After putting the baby to bed the other night, feeling exhausted and oppressed by my household duties, I cleaned the entire apartment.  By this I mean I put away the baby’s toys, washed the dishes, wiped down all three inches of countertop, swept most visible sections of the floor, and palmed a tumbleweed of dog hair off the rug. The entire process took about fifteen minutes, and was by far the longest stretch of housework I’d done all day.  When my husband came home from whatever it is he does all day, I made him dinner.  By this I mean I boiled some pasta.  And THEN I had to WORK.  By this I mean, I put on my pajamas and sat on the couch with a glass of wine and some student stories.   I do everything around here, I thought, self-pityingly.  Sheesh!  And, as a non-New Yorker friend said recently in amazement, “I bet you don’t even have a dishwasher! How do you do it?” 


“Well,” I responded, “My life is horrible.”


But it has occurred to me of late that housekeeping used to be a much more odious thing, and to remind myself of this I read Susan Strasser’s excellent book Never Done, a history of American housework.  I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone who has ever had to do a modicum of housework.  There is nothing like a perusal of pre-industrial housekeeping practices to make sorting the recycling feel like a day at the spa.  Seriously, did you know that everything used to suck way worse than it does now? 


Exhibit A.  Cooking.


Sometimes I have the thought, Greasy old unevenly-cooking, partially disabled rental apartment stove, I hate you.  But you know what really sucked?  Cooking over an open freaking fire, all sparking with burning cinders and scorching gates, using cast-iron utensils that weighed 8,000 lbs each.  Labor-intensiveness aside, just imagine all the ways an underfoot toddler could injure herself in such a kitchen!  Wait, don’t actually.  It’s too gruesome. And then even coal or wood stoves, once they came along, still took at least an hour a day just to maintain, what with all the fire-tending and coal-carrying and stove-blacking.  I can totally relate to this because every few months or so I have to relight the pilot light on my stove, which takes an entire match and sometimes dozens of seconds.


Strasser’s book also reminded me how once upon a time food arrived in the kitchen unprepared.  No, really unprepared.  As in, each ingredient had to be processed by hand – chickens plucked, hams blanched, coffee roasted, spices ground, flour sifted, oatmeal soaked, and so on. By way of contrast, I was once reduced to tears by the thought of all the work involved with heating up a premade veggie corn dog in the toaster oven.  Granted, I was pregnant and very tired, but so, I imagine, were many of our great-grandmothers while they were nurturing yeast.


Exhibit B.  Laundry.


I live in an old brownstone without a washing machine, which has led many a person to gasp in protest, “But you need laundry with the baby, right?”  Well guess what I found out from this book? No one used to have a washing machine! And one wash used fifty gallons of water, which of course had to be moved and heated by hand.  And oh yeah, they hadn’t invented detergent yet. Remember that chapter in Little House in the Big Woods where they describe making soap from pig lard? Ewwwwww.


No surprise then that Strasser writes, “Of all the household chores that depended on hauling water and building fires to heat it, laundry earned the most complaints … it appears that women jettisoned laundry, their most hated task, whenever they had any discretionary money at all.”  And here’s a little tidbit for you: in the beginning of the 20th century commercial laundries became popular and the task seemed to be on its way out of the house right along with making your own clothes and shoes.  Then the invention of the electric washing machine plunked the act of laundry right back into the lap of the housewife, a development Strasser calls a “raw deal.” 


So guess what this means? This means I have ingeniously bucked the housewife-oppressing system!  Laundry doesn’t isolate me in my basement OR take up two days of my time a week OR actually any of my time, since I drop it off at the Laundromat and pick it up some hours later all neatly folded into a tiny space-puck of mathematically impossible dimensions.  Do you see what this means? I am living the dream of the pre-industrial housewife. Thank you, Crystal Clean Laundromat!


Exhibit C. Extra Credit.


Back when the only out-of-home “daycare” was the “orphanage,” cash-strapped nineteenth century mothers cared for their children while tending the home fires (literally) and often taking in work they could do at home – extra laundry or mending for example.  In other words, they did what I do – take care of baby, take care of household, work a little from home – but in long skirts and without running water, manufactured soap, or baby toys that light up.  Or lattes.  Or mom-tot yoga.


