In Part 3 of our More Work for Mother series we’ll consider alternative approaches for housework.  As with Part 1 and Part 2, this post is based on Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s book More Work For Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave.  Cowan discusses three alternative approaches to housework that never succeeded in the U.S.: 1) domestic servants; 2) cooperative institutions; and 3) commercial businesses.

In other cultures housewives commonly hired outside help for cleaning, cooking, laundering, and watching children.  However, given the country’s wealth of economic opportunities, ranging from frontier homesteading to factory work, an American servant class never developed.  Young women whose mothers may have toiled long hours scrubbing floors or laundering welcomed opportunities to marry and move west, or to work set schedules in a factory.  As a result, qualified help has typically been too expensive for most American families to afford.

Cooperative approaches also failed.  Several communities attempted to establish communal kitchens, but these collapsed from lack of interest and poor management.  Early hygiene fanatics undermined boarding houses and apartment hotels never caught on.  Commercial approaches also faltered. As of the book’s writing, stigma had undermined commercial childcare establishments and commercial laundries were in steep decline.  People don’t like to air their dirty laundry in public apparently.

This is where Cowan’s book, written in the early 1980’s, leaves us.  Jumping forward 30 years, I think today’s picture looks somewhat different.  Child-care services are in high demand, commercial lawn-care service is common, and in-home cleaning services are profitable.   What has changed over the last three decades?  Here are my unsubstantiated theories.  If anyone has data or knows more about these trends, please comment!

  • Perhaps the recent growth in low-skilled and undocumented immigration has developed a new (probably temporary) class of people willing to work in domestic service for sufficiently low wages.
  • Perhaps working families, can no longer keep up with their professional, child-care, and housekeeping requirements without relying on outside services.
  • Perhaps high-profile families can afford to outsource their housekeeping and childcare, making the hiring of staff fashionable or at least more socially acceptable.
  • Perhaps the growing elderly population has turned to outside help for household tasks they can no longer manage on their own.

A combination of these factors probably drives the growing housework-service industry.  Will these changes improve life for women in the U.S.?  I’m not sure.  Our country prides itself on the “American Dream” and a permanent class of domestic service workers would run counter to that ideal (except when they are housewives apparently).  Similarly, do we want people paying for services because our social and economic institutions have left them with no other choice? Come back for Part 4 of our series for a few more thoughts on our current circumstances.