Labor shifting, not Labor saving, laundry edition

It is generally considered acceptable by conservatives and liberals alike to declare that SAHMs have it easy thanks to washing machines and tumble dryers compared to the grand old days of yore when they did “real work”.  This involves ignoring the explosion in ready to wear clothing that permits even lower-income households to own hundreds of pieces of clothing.  It also involves ignoring the reality that the older methods of laundering clothes were not always backbreakingly hard.  And lastly, it involves ignoring the fact that even for women in the lower tiers of the middle class, laundering their own clothing was often optional because of washerwomen who specialized in doing laundry for many families.

A side-pressing washing machine is more primitive technology than a top loading washing machine, but the former is easier on back and arms, given similar amounts of clothing washed.  Hand wringers could be more physical labor, but again, fewer clothes were owned in the first place, so there wasn’t as much total work involved on a family-level basis.

Having a washing machine perform the labor of agitating the dirt off the clothes (this is the part that cleans clothes, more so than the soap, although soap sure helps out) does save labor, but there isn’t a labor savings when you have to take heavy wet clothes out and transfer them to the dryer vs. hanging them up on a line.  In fact, the modern norm for SAHMs of washing, drying and folding multiple loads of laundry daily is not labor saving at all, no matter what people persist in claiming.  It is astonishing that it’s presented as a leisure activity and sign of how little SAHMs have to do all day compared to “the olden days”.

The feminist criticism that “mission creep” erases any potentially saved labor for housewives from a given technological advancement has some truth to it, as one can observe that creep with core household tasks like laundry.  The same conservatives who want all the women to come home pretty much never promote specialization in domestic tasks that again, even lower-income housewives used to take for granted.  And it’s a wealth problem.  Everyone has these machines that are supposedly so advanced and “labor saving”, so the idea can’t even form in the mind as an option.  People instead obsess about getting cheap machines rather than finding someone to do their laundry for them.  And there are always cheap machines around, so nobody can consider specializing as a source of income.

Part of the secret history of the domestic sphere is that “labor saving” devices are positioned as granting leisure to housewives, but do not, or do not save labor for very long.  It is perhaps the case that for a 1950s housewife a top loading washing machine saved some labor, as she didn’t have the full cheap clothing revolution that the 1970s housewife benefitted from.  But that didn’t last even a full generation before the metrics of acceptability changed, resulting in shifting rather than saving labor.

This isn’t to say that the modern SAHM has exactly the same level of physical labor on her hands as her domestic ancestresses.  It is to say that the idea that she has basically no labor is false.  Despite all the wealth and technological advancement, she still faces a great deal of physical labor to be considered an adequate or suitable SAHM.


4 thoughts on “Labor shifting, not Labor saving, laundry edition

  1. Yes. My mom will be happy to expound on this if you’d like – having been an assistant housewife in the 50s. (Aka the oldest daughter).

    You used to have your dirty clothes – and it was okay to get those really filthy. One, maybe two sets of them – you put them on after you came home from school every day. Washed weekly. Your school clothes were kept clean, washed occasionally. Your church clothes almost NEVER got dirty.

    With three of us, my dad did laundry two days a week, hanging it out on a line the same size as the one I use today. One day was for ALL the clothes, one day for sheets and towels. Sure, Mom’s business clothes got drycleaned, but she rarely had more than a piece or two at the cleaners at a time.

    Me? I do laundry five days a week or I run behind. I choose to use a line to hang it dry. We have a front-loader that saves water and washes huge loads (my dad put four small loads on that line, I can get about two and a half on mine). I do two/day … at least. There’s only four of us……….


  2. Good post — I’ve been enjoying your posts expelling the myths of the past! I do 7-8 loads a week for 6 people. Modern technology saves us time? Nope. Now we just have more *stuff* to care for lol.



Comments are closed.