More, or Less Work for Mother?

Golden Rod Vacuum Cleaner

Halton Region Heritage Services Collection, 1962.20.2

The change and reordering of society brought about by the Industrial Revolution did not leave the domestic sphere untouched; in fact,industrialization was as rapid and significant inside the home as it was outside of it. Ruth Schwartz Cowan noted in Less Work for Mother that “during the first half of the twentieth century, the average American household was transformed by the introduction of a group of machines that profoundly altered the daily lives of housewives…”

 The Golden Rod vacuum cleaner was once such machine that changed the way in which work was done around the home. Local history collections, like that of Halton Region Heritage Services, are a rich resource through which to examine changing technologies in domestic spaces over time. Everyday cleaning implements are frequently collected by community history museums but are far less common in larger and more specialized institutions. Our collection contains a selection of rather ordinary cleaning implements that when viewed together, showcase the evolution of cleaning technology from traditional brooms, carpet beaters and sweepers to vacuum cleaners, ranging from early models like this 1911 Golden Rod plunger style vacuum, to later electric models. 

Golden Rod Vacuum Cleaner Plans

Drawing from patent # 1012800

Ruth Schwartz Cowan and other social history researchers noted that the emergence of these timesaving domestic tools corresponded with the steep decline in the number of domestic servants. Where multiple domestic workers might have cleaned the home of a middle class family in the late 1800s, now the wife and mother was managing this workload on her own. Fast-forward a few decades and these same women were entering the workforce, holding down jobs while using these “labour saving devices” to complete the housework. The rising standards of household cleanliness that accompanied new domestic technologies further added to the time women spent on housework. Maxine Margolis noted in Mothers and Such: Views of American Women and Why they Changed that, “what promoted the greater expenditure of time was rising standards of good housekeeping which were vehemently espoused in both the popular media and the expanding home economics movement.”

 Our vacuum cleaner, used in Milton, Ontario, was a relatively common model in the early 20th century. It was patented December 26, 1911 by Charles Boyer of Morengo, Illinois. The vacuum was produced by Hugro Manufacturing of Warsaw, Indiana. Relatively small, lightweight and operable by one person, the vacuum was much more labour intensive to use than today’s modern machines. The user would push a piston up and down a long tube (with a nozzle on the end, which ran along the surface being cleaned) to create the suction that would suck up dirt and debris, while using the other hand to hold and stabilize the machine. While this vacuum did a better job of removing dirt and debris from carpets than sweeping or beating did, it did not necessarily take less time or involve less energy; the plunge vacuum was only effective on the upward push - so was only suctioning half the time it was in use.

“The Lady Who Lives on Easy Street”

Lady Who Lives on Easy Street

Canadian National Exhibition Cataloguge page from 1927.

As with many examples of new technology today, early vacuums could be rather expensive and were not universally available. Middle and upper class women enjoyed these new tools, but those who did not have the same economic fortunes did without - they would continue to use brooms and carpet sweepers until the cost of vacuums came down. Industrialization in the home was as uneven as it was outside of it, benefitting only some members of the population.

 The 1927 Eaton’s catalogue provides an excellent illustration of the price disparity between cleaning implements: brooms were available for between $0.57 and $0.73, the Brunswick carpet sweeper could be purchased for $4.65, while the Empire electric vacuum cleaner was offered for sale for $37.50.

 Far from being ladies who lived on easy street, as this 1927 advertisement suggests, it was not uncommon for women to put in between 50-60 hours of housework each week, vacuuming, doing laundry or washing dishes, no matter if they lived in the 1920s or the 1960s.

 While the vacuum cleaner is the topic of discussion here, Heritage Services, like other community museums, has a rich collection of domestic housewares that offer physical evidence of technological developments in the domestic sphere, the changing nature of women’s work, alongside changes in the labour market. Researchers can physically see the innovations and changes brought to bear on household appliances by simply looking through the collections storage spaces of their local museum. For example, one could examine the evolution of laundry practices from the washboard and basin to the wringer washer to automatic washing machines, alongside both iceboxes and early kitchen refrigerators. Domestic artifacts like the Golden Rod vacuum tell us valuable stories about local people, places and processes, but they also connect the local to global historical stories like industrialization and changing patterns of work.

More, or Less Work for Mother?