Andrew Pregnall: Reflections on Blue Monday

For this week’s class I ready the chapter of Never Done by Susan Strasser called “Blue Monday.” Strasser begins the chapter with a detailed description of the laundry process during the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. For this post, I am going to focus more on the social argument of Strasser’s article as opposed to the economic side of her argument.

To start with, I was very impressed with the amount of labor that went into washing clothes in the ‘olden days’ since I’ve never thought about what life was like without washing machines. Seriously, these women had to:

  • Soak the clothes the night before (usually Sunday going into Monday)
  • Drain the clothes
  • Pour hot suds on the most soiled of clothes
  • Scrub each article of clothing against a washboard individually
  • Wring them out
  • Cover soiled spots with more spots
  • Boil the clothes
  • Rinse
  • Rub dirty spots again with soap again
  • Rinse
  • Wring
  • Hang out to dry
Boiling the clothes

And then they had to repeat this entire process over again with the next load, and, don’t forget, they were scrubbing each article of clothing individually.

Me after reading the section on the old clothe washing process

Surely, then, the advent of the washing machine infinitely improved the lives of twentieth century women. After all, they would spend less time washing the clothes each week which would allow them to spend more time doing leisure activities and consuming the technologies of the twentieth century. Right?

Well, Strasser argues that the picture isn’t so clear. For one, she argues that although women would spend less time on labor each time they washed the clothes, they were expected to wash the clothes more often since the process was easier. This trend coincided with evolving twentieth century values around sanitation (which Strasser addressed in her chapter on indoor plumbing) which added a sort of compounding effect, and ultimately laundry went from being a once a week ordeal with less clothes to a more frequent ordeal with more clothes. I really appreciate and understand Strasser’s argument in this situation, and, based on class conversation, it seems to be an argument she makes throughout the book. However, it’s moments like this I wish there were some form of quantitative data about how much time women spent on laundry before and after the advent of the laundry machine because I think this would add an interesting dimension to either “side’s” argument. This is not to say that data which showed women did spend less time on laundry after the advent of washing machine would invalidate Strasser’s argument; in fact, it could strengthen it. Regardless, it would certainly make the conversation more interesting.

The second portion of Strasser’s social argument focuses on what women lost when the process of laundry became easier: Socialization. See, since laundry was such a time and labor intensive process, women in communities would do it together. Sometimes, this involved each person doing an assigned task – sort of like an assembly line – but other times it just involved a group of women doing their families laundry in the same area. Inevitably, this led to talking and friend making and community building and solidarity. However, when it was no longer necessary to band together to complete laundry, this socialization was lost. It’s hard to understate the importance of socialization among human beings, and especially among women, so I think this might be the most important and yet most underappreciated aspect of Strasser’s argument.

Ultimately, I found the social parts of Strasser’s argument to be nuanced and to have applications to many conversations we hold today about cell phones and social media (which we discussed in class!).

References: Strasser, Susan. Never Done. New York: Pantheon, 1982.

Word Count: 612

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