For many of us, it would be difficult to imagine life without some of our most common home appliances. Dishwashers, laundry machines, refrigerators, and the college favorite microwave all make our lives easier by minimizing the time and effort required for daily household tasks. However, such standard and now mundane amenities were once at the cutting edge of household technology, and likely not as long ago as one might think. “Quick and Easy”, a chapter of Susan Strasser’s book Never Done: A History of American Housework, outlines the role home appliances have played in the typical American home.
Throughout the Great Depression and active World War II years, many American households did the majority of their daily tasks in the home and by hand, with the wife of the household handling the majority of this work. Once the economy recovered in the post-war years, home appliances began to emerge. Among the first were laundry machines, both for the home as well as those found in commercial laundromats. Simultaneously, new gas fueled ovens and stoves took the labor out of fueling the cooking process with traditional wood burning.
In the decades that followed the end of the war, new industries emerged to coincide with the rise of new appliances. Freezers were initially slow to catch on with consumers, but as they rose in popularity, the frozen food industry began to take hold. Initially freezers allowed for families to stock up on large amounts of food for extended future use, but with the rise of the frozen food industry, now fully prepared ready to eat foods became available. Similarly, a market for new laundry detergents emerged as more homes purchased their own washers. Essentially, each emerging appliance ushered in various new products to create a rapidly expanding economy of household products.
This trend of “quick and easy” continued to expand into the 1960s through the 1980s. The easy frozen foods now had an easier method of preparing them in the microwave oven. The majority of households now had dishwashers, modern washing machines, and now driers. As this technological evolution rose, it changed many of the traditional dynamics of the American household, especially as it pertained to women. Positively, new technology allowed women to pursue ambitions outside of the home. As household tasks took less time and effort, women were left increasingly free to pursue their own professional goals. The traditional role of being a housewife became an increasingly outdated notion. Women could achieve a full day of work, and then return home and use technology to still keep their household in order.
Despite the benefits, there were some aspects of technology that had impacts one could consider somewhat negative, especially to older generations resistant to change. For example, many women valued the social time they spent with their neighbors outdoors hanging laundry to dry, or even at laundromats when household units were still relatively rare. Dish washing was once a task shared throughout the family, especially with children. It provided valuable family interaction as it was relatively time consuming. Modern dishwashers made this once lengthy task a simple matter of loading and unloading, and some missed the family activity this chore once provided.
As Strasser lays out this evolution in household technology, it is easy to see that that the trend of “quick and easy” was more than just a rise in convenience and ease of use. Technology sparked a change in the economy, general society, and even the most intimate aspects of family dynamics. While America was already immensely powerful following WWII, the growth in household technology spurred the population towards the individualistic style society we see today in the most developed countries. This of course has its advantages; after all, a collectivist family structure focused on shared household labor is usually found in states that struggle on many levels, with women bearing the brunt of everyday home tasks. Still, Strasser’s writing leaves one to wonder what has been lost in the wake of technology. Is technology in the home paving the way to a brighter and stress free lifestyle in the home, or are we losing aspects of the traditional household once held dear? There certainly is no easy answer, leaving us to simply see where the “quick and easy” lifestyle continues to take us.