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Background - Domestic Technology - part 1

Below you will find information on the history of domestic technology and its impact on gender relations in the home (ca 1850 - 1990). The Love, Leisure and Laundry exhibit explores some of the reasons why technology has never eliminated housework and probably never will. Chief amongst these are changing standards, the nature of family life, and new roles for women in the home. Instead of removing housework, domestic technology contributed to a re-definition of how that work should be organized and done.

You may also want to explore the other topics relating to our school program «Old and New Ways in the Home».

Social Changes

Technological Changes



Housework in the 19th century

The 19th century home

The organization, physical effort and tools used to do housework before modern household equipment became available were the result of a home life based on mutual interdependence. The family in the 19th century was a unit of production. Today the family is mainly a unit of consumption.

Many of the items required for their daily needs were produced at home and purchases were limited to a short list of goods: tea, coffee and sugar were highly prized and sparingly used. Metal items such as stoves, pots, tools and guns were purchased because only skilled artisans were able to make them. Many other tools such as wooden spoons and washboards were made once the family was settled.

In rural areas, services such as heat, water and waste disposal had to be provided and maintained on a daily basis by the family unit whose implements were tools rather than machines. Women were responsible for the growing, buying, preservation and preparation of the family's food.

Particularly in rural areas, tasks were clearly divided between the men and women. For homesteading couples, marriage was a means of survival. It was this mutual interdependence which became lost as the home became modernized. Men cared for the wheat and grew the flax, but women took care of the garden. Men cut and hauled the wood for the fires, women did the cooking. Some tasks such as carrying water, milking cows, peeling apples and weaving were performed by both men and women.

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Children in the 19th century home

In the rural Ontario home, the nature of children's labour varied according to their age, sex, position in the family and time of year. The average rural family had from five to six children and children's labour at small, time-consuming tasks freed the parents to clear land and break soil.

Most children were not asked to help before the age of five as they lacked the necessary dexterity, judgement and physical strength. Therefore, they were left to play and watch the older members of the family.

Boys became useful at around 5 to 7 years of age and were given simple jobs such as bringing in firewood and water, gathering eggs and feeding chickens. By the age of 10 they began work in the field hoeing crops, driving the team for harrowing and raking and learning to milk. By 14 most boys were working as men, doing all the jobs on the farm -- chopping wood, ploughing, threshing, etc.

Daughters became useful at an early age and by 6 years most girls knew how to spin, knit and sew. They also watched younger children, freeing their mothers for tasks such as weaving. By ages 8 to 12 they would sweep, do dishes, set the table, mend clothing, do basic cooking, feed poultry and take care of the garden. By 14 to 16 a girl was considered to be a woman and could do any job around the house including washing clothes, ironing, cleaning floors and grates. It was rare that girls went to work in the fields.

School did not become compulsory for children until 1871 with the Ontario School Act. All children between 7 and 12 years of age were to attend school at least 4 months a year. Mechanization in the latter half of the 19th century, in fact, extended the schooling given to rural children as many of their tasks were taken over by machines. Children were now mainly needed for harvesting which was done over the summer when they were home.

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Changing roles of women in the home

In general, the acquisition of appliances by the various classes of households is reflected by the number of servants each household employed.

For the upper class, the first appliances to be acquired were those which were featured in the principal rooms - radiators, cigar lighters, coffee and tea pots. "Back-stage devices" such as washing machines came later, as obtaining an appliance was often based on novelty and social status.

In middle-class homes, female family members were the main source of labour with servants hired to do only the most difficult tasks. To ease the housewife's load, items such as washing machines were acquired as labour-saving devices before those in wealthy homes. Often, purchasing an appliance depended on its cost effectiveness and dependability.

Married working-class women were forced to work outside the home as domestics or in the manufacturing industries, and often their first exposure to appliances was as a result of working for someone else. Electrification of the home and electric appliances were out of reach for most working-class women.


Wealthy households during this period did not show noticeable changes. Most were equipped for electric devices, but they were not the main market for appliances.

Despite the short supply of domestic staff during the years of war production, most homes were not equipped with electric washing machines. Even if labour-saving devices were available, not all servants appreciated them. The mistress of the house soon found more work to be done if servants were finished their primary tasks early.

The middle-class housewife was still the significant target of the market as the time and labour-saving capabilities of electrical technology were important to her.

As a result of "home production" and wages earned at the munitions factories, working-class households began to purchase small appliances such as disc stoves.