In conclusion: suck it up, me.  Things are pretty awesome!  Now if you’ll all excuse me.  I have a stressful night ahead: a bathtub full of un-lugged, un-boiled hot water, and then off to sleep in sheets washed, luxury of luxury, by somebody else.

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AMY SHEARN is the author of the novel How Far Is the Ocean from Here. She lives in Brooklyn with a husband, a baby, and a dog. Visit her online at amyshearn.com.

29 responses to “Housework Used to Suck Way Worse Than it Does Now”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    This is funny, Amy.
    I was just listening to a discussion about this very subject on public radio here.
    I remember (not THAT long ago!) my mother having one of those old washing machines that you had to run the clothes through the wringer – I was always terrified I would get my hair caught between the rollers and it would squish me.
    I also wonder what punishment kids get handed out now. Mine was always – Wash the dishes! Now, I guess it’s ‘Load the dishwasher.’

  2. Don Mitchell says:

    Nice piece, Amy.

    It is amazing to think about all that work. I remember hearing about a study showing that “modern” housewives/homemakers/whatever we’re calling them these days spent even more hours on housework after the “labor saving” inventions than before. I never read the actual study, so I don’t know whether it’s nonsense or not. But I bet that Strasser did, and might even have cited it.

    I used to send my students out to find the oldest woman they could find, and ask about how laundry was done. They were amazed and horrified by the coppers, the boiling, stirring with sticks, the bluing, the harsh soap, the drying racks (and putting clothes outside in the winter until the water froze, then beating it off), and on and on. Tough times.

    Upside was that most of the students admitted they ended up realizing that Old People Knew Things.

    • Amy Shearn says:

      Seriously, people really did used to know how to do things! This was something I kept thinking as I read this book. Women used to know how to do a lot of things, and well. I don’t know how to do anything! It’s pathetic!

  3. Simon Smithson says:

    Is it an urban myth, that whole idea that we have less leisure time these days? It must be, right? The amount of time we’ve saved in water-boiling alone…

    • Amy Shearn says:

      So true. I foresee a return to semi-recreational water-boiling, though, the way people are now into crafts and knitting and baking again, this time for fun.

  4. Matt says:

    I think I’ve seen some of those studies Don was referring to, and I believe one of the points brought up was how, since the introduction of many modern home appliances, housework now only takes up about 4 hours of the day, max–and that’s with a family of four in a modern, middle-class house.

    I lived in my own apartment for most of college and graduate school, and I learned to do housework REAL quick; it was either cook and clean up after myself or starve to death in my own filth, and the latter was going to get me far less play with girls. Even when I let things slack for a while, it usually only takes me about an hour to do everything. And I get to rock my tunes on the stereo while I do so! In your face, Laura Ingalls Wilder!

  5. Amanda says:

    Nice, Shearn! Oh, Little House. I always wanted a pig bladder to kick around.

  6. Can you imagine what it took to write a book? First: find the perfect tree to fell, second: locate the ax, third: strip tree of bark, reduce to pulp, Fourth: what is pulp? Five: get a blender to make the pulp, Six: oh yeah, right, no electricity, no blender, Seven: scrap making paper, find a large leaf, Eight: Find a berry that you can squeeze enough out of to make ink, Nine: choose your words very carefully: you only have one large leaf and a spot of berry ink, Ten: fuck it: it’s time to sow the oats for breakfast.

    Write more, Amy, please! You already have proven you don’t spend the entire day doing housework!
    xx~ robin

  7. Amanda says:

    The last time I visited New York, which was in summertime, I went on an evening tour at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum (former tenements restored to resemble as closely as possible the early 20th century homes of immigrant garment workers, young widows who took in stitching to support their brood of children, and so on).

    Sure, the content was simultaneously hyperbolised and sanitised for tourists, but it was still an amazing little tour. As the sun went down on a 100-degree day, there were no lights, so you had to use candles or lanterns. The building was already a fafillion degrees and the apartments we visited were located on the top floor, where all the heat settled nicely below the ceiling, and the aroma of boiling tar seeped from the roof above. One apartment had been inhabited by a piece worker, who sewed using a treadle machine all day, handily situated next to the wood stove. Gauzy curtains hung here and there, and you could imagine the place being as frigid in winter as it was mercilessly scorching in July.

