Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Never Done: A History of American Housework

I anticipated that Never Done, by Susan Strasser, would be a book about the ways my foremothers kept house, from cleaning walls, windows, floors, and everything in between, to cooking meals and baking bread, cakes, and pies; from sorting, washing, drying, and ironing laundry to all the other tasks that were involved in housework and homekeeping -- and the ways and times they performed those tasks.  Instead, I learned primarily about the history and development of modern conveniences (water  and electricity delivered to homes) which lightened the labor of housework, ways housewives earned money, and contemporary views on housewives.  There was limited information about how housework was done in past generations.

Strasser pointed out that in Colonial times the household was the center of activity.  It was the home; the place where items were manufactured; and the place where children were taught.  Items were produced and used by those living in the home.  Families were both producers and consumers.  Most family members worked at a variety of activities witout pay.  That which was excess was bartered with others for needs within the family.  Over time production moved from home to factories; fewer people produced, many people consumed.  As people began to be employed outside the home and receive wages for their labor, the work of housewives, who earn no wages, was considered of little value. 

The author cautioned readers not to assume that ideas and suggestions for home care and housework that were published in contemporary books, magazines, newspapers, and cookbooks were adopted by most women.  As in today's world, published recipes may or may not be used by a majority of readers; likewise ideas of fashion, home decoration, etc., may or may not be adopted by readers in our times.

I found part of the chapter about water particularly interesting.  Before indoor plumbing was available, women carried every ounce of water from a distant source -- spring, well, river, or public faucet -- into their homes, including water for bathing, cleaning, cooking, washing dishes, laundry, and then carried it back out again.  If a source of water were 60 yards away and water had to be carried into the home six or eight times a day, during the course of a year a housewife would have walked 148 miles lugging water from its source to her home.  I recently read a comment on a Facebook genealogy group.  The writer said she'd once asked her grandmother which modern convenience she was most grateful for.  The grandmother replied that it was running water.  After reading the chapter on water I can understand why.

Another topic of discussion in the book was the isolation that housewives encountered after water and electric services became available in the home.  In previous times when women carried water from a public source, hung laundry, gardened, or participated in other outdoor activities, other women were often outside doing the same things and they interacted.  That changed with indoor plumbing, when products were manufactured and purchased at stores, and when women used washers and dryers for their laundry, etc.

Chapter titles include:
  • Daily Bread
  • Out of the Frying Pan
  • Home Fires
  • At the Flick of a Switch
  • Fetch a Pail of Water
  • Blue Monday
  • A Stitch in Time
  • The Boarder
  • Mistress and Maid
  • Redeeming Woman's Profession
  • The Business of Housekeeping
  • When the Bough Breaks
  • Selling Mrs. Consumer
  • Quick and Easy
  • You Deserve a Break
  • Life on the Market

You can probably guess from the titles what most of the chapters are about.  If you're interested in women's history, in understanding more about your foremothers' situations, or in history in general, you may appreciate reading all or some of the chapters of this book.  Whatever else you read, be sure to read the prologue.


Copyright ©2017 Nancy Messier. All Rights Reserved.


  1. Nancy, this sounds like an interesting book. I enjoy books that give me a glimpse into the social history of my ancestors. I'll look for a copy. Thanks for blogging about this book.

    1. Hi, Colleen. I found some parts more interesting than others but I learned a lot and found it easy to imagine some of the work of my foremothers. If you find a copy I hope you enjoy it. If you do interlibrary loan the Columbus Metropolitan Library owns a copy and I'm sure they loan their books to other libraries.

    2. Nancy, I found a copy on Amazon. It has a different cover. I think it is a reprint. Because of your post, I look forward to its arrival.

    3. That's great, Colleen. I hope you like it or at least find it informative!


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