Most of the modern domestic appliances we have in our homes today had been invented before 1945, but very few people used them because they were expensive luxuries most people could not afford.
Gas and electricity
Before the war gas had become familiar to most people for cooking, water heating and even lighting. After 1945 electricity became the clean and efficient power for most appliances.
Electricity was more expensive to use in the home and take-up lagged behind gas until families moved into new houses which had a pre-wired electricity supply. By 1938 a new electricity network called the National Grid carried electricity across the country bringing electric power straight into our homes. War then intervened, but 80% of all households were connected by 1946. The construction of a new supergrid in the 1950s brought electricity to nearly everyone.
Electricity that was now available made many of the desirable appliances work (like washing machines, dishwashers, refrigerators, cookers, vacuum cleaners and bar fires). The graph below shows just how few households in 1945 had any of the conveniences we now take for granted. Just twenty years later in 1965, they were increasingly being considered necessities.
Many post-war homes had smaller rooms than before and no servants. The housewife had to do all the housework. Appliance manufacturers used this change to promote their household machines as the housewife’s helpers or surrogate servants.
More women, some of whom were mothers, were going out to work, generating income to purchase the appliances which made housework easier and enabling them to keep their jobs. In 1947, 18% of married women worked. In 1957 this had risen to 33% and by 1961 the total was over 50% - some four million women.
Mains radio, vacuum cleaners and electric irons quickly became popular. Telephones, televisions, refrigerators and microwave cookers were all desirable, while washing machines, dishwashers and food mixers appeared to save time or labour. Certain convenience appliances like vacuum cleaners, refrigerators and freezers raised standards of cleanliness or family health while others were status or aspirational symbols, such as the hostess trolley for home entertaining.
The Kenwood Chef mixer
The flamboyant Ken Wood produced his famous Kenwood Chef food mixer in 1950. Taking the best features of existing machines, and adding some of his own, Wood, an ardent Europhile and brilliant marketer, popularised the appliance all over the world.
Women and housework
Did the mechanisation of household tasks actually reduce the amount of housework or the time spent doing it? Probably not. Between 1930 and 1980 the use of modern equipment raised housework standards, but this in turn created a demand to perform more housework. In the 1980s, the academic Ruth Schwarz Cowan argued that housework expands to fill the total time available for doing it. Although people doing housework get more things done, the same amount of time is spent on it. Since her study, both men and women are choosing to do less housework. Women do about four times the housework that men do.