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Oral History: Housework

Technology: The Domestic Ideal

Despite the changes brought to society between 1890 and 1940, running their households was still the main business of the majority of southern Dunedin women. It was a job these women had been trained for from infancy and one in which they would also instruct their daughters.

Some women, however, were employed to carry out domestic chores. By 1936 the number of people employed in private domestic service in New Zealand was more than 30,000. However, hastened by the Second World War, the domestic service industry entered a massive decline, soon employing fewer than 10,000 people. This decline coincided with a rise in the use of electric and gas-powered appliances that were soon being harnessed for all-manner of household tasks from washing to cooking and from cleaning the carpet to keeping food fresh. Jan Boxshall writing in her book Every Home Should Have One, described domestic appliances as the 'new servants'.

Despite new technology reducing the physical effort involved in some household tasks, it did not lead to a reduction in the domestic workload or lead to greater freedom for housewives. Women with electric washing machines, for example, found they now washed more often. Carpets were vacuumed each week rather than taken out and beaten each spring. A renewed emphasis on home and family saw some women immersed even more in their duties as home-makers.

By the 1956 Census, which provides us with the first recorded details of appliance ownership in New Zealand, over half the households in the country owned the three most popular household appliances - a gas or electric stove, a refrigerator and a washing machine. The change was rapid and by the 1960s New Zealand had one of the highest levels of ownership of electric appliances in the world.

Soap AdvertNew technologies made it easier for the modern woman in her battle against dirt and standards of domestic hygiene were rapidly improving. As well as devices such as washing machines and vacuum cleaners, more effective soaps and detergents, coupled with easier access to hot water, also contributed to rising standards of cleanliness in the home. (Caversham Project Archives)

Harpic AdvertFamous soap brands like Lifebuoy and Palmolive were born in the 1890s and a new generation of equally famous cleansers such as Harpic and Persil were developed in the 1920s. However, many housewives still made their own soap using fat scraps, lye (sodium hydroxide, also called caustic soda) water and perfumed oil. (Caversham Project Archives)

fight against disease adThe fight against disease could be brought into the home using the latest methods and treatments. Fumigation of domestic residences against disease carrying insects and rodents became popular as new chemical treatments (some with long lasting residual problems unknown at the time) were developed and marketed commercially. (Caversham Project Archives)

Advertising campaigns for new electric appliances'Cooking becomes automatic and trouble-free. The house-wife, unhurried and unworried, is able to enjoy the meal she has prepared - a meal, moreover, that is cooked to perfection because it is cooked by electricity.'

Advertising campaigns for new electric appliances emphasised traditional gender roles. They urged men to buy the new devices that would replace the hired help and aid their wives in their homely duties. They urged women to obtain appliances that were safe, simple, clean and trouble-free and which would help them in their task of bringing up contented, healthy families. (Caversham Project Archives)

Rubbish CartoonHousehold cleanliness is emphasised in this cartoon from the 1930s. Housewives were encouraged to use 'modern' methods to ensure their homes were 'spick and span'. Unfortunately, maintaining your household at this standard involved much more 'hoovering', washing, cleaning and scrubbing than might have been expected by the hard-working South Dunedin housewife. (Caversham Project Archives)


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