washing machine gender gap

The Invention That Started to Close the Gender Gap

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Jan 6, 2014    •    1011 Views

Worrying that labor saving devices would replace her, Downton Abbey’s cook, Mrs. Patmore, was not pleased with the new electric mixer that arrived in her kitchen in 1922. By contrast, if Edith does move out of Downton Abbey into more modest living quarters, a vastly changed kitchen will provide her or her household help with considerable assistance.

Looking at the percent of families in the United States in 1920:

  • 35% had electric lighting
  • 48% had ice refrigerators
  • 1% had mechanical refrigerators
  • 8% had washing machines
  • 9% had vacuum cleaners

Just think about the washing machine for a moment.

To do a wash, the typical late 19th century woman had to boil the water, use her scrub board, wring out the water, hang up the clothes, and carry out the dirty water. For 4 children, she would have washed 40,000 diapers. During one week, doing the family wash would have occupied 7 hours.

When washing machines did finally arrive, the reality was a bit more complex than we might imagine. In Pursuing Happiness, Stanley Lebergott tells us that in 1929, the housewife’s “obsession with ‘motorized implements’ led her to buy wringers directly attached to the tub. Metal rollers (or vulcanized rollers) readily squeezed out the water. Power wringers came next but then, Consumers Union “found ‘a great many …women catching hands, sleeves and hair in power wringers while drying clothes'” and said the wringers were so dangerous that an alternative solution would be safer.

The bottom line, though–that the washing machine is really a growth machine–was wonderfully conveyed by Swedish Professor Hans Rosling in a 9 minute TED talk.

Sources and Resources: Published in 1993, Pursuing Happiness is a fact filled fascinating history of the American consumer while more background from an earlier era is in Bill Bryson’s At Home. So yes, we can look at how World War II and education and birth control narrowed the gender gap. But also, freedom from household chores empowered women.


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