“The ‘Industrial Revolution’ in the Home: Household Technology and Social Change in the 20th Century,” R. S. Cowan (1976)

The really fascinating thing about the “Second Industrial Revolution” (roughly 1870 until World War I) is how much of its effect is seen first for consumers and only later for production. Electricity is the famous example here; most energy-heavy industries were purposefully located near low-cost energy sources like fast-flowing water. Energy produced via transmitted electricity simply wasn’t that competitive until well into the 20th century in these industries.

Ruth Cowan, a historian, investigated how household production was affected by the introduction of electricity, which in the non-rural US roughly means between 1918 and the Great Depression; electrification rose from 25 percent to 80 percent during this period. Huge amounts of drudgery, once left to housewives and domestic workers, was reduced. Consider the task of ironing. Before electricity (barring gas irons, which were not widespread), ironing involved heating a heavy flatiron on a stove, carrying it to the ironing board and quickly knocking out wrinkles before the heat dissipated, bringing in back to stove, and so on. The replacement of the coal stove by central heating similarly limited tedious work, including constant cleaning of coal dust. Cowan traces diffusion of these technologies in part by examining advertisements in magazines like the Ladies’ Home Journal.

The interesting aspect of this consumer revolution, however, was that it did not in fact reduce the amount of work done by housewives. By the end of the 1920s, urban women, most affected by these technological changes, were still doing more housework per week than rural women. It appears the standard story of how Industrial Revolution technologies affected industry – more specialization, more importance of managerial talent, disappearing emotional content of work – was not true of household production. Instead, upper middle class women no longer employed specialized domestic help (and the implied importance of managerial talent on the part of the housewife), and advertisements for new consumer goods frequently emphasized the emotional content of, e.g., the improved cleanliness of modern appliances with respect to children’s health. Indeed, technological progress tended to significantly increase the number of tasks women were expected to perform within the house. There’s not much reason in economic theory for TFP improvements to lead to reductions or increases in worker skill or autonomy, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the household sector saw a different pattern from certain industrial sectors.

Final version in Technology & Culture Jan 1976. If you’re not familiar with the term “Second Industrial Revolution”, Joel Mokyr has a nice summary of this period of frequent important macro/GPT inventions. Essentially, the big inventions of the late 19th century were much more reliant on scientific knowledge, and much more connected to network effects and increasing returns to scale, than those of the late 18th and early 19th century.


2 thoughts on ““The ‘Industrial Revolution’ in the Home: Household Technology and Social Change in the 20th Century,” R. S. Cowan (1976)

  1. It seems the household sector developed more like agriculture – with increasing productivity and falling number of people employed.

    (Btw, I believe “consumers” and “producers” were switched in the first sentence.)

  2. Great post; nice find! I remember reading somewhere else that household technology increases and women’s lib are only weakly, if at all, correlated at the aggregate level — even if it’s something we (I?) might like to believe in retrospect by locating social change in straightforward economic causes.

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