on drying racks in the kitchen. Gloves, pants, and curtains were placed on stretchers to prevent shrinkage as they dried. When dry, clothes were folded, sprinkled, and rolled for ironing.

Tuesday was usually set aside for ironing, a chore that took all day and was nearly as tiring as washing. As one expert noted, "Ironing is admitted to be somewhat trying work, because necessarily much heat is involved; but orderly procedure and good methods will prevent the worker from getting into a flurried state of mind." The 1886 edition of Practical Housekeeping advised, "When inviting friends for visits of a week or more, try to fix the time for the visit to begin after the ironing is done." The point being that the homemaker would be in a better frame of mind and have more time for cooking meals and tending to her guests.

Women of the time undoubtedly would have been using a "sad iron" to press their families' clothes. One meaning of sad in nineteenth century dictionaries was "heavy." Although many of these irons were small, they were very heavy. When sad irons were heated near an open fire or on the stove, their handles became red hot. Women tried wrapping aprons or towels around the handles, but still burned their fingers. Mary F. Potts endeared herself to countless women when she patented a much lighter sad iron with a detachable wooden handle.

As technology advanced, irons fueled by charcoal, gas, and alcohol became available. Brass hot-box irons were fueled by charcoal, which was placed in the body of the iron and lit. The burning charcoal heated the iron. This iron has a small tank for white gasoline. A valve at the base of the iron regulated the amount of fuel fed to the burner. It's hard to imagine ironing with a burning flame inside an iron, but these liquid fuel irons were sold to rural families well into the twentieth century. The liquid fuel sometimes caught on fire, singed the handle, or simply exploded. This iron has a pipe that was attached to the gas line in the home and lit with a match, much like a gas stove. Dangerous as they were, gas irons had a continuous supply of fuel, were light, and maintained a more even temperature than the old sad irons.

Another wearisome but essential task was cooking. Meal preparation was laborious and seemed never-ending. Boiling was the most common method of cooking in the early nineteenth century. In order to cook food, wood had to be chopped and hauled; fires had to built and maintained. Skinned animals and vegetables were covered with water and boiled in large pots or cauldrons, which stood in the fire or were suspended over it. Biscuits and fruit crumbles were put in covered pots and nestled in the fire to bake. Iron spiders, which looked like iron pans with legs, were placed in the coals and used for frying salt pork, corn meal mush, and other foods.

Early cooks were resourceful and inventive. One excerpt from the Letters of Polly the Pioneer illustrates this point. "When the hoe is not in use, I make hoe-cake. I do this by slipping the handle off the hoe, cleaning it well, and greasing it with bear's grease. Then I place a good stiff dough upon it and set it near the coals. I bake one side and then the other." Cooking over an open fire, however, was decidedly hazardous. Scalds, burns, and catching one's apron or sleeve in the fire were everyday occurrences.

By the 1840s, the enclosed cast-iron stove became widely available. It consisted of a firebox that was filled with either wood or coal, an oven, and a stove top fitted with rings for pans and kettles to rest upon. The fire was refueled by lifting the rings and dropping in additional wood or coal. An arrangement of flues and dampers helped, to some degree, to control the temperature of both the oven and the stovetop.

With the invention of the gas stove, the oven temperature could be regulated to a much finer degree and be maintained for just as long as was needed. There was no longer a need to refuel the stove. As Emily Holt, author of the Complete Housekeeper, remarked, "Matches are the only kindling and no more need be burned than just suffices for the cooking." This also made for a much cooler kitchen in warm weather.

The advent of the stove dramatically changed food preparation and cooking. Recipes became more complex and varied. The Ladies' Home Journal even included cooking lessons in its monthly magazine and cooking schools sprang up in major cities. A number of these schools published cookbooks, the most famous of which was the Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, known today as Fannie Farmer's Cookbook. An 1899 issue of the American Kitchen Magazine, and cookbooks of the time, offered guidance for making fancy beef and seafood dishes, frosted ham, timbales, and elegant desserts.

Electricity, an innovation of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ushered in great changes. Electric stoves, washing machines, and irons reduced exhausting physical labor, and were more efficient and safer to use. In essence, they lessened the burden of those onerous tasks that homemakers had loathed for centuries.

Electricity also spawned a whole new era of innovation. Trade cards became a popular means of introducing the homemaker to the flood of new products. Some trade cards featured the item they were promoting, while others relied on the sentiment attached to the charms of a winsome child or an attractive woman to draw attention to their products. These colorful cards were distributed free of charge to consumers by merchants, door-to-door salesmen, or by youngsters stationed on busy street corners. The trade cards chronicled the birth of many nineteenth-century products and were collected at the time in much the same way as postcards are today.

The Library's collections of nineteenth- and twentieth-century magazines, housekeeping manuals, diaries, and trade cards provide a wealth of information about the everyday hardships and challenges faced by our ancestors. They relay humorous anecdotes, and common practices and products of the time. By looking at the changes in households over the years, we can discover the depth of American ingenuity and invention and obtain fascinating insights into the progress of technology in our culture.

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  July 20, 2010
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