This book is history of housework and household technology in America. Cowan's thesis is that American women have paradoxically been required to take on more and more work as "labor-saving" technologies have been adopted. At the outset of the book, Cowan seems to state that she will show that developments in technology have not really made women's lives easier, but have served to bind women ever more tightly to the home. But by the end of the book, the message seems to be slightly different: that household technology has raised society's expectations of what women should be able to accomplish in the home, and that women must now work harder because of double duty- -doing the housework in addition to holding down fulltime jobs.
The book is organized along chronological lines, starting with pre-industrial conditions, moving on to industrialization, and finishing with the years following the Second World War. Food and laundry are two topics that receive heavy focus throughout the book. Cowan points out that in the pre-industrial times, food preparation required considerable help from men, for such things as butchering animals. But once meat was available in tins, men were released from such food preparation chores, while women's work increased, since new stove technologies made it possible for women to undertake more complicated methods of food preparation. Cowan argues that laundry duties also increased following industrialization, since when fabric was homespun, people only owned a few items of clothing that were hardly ever washed, but once cheap factory-made fabric became available, people got in the habit of changing clothes quite often, resulting in mounds of items to be laundered.
But I'm not sure I fully agree with these arguments. Cowan seems to suggest that the change from cooking over an open-hearth to cooking on a stove complicated women's lives by increasing possibilities, hence expectations and time spent on the task. Had Cowan been able to observe first-hand lunch preparations over an open-hearth during a hot summer day, she might have been more appreciative of the benefits of a stove. Anyone who has visited such reenactment museums as Plimouth Plantation in July, or even tried cooking a full meal over a campfire, comes away amazed at how women managed to deal with the heat and frustrations of cooking over an open hearth, especially when wearing long skirts that were constantly prone to catching fire from drifting into the coals or getting hit with sparks. And the health benefits of having enough clothing to allow frequent laundering are also tremendous- -memoirs of even the well-to-do of the pre-industrial age are full of descriptions of the usual louse and flea colonies that were an active part of every household. Industrialization in the areas of food preparation and laundry may have not have resulted in time savings for mother, but it certainly made it possible for her to greatly increase the health and safety of herself and her family.
Cowan notes that running a household in pre-industrial conditions involved so much work that no single person could manage it alone. That's why men got married, and why anyone who could afford to hired maids. But following industrialization, Cowan argues that maids could get better-paying factory jobs, so mother got stuck doing the work of the maids. But is this really more work for mother? If the work load was so heavy that a housewife couldn't get by without a maid, and the maid disappeared consequent with the adoption of household technology, it's not that mother was stuck spending more time than ever getting her housework done, but that the new technologies enabled her to accomplish more in the time she had available. Indeed, Cowan even cites time studies that confirm that women were spending more or less the same amount of time doing housework, but they were able to accomplish far more in that time thanks to new technologies, such as automatic washers. And the problems of the double-duty mother never even arose until technology had improved enough so that a woman could hold down an outside job as well as keep the home running.
From the outset, Cowan states that this book is about the history of American housewives and their work, so she doesn't look beyond our borders for evidence that would support or negate her thesis. Her cultural blinders seem overly tight, however, when she discusses the difficulty of finding and keeping hired help as being a peculiarly American problem. Anyone who has tried to work with hired help anywhere in the world has had similar experiences- -nobody grows up wanting to be a maid. Traditionally and worldwide, maids come from an immigrant class, migrating from rural to developed areas, if not across borders, and leaving at the first opportunity of higher pay or prestige elsewhere. Living with household help has an additional disadvantage that Cowan does not consider- -the loss of privacy for the family. Perhaps letting the family cook or laundress go meant more work for mother, but the benefits of finally getting food cooked the way you like it, and not having the maid sort through the family's dirty laundry made it all worthwhile, especially if household technology made it possible to get the chores done by yourself anyway- -and get them done right for a change!
I know that it's impossible to write history free from subjective judgments. However, I have rarely encountered a history where the political leanings of the author come through so blatantly. Although Cowan never states explicitly that she is a "Marxist-feminist", the term arises in several places in the text, suggesting a clear political affinity. Cowan came of age and wrote this book in an earlier time. Today, perhaps, conditions have changed, taking the edge off the urgency of the issues she was implicitly battling by writing this book. The factual information and the window that she provides into household material culture is fascinating, if you can free it from her political agenda and wavering argumentation.