Turning Unpaid Work into Paid Work, 1920s–1940s
Housework persisted unpaid and often invisible (unless left undone), reflected in the drab garments women wore to perform it.
Yet in the early 1900s, many Americans began to regard the home almost as a business. It was to be run productively and efficiently through "household management" or "home economics," ecouraged by government programs.
Woman ironing, Los Angeles, 1956
Courtesy of Delmar T. Oviatt Library
Streamlined electric iron, 1946
Gift of the Hoover Company
Advertisers and home economists told women that electricity would make their tasks a breeze. But electric irons raised standards, and ironing still took hours of hot, repetitive work.
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"The Case of the Scrub-Board Drudge," 1938
A whole host of people agreed that appliances would reduce housework. But that extra time was mostly filled with "more work for mother."
Notice the woman using her time productively to knit while the machine washes the clothes.
Also notice the man gets the credit for inventing electricity.
"Washday Secrets" ad for Rinso, 1932
Advertisers promised women that products could lighten the load of housework, make the house cleaner, and ensure the admiration of husbands.
Courtesy of Library of Congress, LC-USF34-051624-D
As more married women searched for jobs during the Great Depression, the federal government sponsored home economics and domestic training programs to make housework more sanitary and efficient.
African American women had long been domestic laborers for low wages in other women's homes, and for their own families.
"[Black women] carried the double burden of wage labor and housework—a double burden which always demands that working women possess the perservering powers of Sisyphus."
—Angela Davis, 1981
Courtesy of Library of Congress, LC-USZC2-5404
Pattern-sewn dress, 1930s
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Although out-of-work men were around more, the Great Depression had little effect on domestic labor in the home, or on the clothing women wore to perform it.
A woman could get the pattern for this simple housedress from the federal government's Works Progress Administration and make it herself. She could also get one ready-made through federal assistance.
Nell Donnelly Reed, around 1920
Courtesy of Ellen "Nell" Quinlan Donnelly Reed Papers (K0444), The State Historical Society of Missouri Research Center-Kansas City
In 1916 Nell Donnelly designed a new kind of housedress—one with flair. So many women were willing to pay a bit more for a stylish housedress that she opened a factory. By the early years of the Great Depression, the Donnelly Garment Company employed over 1,000 workers and had sales in the millions.
The jaunty gingham, darts, and belt made this dress shapely and stylish. This is no frumpy frock.
Nelly Don factory, around 1940
Courtesy of LOOK Magazine Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LOOK - Job 48-M28, Contact Sheet from 108 to 115
The business of mass-producing housedresses put thousands of young women to work during the Great Depression and after.