History Piece

 
The Making of Power and the Land (1939-1940)

BEAUTY IN THE SERVICE OF A POLITICAL AGENDA

By Dr. Ruth Schwartz Cowan




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In the cities and suburbs, things were very different. For an increasing number of people living in America’s cities and suburbs, that traditional regimen no longer obtained. Most of their households, even some that coped at or below the poverty line, had been modernized, either at their own expense, or because landlords had been forced to modernize by local building codes or by market forces. By 1940, the vast majority of urban and suburban households had electric service, as well as central heating and indoor plumbing. This meant that many housewives, even those who could not afford domestic servants, could manage to cook and launder and clean without the help of their children and husbands. As a result, children could be sent to school, often for more years than their parents had been able to go; in a modern household, children’s work at home was no longer essential to the family economy. Similarly, in urban and suburban settings, many household necessities-- ranging from soap to shoes and from sweaters to soup pots--could be purchased in stores. As a result, husbands needed to go “out” to work, to earn the wages that made it possible to purchase those necessities. Thus, in American cities and suburbs in the interwar years, only adult women, housewives, worked at home; everyone else left the house either for school or for gainful employment. In addition, a large part of an urban or suburban housewife’s work was consumption work. Shopping well was a complex skill and it was just as crucial to the urban family economy as the production work that was occupying the time of rural women like Hazel Parkinson. The difference, of course, was that the work done by urban and suburban women housewives, even those who did not have servants, was not nearly as physically taxing as the work that rural women were doing.[ iv ]

Thus, modernization had very complex consequences for families. Some of those consequences were deeply disturbing to traditional patterns of gendered and generational relations. In cities, children learned what they need to know in order to succeed in the world from their teachers; on the farms, they learned most of these critical lessons from their parents. The men and women that REA wanted to reach, reasonably prosperous farmers who could afford to sign up for electric service, were very worried about the implications of switching to electric technologies. If their daily work was transformed by appliances, then children would no longer need to help with that work and would no longer need to be taught how to do it expertly—in which case, what would children need to learn at their parents’ knees? Certainly not the mundane but crucial skills that rural mothers and fathers had learned from their own mothers and fathers, the kinds of skills--how to bake a good pie, how to chop wood effectively, how to harvest a great deal of corn, how to pluck chickens quickly—that rural men and women had perfected through years of practice, skills that had been passed down through countless generations, skills that were part and parcel of rural parents’ definitions of themselves as good men and women. In a modernized economy those skills would no longer be of any value—and neither would the ethic of hard work that had accompanied them. Perhaps even worse, in a modernized economy, family members would no longer need to work together, to co-operate, to subordinate their own needs to the needs of the family unit. Husbands, wives and children could go their separate ways for most of the day; the old fashioned ties that bind would start to unravel.

[ iv ] The differences between traditional and modern patterns of doing housework are discussed at length in my book, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (New York: Basic Books, 1983).


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