The social and economic changes wrought by the Second World War acted as a catalyst to reshape family life in the post-war world.
For the upper and middle classes servants were gone forever, and the extended family in which members of successive generations and relatives lived together under the same roof was in decline. The smaller nuclear family unit demanded a home of its own, perhaps on one of the new suburban estates developed after the war. Single and widowed people also required their own space in flats or purpose-built apartments in the cities.
Work patterns were changing too. Many young women had worked in the armaments and aircraft factories during the war, experiencing the culture and independence of working outside the home environment for the first time. Some never left full-time work, taking up new peacetime employment opportunities as secretaries, clerks, switchboard operators, teachers, dental and hospital nurses, shop assistants and factory operatives.
The new housewife
For women who did return to their families, or started out as housewives for the first time, a rigid gender structure dictated that the new model housewife was expected to fulfil the demanding roles of cook, dishwasher, laundress, cleaner, nurse and hostess. Analysts have suggested that women were demoted from domestic ‘manager’ to domestic ‘labourer’ as the conscientious housewife was in danger of becoming trapped in an endless cycle of routine housework.
The problem of housework in the servantless household was the subject of study by a number of self-appointed female ‘domestic engineers’ in America and Britain. They drew on the same techniques and principles of scientific management espoused by F. W. Taylor and Frank Gilbreth in American factories to increase industrial efficiency of the labour force. Mary Pattison, Christine Frederick and Lillian Gilbreth used time-and-motion studies of housewives’ activities in the kitchen to devise a system of domestic management which would maximise productivity for the housewife for the minimum expenditure of energy and discomfort. The key findings of this research recommended that full use should be made of modern gas and electric time-saving and labour-saving kitchen appliances. The physical layout of the kitchen should be so arranged to reduce to an absolute minimum walking and movement between the cooker, food preparation surface, fridge and sink.
Britain’s most influential ‘domestic engineer’ was Caroline Haslett, secretary of the Women’s Engineering Society and later director of the Electrical Association for Women, a post she held from 1924 to 1956. She spent decades persuading women to use electricity in the home to save time and energy doing housework.
Critics of the domestic engineering movement claimed that making the housewife’s work more efficient and intelligent, simply reinforced the widely held view that the woman’s place was firmly in the home, rather than being a mechanism of liberation for women from the household bind.