Life Inside the Home

This week we continue to examine living standards in the US over time. Two weeks ago we looked at one of the basic commodities of life; water, and how its use has changed over time. Last week we looked at how housing conditions have dramatically improved for all groups in the US during this century. This week we take a look at how life inside the home has changed. The series on living standards is based on the book “The State of Humanity,” edited by Julian Simon. This week’s material is also from chapter 14, Long Term Trends in the US Standard of Living, by Stanley Lebergott.

In 1900 about 10% of American households had domestic servants. By 1990 the percentage of homes with domestic servants had fallen to 1%. While this may seem to represent a decline in the standards of living for the richest segment of society, the real cause of the change has been two-fold. First of all, the demand for domestic labor has decreased as much household work has been mechanized. Secondly, traditional sources of domestic labor, immigrant and black women, have found more attractive employment opportunities and thus the supply of potential servants and domestic laborers has decreased.

Even with the decrease in domestic servants, the average woman spent 42 fewer hours a week on housework in 1990 than in 1900. By 1960 over 96% of American households had electric refrigerators, resulting in large labor savings from decreased shopping time and increased ability to keep leftovers without spoilage. In 1900 the washboard was used by almost all families; by 1990 73% of American families had automatic washing machines, resulting in more huge labor savings. (Those without their own washing machines, chiefly apartment and condominium dwellers, relied on community machines and laundromats.)

As we noted in last week’s perspective, in 1900 very few homes even had cold running water. By 1990 98% of homes had both hot and cold running water. In 1900 families either relied on coal or wood for heating their homes. The result was coal ash, fuel dust, and other heating refuse on floors, rugs, furniture and clothing. By 1960 most families had shifted to natural gas, oil, or electric heating, thus greatly decreasing house cleaning time, and also the time and effort required to shovel an average of six tons of coal into the furnace every winter. And, as a final cap to this march of progress, along with reduced time and effort, the average family spent less for heating with the new methods; the proportion of family income for heating fell from 3% of income to 2%.

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