    You could just imagine the public service announcement that could be produced, focusing on the toddler-sized perils, never mind the fire hazards in general, the noise, the heat (or conversely the cold), the lack of water most days, and the presence of unwanted water many days, too, bursting through pipe seams or plip-plopping through the ceiling. And ohhhh lordy…can you imagine the smell?!

    • Amy Shearn says:

      What a lovely description of an unlovely place.

      Still, whenever an out-of-town guest suggests visiting the tenement museum I’m like, uhhh want to come over to my place instead? And I would suggest the same to you next time you’re in town. It’s free, we have air conditioning (kind of, a little), and we will tell you stories too if you like. Harper even knows some tricks!

  8. When I’m strangling wild boar with my bare hands, I often think to myself, “Why not just walk up the hill to Giant and buy some bacon?”

  9. Carl D'Agostino says:

    House work sucks, uh? I did my MA on theological disputes Puritan Massachusetts 1630 – 1670. Also have a small library of related matters colonial life. Delightful book. Charming read. Long laborious days by resourceful people with few amenities.

    Home and Child Life in Colonial Days
    by Shirley Glubok, Ed.
    Macmillan, 1969.

    • Amy Shearn says:

      Ooh! Sounds good. I think everytime I feel myself disliking any household chore, I am going to pick up one of these books about olden days. It’s like an instant attitude adjustment!

  10. Marni Grossman says:

    I recently went to see the documentary “Babies” and had similar thoughts. In Namibia, the mothers have to wash their babies with their own spit. Time-consuming AND labor-intensive.

    Also: when I graduated from college, I drove home with my grandmother chatting beside me in the car. She regaled me with stories about the dinner parties she used to whip up when she was first married. At 21. I can barely cook for three. It was a humbling experience to say the least.

    • Amy Shearn says:

      Oh man, I want to see that movie. Also, I wash Harper’s face with spit all day. It’s actually quite convenient!

      And also: cook for three? Who can cook for three? I cook for the baby. Then my husband’s like, “What’s for dinner?” And I’m like, “What on earth do you mean? Have a teething biscuit.”

  11. Aaron Dietz says:

    “Well, my life is horrible.”

    I’m going to start using that because I find it hilarious. Occasionally I’m describing my typical day wherein I work 8 to 10 hours at work work and then come home and work 3 or 4 hours on other work (the fun writing stuff I get to do), and they’re like, “How do you do it?”

    I would love to use this line.

    Especially since it’s so far from the truth. I love my work work. I love my other work. I will be saying this line with the most hideously happy smile on my face.

    To me, it’ll be hilarious.

    • Amy Shearn says:

      Well, I thought it was funny, since until she had said that I had never even considered the idea of a dishwasher. Anyway, good for you for making time for your own work — your real work! I used to get that question too when I worked fulltime and taught and wrote. I was like, “Um, I don’t watch tv. Or ever really relax. That’s the key!” You make time for what you want to make time for… even if sometimes it makes your life a tiny bit horrible.

  12. Irene Zion says:


    My mom grew up on a farm in Manitoba, Canada. No electricity. No running water. Well water was too hard for laundry, so laundry had to be dragged to the frozen stream, and yes, they used stones to beat the dirt out. Yeah.
    We have it easy.

    • Amy Shearn says:

      But she probably knew a lady who had better dirt-beating stones and had moments when she was like, damn life would be so much easier with those stones. Or maybe not. Probably she was much less whiny than I. Probably you’d have to be. I always think about those harsh conditions of yore and assume I would have died off pretty early, if I’d even been born in the first place!

  13. Irene Zion says:

    That was pretty funny, Amy.
    I’m afraid I’d be with you on the dying off quickly under those conditions.
    Especially the bitter cold in Midwestern Canada and the no heat thing.

  14. angela says:

    great piece, amy! your description of how laundry used to be done reminded me of that PBS show, 1900 House. it was fascinating to see how difficult housework – and even bathing – was without modern conveniences.

    i had a tiny apartment in new york, and yet it’d still take me an entire weekend to clean the whole thing. i tried doing the daily maintenance thing, but i was way too lazy.

  15. Peggy says:

    Okay, but anybody who had a pot to piss in also had SERVANTS. Of course I guess that didn’t do you much good if you were one of the servants…

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