A History of Housework

By Tim Lambert

Housework in Pre-Industrial England

In Pre-Industrial Europe housework was much harder work than it is today. Many people simply had hard earth floors, which tended to become dusty and required regular sweeping. Until the 18th century carpets were a luxury and they were often hung over tables rather than put on the floor. Well-off people strew reeds or rushes on their floors (sometimes they were woven into mats) and they had to be changed regularly. People used a plant called mares tail for scrubbing brushes.

Before the Industrial Revolution, women smoothed linen with glass weights or smooth stones while it was damp. In large houses, linen sheets were folded and placed in a screw press. People hung their wet clothes over bushes to dry.

Housework in the 19th Century

In the 19th century, housework became easier although it was still hard work. Carpets were mass-produced in Britain from the mid-19th century and they became much cheaper. However, cleaning carpets was no easy task in the 19th century. You had to hang up the carpet and beat it with a carpet beater (a handle and large flat paddle, usually made of cane). Melville Bissell invented a carpet sweeper in 1876. It made it far easier to clean rugs and carpets. Although to clean carpets people sometimes sprinkled them with dry tea leaves then brushed them up.

Also in 1876, Susan Hibbard patented the feather duster.

Meanwhile, in 1860 Frederick Walton invented linoleum, which was cheap and easy to clean floor covering. Then in 1893, Thomas W Stewart invented a mop with a replaceable head. It also had a clamping device. when a lever was pulled water and dirt were wrung out (before mops had to be wrung manually). His invention made cleaning the floor easier.

Most 19th century homes also had a scullery. In it was a ‘copper’, a metal container for washing clothes. The copper was filled with water and soap powder was added. To wash the clothes they were turned with a wooden tool called a dolly. (A dolly looked like a long wooden pole with a stool with several legs on its end). Or you used a metal plunger with holes in it on the end of a pole to push clothes up and down. Wet clothes were wrung through a device called a wringer or a mangle to dry them.

In the USA John E Turnbull invented the clothes wringer in 1843. The ‘modern’ clothes peg with a spring clamp was invented by David M Smith in 1853.

During the 19th century, towns and cities created a piped water supply, which must have made washing clothes easier. Benjamin Waddy Maughan invented the gas water heater in 1868. The electric water heater was invented in 1889 by Edwin Ruud.

In the 19th century, people ironed with flat irons. They were just slabs of metal with handles on top. You heated the iron until it was hot then used it to iron your clothes. (Normally you had 2 irons, one was put on your oven to heat while the other was used). Some irons consisted of a container with a handle. The container was filled with hot coals or a hot slab of metal. In the late 19th century there were also gas irons with gas supplied to them through a rubber tube (the gas burned inside the iron) and there were spirit irons, which burned paraffin. Henry Seeley patented the electric iron in 1882. In 1875 a portable ironing board was invented by John B. Porter. Sarah Boone patented an improved device in 1892.

Joel Houghton invented the first dishwasher in 1850. A Frenchman named Eugene Daquin invented another version in 1885. However, Josephine Cochrane invented the first successful dishwasher in 1886.

Housework in the 20th Century

Housework became much easier in the 20th Century. Electric irons became common. The first steam iron was introduced in 1926.

At the beginning of the 19th century, people cooked over an open fire. This was very wasteful as most of the heat went up the chimney. In the 1820s an iron cooker called a range was introduced. It was a much more efficient way of cooking because most of the heat was contained within. By the mid-19th century, ranges were common. Most of them had a boiler behind the coal fire where water was heated. However, the iron range did have one disadvantage – it had to be polished with a black polish to stop it from rusting.

Gas cookers first became common in the 1890s and the first electric oven went on sale in the USA in 1891. They went on sale in Britain in 1893. By 1939 there were about 1 1/2 million electric ovens in Britain and about 9 million gas ones.

Cooking was also made much easier by the development of convenience foods. The first convenience food in tins and jars went on sale in the late 19th century. Although the principle of canning was invented at the end of the 18th century tinned food first became widely available in the 1880s. A can opener was invented in 1855 by Robert Yates and the rotary can opener was invented in 1870 by William Lyman.

In the late 20th century housework became even easier. Convenience foods became far more common. That was partly because fridges and freezers became common. (In Britain fish fingers went on sale in 1955). In Britain, microwave ovens first became common in the 1980s.

Simple hand-operated washing machines were invented in the 18th century. The first electric washing machine was made in 1907. They became more common in the 1930s, though they were still expensive. In Britain, washing machines did not become common until the 1960s. Meanwhile, the first synthetic detergent was invented in Germany during the First World War. In the following decades, detergents were gradually improved and became more common.

The powered vacuum cleaner was invented by Hubert Booth in 1901. His earliest model was petrol-driven and was so big it had to be pulled through the streets by a horse. It was parked outside your house and hoses were fed through the windows. The first portable electric vacuum cleaner was invented in 1908. Gradually during the 20th century vacuum cleaners became cheaper and more common. By 1959 about two-thirds of British homes had a vacuum cleaner. Then in 1979, James Dyson patented the bagless cyclonic vacuum cleaner. It went on sale in 1993.

In the late 20th century the development of synthetic cleaners made housework much easier. Meanwhile in 1950 Canadian Harry Wasylyk invented the bin liner or garbage bag.

Last revised 2024