From Unit of Production to Unit of Consumption: The Household Economy and the Role of Household Technology

Cowan’s chapter “Twentieth-Century Changes in Household Technology” in her book More Work For Mother, discusses the transition in the household economy due to the invention and application of new technologies into the home, and what this transition meant for the homemaker. She begins by stating that the accepted model for this transition is from the household economy moving “from a unit of production to a unit of consumption” (p.70) The conventional model holds that as these technologies, divided into 8 interlocking groups, moved production from the home to the factory. However, she says that while the first three, food production, clothing production, and medical care follow this model. The other five: transportation, water, gas, electricity, and petroleum products don’t follow the conventional model. In fact these innovations in the home served to entrench gender roles, while occupying women in many other and novel tasks within the household economy.

Whereas the movement of home production of food, clothing, and medical care to the factory and hospital alleviated the home and women of many of their daily tasks, the last five increased the amount of work women had around the home. The introduction of indoor plumbing and electricity removed the drudgery of such tasks as hauling water, and cutting firewood and fuel to heat it. However these tasks were often performed by men or children, who now had more available time to work outside the home or pursue other activities. This left women the tasks of maintaining the home largely to themselves, only compounded by the revolution in transportation. Women drove cars, and often made more frequent and more time-consuming trips into town or to local retail stores.

More importantly these innovations, especially in laundry and the addition of the bathroom into the home created more tasks for the women to perform. With laundry now being much less time-consuming, the washing was done more often, alleviating the drudgery of laundry but not the amount of work to be done. The bathroom presented a different problem, here was another room to be cleaned and made sanitary in order to keep the family healthy. Electricity and electric appliances made the task of cooking, and cleaning easier, however the expectation (influenced heavily by advertising and media) was that women cleaned more frequently and prepared more complex and diverse meals in the home.

Because of these new expectations and requirements to support and maintain a home, the amount of work needed to be done around the house increased in volume even if it decreased in intensity. Cowan holds that because of this, far from freeing women in the home, and moving the home from a “unit of production to a unit of consumption” women were engaged in more tasks around the house. This was compounded by the stratification and division of labor between men and women in the home. The role of the household as a unit of production, namely the production of a healthy home and family, was still the same even if the labor required for production was less labor-intensive.

Word Count: 505


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