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Are we done with ironing?

Time for the follow-up post to ‘Ironing board will soon be obsolete‘!

Do you iron?

We were lying by the pool, so my friend’s question was an unexpected one. She herself is a non-ironer, and she seemed to be gauging whether this makes her a bad person. Luckily, I could set her at ease: I do not iron my laundry either.

And your mother?

Well yes, the works: from cardigans to underpants.

While the recently released UN report ‘Progress of the World’s Women’ draws attention to the burden of unpaid care and domestic work that falls on women globally, it also allows us to ponder how the more affluent parts of the world deal with these tasks.

Clearly, women in wealthy countries are no stranger to the difficulty of juggling different duties within the limited hours of the day. However, I found that the question my friend asked me by the poolside signals a remarkable change that we see with today’s young people. This generation of emancipating women are using their time in a new manner.

In the second half of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth, housewives set towering standards when it came to the proper maintenance of furniture, floors, windows, linen and clothes.

Embed from Getty Images

To give an early example from a British housekeepers’ manual (pp. 6-7): every day, the blankets but also the sheets had to be taken from all the beds, and mattresses had to be

turned over daily. Feather-beds must be turned over and shaken in all directions.

The bed should then be completely remade,

and drawing your hand along the lower edge of the pillows, so that their form may be seen, the bed is made.

Before making a bed, wash your hands, and take care that your apron is not dirty.

Although these efforts may have yielded some health benefits, they were primarily aimed at enhancing a family’s respectability. Next to this, they may have helped mothers who were caring for only a small number of children, but who had nevertheless been excluded from the work force (it was a matter of pride for couples when the wife did not ‘have to’ work), to give purpose to their life: to feel needed.

In the 1970s and 80s, second-wave feminists were already different wives from their mothers. No longer did they just take care of home and family: they turned to paid work in massive numbers.

Still, they had been raised with their mothers’ domestic ideals: a perfectly neat interior, especially when receiving guests, the children always scrubbed and combed… Beside their paid jobs, wives and mothers continued to spend twice as many hours on home and care as their husbands, both in the UK and in many other countries (see the Multinational Time Use Study database). This ‘second shift’ of work is what led to the feelings of stress and inadequacy many women know so well.

In other words, the baby boomers were stuck with a historically high bench-mark in all matters domestic. In spite of a substantial growth in paid labour participation, which now absorbed much of women’s time, the baby boomers have never really rid themselves of this standard.

This is a thing which we do see happening with their children. Many of the young women who are starting a household today, and their partners, too, are taking on a new mentality. Of course, women’s time scarcity can also be alleviated by men’s greater involvement in the home, and by hiring professional help. Partly, this is also what is happening. However, the other obvious option young people see, is to simply lower their expectations.

A photo by the USA Department of Agriculture. Extension Service: 'Washington, D.C. Dusting mits with which dusting can be done with both hands develops speed and efficiency. Dusting mit or dust cloth in the pocket, dusting as you clean, eliminates travel time.'

A photo taken by the USA Department of Agriculture, Extension Service, around the 1940s: ‘Washington, D.C. Dusting mits with which dusting can be done with both hands develops speed and efficiency. Dusting mit or dust cloth in the pocket, dusting as you clean, eliminates travel time.’ (Currently in the National Archives and Records Administration, College Park. Photo provided on Wikimedia Commons.) Did the federal government occupy itself with the efficient cleanliness of American homes? I’m no expert on this, but it would seem so.

Hoovering, mopping, replacing linen and making beds: everything happens less often in this generation. Except for a formal shirt now and then, none of my friends ever iron as far as I can tell. Even folding is occasionally abandoned. (A weekly dusting has already been history for a while: in my work as a professional housekeeper, the different priorities of different generations of clients have become abundantly clear.)

Yes, guests like to sleep on clean sheets, but that does not mean the entire house must shine. Kids don’t like to worry about their clothes in the first place. And who knows what will happen to the pressing iron? It might do nicely enough as home decoration next to the washboard and the spinning wheel.

If these first indications persist – if women are grasping this opportunity to turn their back on perfectionism, and men are growing just as modest in their expectations – then, perhaps, we can look forward to a little less pressure in our stressful lives. Which is why the best place imaginable to start a discussion about housekeeping, was indeed the poolside.

This column has also been published in the University of Sheffield’s History Matters and, in a different version and focusing on the Dutch instead of the British situation, in NRC Handelsblad on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2015.

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Greetings from a [insert weather] place!

It’s a holiday cliche.

‘We’re having a great time here and the weather is nice.’ Or: ‘rain every day since we arrived.’ Or: ‘even the locals complain about the heat.’

On our postcards home, we write about the weather.

And not just we. As I examine letters from a century or more ago for my work, I find the same preoccupations, the same themes, the same wordings.

Here is a postcard from 1905. It was sent by a father who had to be away from home for work and regularly reported to his daughter about his activities.

Postcard, in the collection of the Library of Congress.

Postcard from a father to his daughter, sent in 1905, now in the collection of the Library of Congress.

On 14 August, he wrote:

The weather much cooler to day.

The same kind of texts can be found on postcards and in letters and diaries throughout the western world.

Now many scholars agree that such statements form a mere convention. Talk about the weather, as talk about hotels or sight-seeing, consists of cliches, slavishly repeated from existing models. Travel writing, in their opinion, consists largely of stereotypes and set topics that do not tell you much about what travellers really thought or felt.

I beg to differ. When we talk about the weather, usually it actually means something to us.

Yes, the weather is conventional in the sense that it is quite a common theme to broach in a letter or on a postcard. Yet we are not obliged to mention it. Nor are we obliged to always describe it in the same terms. If it were just a mark of good manners to say something like, for instance, ‘we are seeing some bright days here’, in the same sense as you would say ‘thank you’ when receiving a gift, that would be a full-blown convention, a formula. But except on those Gobi treks which your grandpa treats you to on your birthday, you would be perfectly free to write to him that where you are staying, the weather is miserable.

And if the weather is miserable, this really matters to you! If it’s raining all the time, this may make you cold or depressed. If it is 40 degrees Celsius in the shade, you may feel equally awful. The weather can prevent you from visiting certain places and from participating in a lot of enjoyable holiday activities.

So conventions come on different levels, in varying degrees. The weather happens to be a thing that affects us a lot, which is why, as a topic, it has become a convention in travel writing, while in its content, it remains highly specific and meaningful to the people involved.