Upper-class women now had "day servants" instead of live-in staff, but were otherwise not profoundly affected by the new technologies. Middle-class women, however, were directly affected. It appeared, on the surface, that the new technology would lighten the load of domestic chores. But, influenced by advertising, the standards of housework increased, so that instead of gaining more leisure time, the housewife was expected to do more in the home with these labour-saving devices. In addition, the middle-class housewife ceased to be a manager and became a worker, and the time required to use the "mechanical servants" was the same as the time required to supervise domestic help. In addition, women now went out to shop as deliveries decreased and the automobile became more available.

Child care was an area of responsibility which continued to take a great deal of time and, without domestic help, it fell to the housewife.

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1890 - 1910

By 1890, entrepreneurs had established electrical generating facilities in all of Canada's provinces. Electric technology required the establishment of a method of distribution before it could be used. As a result, the first customers were in or near urban centres. In 1910, Berlin (Kitchener), Ontario became the first municipality to be connected to the provincial public power grid. In Ontario this power grid was funded by the government; in Quebec it was funded privately.

From 1890 to 1910 much experimentation with electric technology as an alternative to traditional cooking and heating processes took place. At the turn of the century, two basic shortcomings of the existing electric technology were the lack of the ability to produce heat (through resistance) and the lack of motive power (small motors). Originally this experimentation occurred under the direction of private inventors, but Corporations soon began to do research as well. Both General Electric and Westinghouse had established factories in Canada, and their management felt research into electric technology to be of value.

Electricity had been used for little else but lighting since Thomas Edison patented his incandescent lamp in 1879. With the expanding electrical power grid throughout he country, small household appliances went from experimental to commercial production. The first small appliance to be electrified was the fan, but the most popular was the clothes iron. In addition disc stoves, heaters, curling tong heaters and sewing machine motors followed in rapid succession.

What's wrong with this picture?

The cost of the electrical utility, in the late 1890s, was charged at a flat rate, calculated on the square footage of the residence. After the introduction of the recording electric meter, it became more common for utility companies to charge customers only for the power used. However, industrial clients who had constant electrical requirements continued to be charged a flat rate.

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Gas had been used as a fuel source for lighting in central Canada since the 1850s. Until the 1950s most of the gas used was coal gas, not natural gas. In general, gas was a fuel of the urban dweller and, at first, the competition between electricity and gas was in street lighting. Gas was already in many homes for cooking (since the 1880s) in addition to gas-fired irons and space heaters.

Electrical appliances did not start to appear until the early 1900s. The competition between electricity and gas began in the 1920s and intensified in the 1930s, particularly in the area of cooking and heating. Although electric appliance manufacturers would not admit it, gas ranges were definitely more reliable and efficient until the 1930s.

In the 1950s, Consumers Gas began transferring the source of supply used to service its Toronto customers from locally produced coal gas to natural gas imported from western Canada. (Coal gas or methane is produced by a variety of processes in which hydrogen reacts with coal.) Pipelines from the west and south underwent great expansion in this period in order to service new customers with natural gas.

Garnet Jewel Gas Space Heater circa 1900

Before electricity, gas was available in cities for lighting and other household appliances like this Garnet Jewel. It was less expensive, too.

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During the 19th century, services such as lighting or running water were confined to the urban middle-upper class. By 1860, seven Canadian cities had public waterworks. During the second half of the century, domestic plumbing and sewage systems became available to a large number of urban, middle class Canadian homes. The poor did not have plumbing until after 1900, although many rural homes had their own well. With mass production, standardization, and the installation of fixtures, indoor plumbing boomed after World War I (1918). By the 1930s, most urban homes had running water.

Indoor plumbing allowed women to stay inside but reduced the social interaction with their neighbours around the well. It also increased their time to do other tasks as they were relieved from the heavy burden of fetching water for the housework.

More Plumbing History


  • Campbell, Lynn, Children in Nineteenth Century Rural Ontario, Ontario Agricultural Museum, 1983.
  • Cowan, Ruth Schwartz, More Work For Mother, New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1983.
  • Dale, Linda, Home-making, a background paper. National Museum of Science and Technology, 1992.
  • Denis, Leo G., Water Works and Sewerage Systems of Canada, Ottawa: Mortimer Co., 1916
  • Klingender, Franz, The mechanization of domestic equipment, 1890-1960: "To lighten the burden of womenkind", National Museum of Science and Technology, 1994.
  • Rybczynski, Witold, Home: A Short History of an Idea, Viking Press.
  • Schwartz. More Work For Mother. New York, Basic Books Inc. Publishers, 1983.

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Questions about school programs should be sent to scorbeil@technomuses.ca.