NEVER DONE: A History of American Housework by Susan Strasser

NEVER DONE: A History of American Housework

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Strasser (History, Evergreen College) senses a dilemma: changes in the technology and organization of housework have substantially lightened once-onerous tasks; but increased corporate control and emphasis on consumerism have destroyed the autonomy and sociability of old-time household work. Such is the slender--and dubious--theme that pulls together the historical material garnered from such diverse sources as Sears Roebuck catalogues and daily-advice books. With thematic chapters on cooking, laundering, domestic science, child care, and the like, Strasser moves us quickly from the early 19th century through the 1930s--meanwhile taking potshots at 1980s corporate America. What she fails to provide is a sense of historical period and social context. Many of the significant developments in advertising, food canning, and electrical appliances, for example, occurred in the 1920s; but we gain little sense of postwar economics or the ideology of modernity. Instead, we have the ideology of post-modernity. Strasser grants that indoor plumbing has eliminated ""the staggering burden of water-related work that had dominated [women's] days as they hauled clean water into their houses and lugged slops out of them . . .""; but she sees it depriving them ""of the interaction with their neighbors they had found around the well, the hydrant, and the spring."" Electricity may have saved women the burdensome tasks of hauling fuel, building fires, and cleaning lamps; but today's women, ""hooked on power, devoted to the electric can opener along with the electric light . . . become ever more prey to the effects of corporate decision-making on daily life."" Strasser admits women accepted commercial products and services because they made life easier, yet clearly feels uncomfortable--personally, too--with the choices made. ""I use electricity to grind the coffee I drink while I write about the social effects of energy and product dependence."" She hopes the book will ""serve to assist in the genuine solutions to the problems of our daily lives."" What problems? the reader wonders. Sociability is not by definition tied to wash-day, autonomy and control are not automatically destroyed by Birds-eye peas in the fridge instead of parsnips in the cellar. Raw history, frozen ideology--and no useful synthesis.

Pub Date: May 17th, 1982
Publisher: Pantheon