Rosalind Mitchison

  • A woman’s work is never done: A History of Housework in the British Isles 1650-1950 by Caroline Davidson
    Chatto, 250 pp, £15.00, October 1982, ISBN 0 7011 3901 3

This book is not founded on doctrinaire feminism but on very wide reading. It uses memoirs and letters, local history publications, ballads and chapbooks, social surveys, inventories and advertisements, and the richness of its sources gives it a fine flavour. There are also some historical oddities to be noticed. One eccentricity is the confusion between Charles I and Charles II. Another is the back-to-front arrangement of some of the themes. Gas and electricity form Chapter Two, while cooking, heating and lighting, all of which are examined for the period before the modern heat and power resources became available, form Chapters Three to Five. But these peculiarities do not stop the book being an enjoyable read and a splendid repertoire of miscellaneous information.

The question that matters is: how far is it more than an intriguing collection of historical facts? Its initial statements must raise this doubt. ‘The majority of women throughout the history of the world have spent their lives doing housework’ is the first sentence, and one that must be questioned. The great bulk of human beings of both sexes and all ages over time have had as their main concern the securing of basic sustenance. Gaining food has been the main task of their days, with clothing, shelter and fuel as secondary concerns. Only when an economy is fairly sophisticated and standards of living relatively high has it been possible for women to devote time and attention to the care and treatment of subsidiary matters, and that is where cleaning and washing, securing light and water come in. Even within the shortened perspective of this book, Britain since 1650, many wives worked in the fields or at cottage industries for pay, and so contributed to the basic needs of the family. To regard the wife working for material gain as an anomaly is to accept Victorian middle-class ideals, and to assume, as indeed did many Victorian commentators, that these extended over the whole population, and that they had been the norm in past times. Caroline Davidson’s grasp of the historic family economy is weak: this is shown by her remark that textile production ‘was only undertaken by a minority of women in the remoter parts of Britain’. In using household inventories of the 18th century I have yet to find one that did not include a spinning-wheel, except in cases where the family was deep into some more advanced specialisation such as framework knitting. The proliferation of cottage industry relied on work for the market by both sexes, either directly or through neighbours or relatives as intermediaries. Women not only joined their husbands at the loom, but sometimes took it over, shared the framework-knitting business and spun both for the open market and for the home. Housework came only a bad second to these activities for the labouring part of society.

Before 1700 most families lived in one or two rooms only and had little in the way of furniture other than beds, rarely varied their diets from basic cereals and had little concern with personal cleanliness. Enthusiasm for washing was a late fad in Europe, which in this stood far behind many parts of Asia. There is a drastic limitation to what you can do in housework other than child care in the circumstances that had extended since the Middle Ages. With only one set of clothes, shared beds, the communal cooking-pot to eat out of, there is little housework to do, other than the carrying of water and firewood. It is appropriate that the first chapter of this book should have concentrated on the particular chore of water-carrying, for certainly it was onerous. But it becomes a real burden only when the idea of cleanliness is accepted, and gallons instead of pints per head have to be brought in.

Caroline Davidson is concerned in the main with conditions which obtained after most parts of Britain had gone through the ‘domestic revolution’, the change to enlarged concepts of house space and the acquisition of comforts in the form of furniture and extra fires. With this change, which was occurring in many areas for the middling ranks in the 17th century, snobbery became attached, if not to personal cleanliness of the body, at least to the possession of enough linen for frequent changes which would remove the upper layers of grime. The change spread slowly from south-east to north-west, and socially downwards, and once it was accomplished Miss Davidson’s assessment of the role of housework becomes valid. But for many this was not till the end of the 18th century.

Caroline Davidson points out the special animosity that laundry work aroused. For women this is easily understandable. The sheer muscular effort involved, first of all in getting the dirt out of clothes, often by trampling or bashing them, was bad enough, but for most of the year the next task, getting the water out too, was even more strenuous. The mangle was invented only in the late 17th century, and was an object demanding heavy expenditure, a consumer durable beyond the means of most. Moreover, it was not, in its early form, an instrument for a single worker. Even the improved model of the 19th century required a lot of muscle. Without it, there was the terrible business of hand-wringing of heavy fabrics. In any case, sheets and blankets had to be spread out, on bushes or on lines, to dry, and then had to be watched. Every washday saw a repeated conflict between the urge to rest and the necessity of using good drying weather.

But it is not only, or even mostly, the women who have left hostile comments on washday. Of course, in the 17th and 18th centuries many men expressed disgust at aspects of domestic work. Richard Bentley could think of nothing more disparaging to say about his opponents’ views on Classical literature than that they belonged in the dripping-pan, and Swift’s ‘Directions to Servants’ show a morbid disgust at problems of the disposal of human excreta. But vocal complaint about the wash, though usually voiced by those who took refuge from it in the alehouse, was the commonest and loudest. So much female effort went in to the wash, starting according to Pepys’s diary at 2 a.m., that there was no spare labour for other duties. Washday meant cold meat for Pepys, and wet clothes in the way of the fire for the labouring population. Men who insisted on clean linen, at least for the visible parts of their attire, would loathe and despise the whole process which provided it. The only occasion on which washday seems to have been regarded with male approval is the historic excursion of Nausicaa and her handmaidens.

It is in the minor insights, descriptions and complaints that the value of this book lies, rather than in the dominant features of domestic life in the past. The problem of firing has provided a rich vein of comment, from Celia Fiennes’s observations of houses plastered with cakes of drying cow dung, ‘an offensive fewell’, to the arduous job of turning and storing peat. There is serious attention to the work of Count Rumford, the first to apply science to domestic needs, on stoves and chimneys. Water-carrying, always a sex-linked task, could be arduous, since the nearest source might be a quarter of a mile away or more. Figures at wells look stately in pictures, and even those with buckets or stoups can have a romantic air, but relatively rarely have those looking at old illustrations noted the physically distorting effects of such work.

Caroline Davidson goes on to discuss the life and work of domestic servants. The presence of such a body of workers, people whose very existence had become an indicator of the social status of their employer, was the main reason why improvements in domestic convenience or machinery were so slow to take effect. There was little incentive in Britain for the invention of better domestic aids in the 19th century, and even when such things had been designed, like the early washing-machines or the carpet-sweeper, there was a Luddite unwillingness to put them to use. Of course, carpet-sweepers do not also wait at table, answer the door or keep an eye on the two-year-old. Servants could be replaced only in some of their functions, and if this was done, who was to know the social status of the family? When, after the Second World War, machinery and outside aids to easier home life came to take the place of the servants who had voted with their insurance cards against service, they did so with the conspicuous omission of child care. As a result, today’s housewife with young children may well be cut off from the community of other women, who can and do go out to work. Primitive domestic work, at the peat hag or furse bush, the well or the stream, had a social dimension which has today been largely destroyed.