Independent of the Sun

Light, Energy & the American Home, 1913-1933

A Whole-House Exhibit at the Trail End State Historic Site
​March 2007 - December 2007

Achieving Home Happiness

THAT KEEPING THE home clean was woman's work – and necessary work at that – was accepted as the proper way of things. As an early 20th Century Lydia Pinkham publication noted, "When a man comes home from work at night, he wants to find his home clean and comfortable, his supper ready, his children happy and his wife smiling a welcome to him. These are only natural feelings." Not much had changed by the time the Cleanliness Institute made the following observation in 1930:

Of course our homes must be spic-and-span. That’s what homes are for. Everyone knows that when woodwork and curtains and porcelain and glass get dingy, home happiness, too, may become less bright. And we can no more get along without fresh towels and sheets, and spotless table linen than we can put up with dirty clothing or unwashed bodies. Nevertheless, now-a-days there is something wrong with ‘a woman’s work is never done’.

Fortunately for the 20th Century housewife, partial relief from this household drudgery finally arrived in the form of electrically-powered appliances. The electric vacuum cleaner, refrigerator, washing machine, iron and stove were truly revolutionary in that they relieved the homemaker of the hardest, most back-breaking and time-consuming tasks of her day, allowing her the time and strength to be more than just a servant in her own home. As Josephine Wylie noted in 1930:

The homemaker has been quick to accept the new scheme of things. The release from so-called drudgery has given her more time to think about her job of homemaking in all of its aspects. Because she is less under the thumb of the drudgery sort of work, she has more time to think about her home business, more time to stand off and view it objectively, more time to line things up in their relative importance. ... With dignity and importance attached to the job of running a household and the leisure time that has come as a result of modern homes, the woman in the home now takes on this role of a home-business woman. She knows that she is attached to one of the biggest businesses in the world, that she is manager of a very important unit of it, that it amounts to much more than cooking and sewing and housecleaning, that it is a job that takes thoughtful planning and work if it is to be well done, that it has its compensations just as does any other job on this earth.

While some thought the reduction of time spent in housework would result in laziness and sloth, advertisers such as the Walker Dishwasher Company sought to relieve this burden of guilt: "The desire to shun disagreeable work isn’t plain laziness. Mothers have a right to employ their time and effort in the more fruitful and satisfying details of housework. Cooking [for example] is an art, but dishwashing is drudgery!"


While it is agreed that electric appliances considerably altered the life of the typical American housewife, few would agree that the changes were all for the best. Much of the hard labor could be done by machine, so one would assume that the development of washing machines and vacuum cleaners would mean less time spent doing housework. But not so! According to researchers, the average homemaker in 1924 spent fifty-two hours a week doing her housework. Forty years later, the average American homemaker was spending fifty-five hours a week on housework – even surrounded as she was by "laborsaving" appliances. Why might this be? One reason: higher expectations. As one author noted:

People began to expect more from those who kept the house. For example, whereas once laundry was done once a week and clothes worn several days before being laundered, modern housekeepers may do laundry every day because family members wear an item only once before washing it.

In addition, the American homemaker became – and to some extent, still is – obsessed by a variety of “germ theories” stating that kitchens and bathrooms had to be “scrupulously clean” to prevent disease. While it is true that sanitary homes tend to be healthier homes, magazines such as Good Housekeeping and Better Homes & Gardens published article after article encouraging women to achieve an almost impossible degree of "domestic perfection." Dirty was equated with Evil, while Clean became synonymous with Good. Instead of using technology to help meet society's old standards, the homemaker now had to strive harder and work longer to meet new standards.

Between 1927 and 1932, the Cleanliness Institute worked with government agencies, medical departments, schools, and social service organizations to encourage the use of soap and water. They sponsored public service announcements on radio and published full-page advertisements in national magazines, encouraging the use of soap and water:

To every mother her own are the ideal children. But what do the neighbors think? Do they smile at happy, grimy faces acquired in wholesome play? For people have a way of associating unclean clothes and faces with other questionable characteristics. Fortunately, however, there's soap and water. 'Bright, shining faces' and freshly laundered clothes seem to make children welcome anywhere – and, in addition, to speak volumes concerning their parents' personal habits as well. There's Character in Soap & Water.

What most consumers didn't know was that the Cleanliness Institute was established in 1927 by the Association of American Soap and Glycerin Producers, Inc. – in other words, soap manufacturers! As AASGP spokesman Roscoe C. Edlund said in 1930, "The business of cleanliness is big business."

Home Economist Elizabeth Hale Gilman wasn't convinced that Americans were obsessed with cleanliness; she felt that they just didn't want to be thought of as dirty:

Dust shows, as we say, on a bare floor; it lies under furniture and blows about in fluffs. If the floor is carpeted, that very same dust ... sinks into the carpet. If we really minded dust, we would mind it just as much buried in the carpet as rolling round in fluffs. But we don't mind dust, we mind being thought dusty.


Prior to the late 1800s, nearly every household with a dollar or two to spare employed some sort of domestic assistant – maid, cook, laundress, handyman – to ease the homemaker’s burden. By the late 1910s, however, hired help became harder and harder to find. Single young men were heading off to war, single young women were going to work in offices and factories, and not many wanted to slave away at cleaning someone else's home. Those that did wanted higher salaries than homemakers were used to.

Fortunately, the arrival of affordable household electrical appliances coincided nicely with this decline in the number of women willing to work as domestic servants. "Little electrical servants" were seen as easier to manage than living ones. As one woman put it, “A vacuum cleaner never asks for a raise, calls in sick or gets drunk.” Many women preferred spending their household money on appliances and working the machines themselves rather than going through the effort of trying to find, hire, train, and keep domestic help:

Until very recently, I kept a maid. Then one day I told my husband I had decided to save the cost of our maid and put this money in the bank. He said it would be too much work for me – but it isn’t. I discovered many little servants eager to help me for a wage of only one cent an hour or less. Now I enjoy my work. Why shouldn’t I with a whole retinue of servants, each an appliance run by a little electric motor – always ready – always willing.

This was just as well, because many domestic servants did not appreciate the new technology. Contemporary writers concluded that servants "feared the machines as tools in a conspiracy" to force more work from them, to make them clean more often or accomplish more cleaning tasks per day. 

 Saturday Evening Post, 1926 (SCHS Collection, TESHS)

Detail from drawing of custom-made foyer chandelier, 1911 (Trail End Collection)

Trail End

 State Historic Site