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The advent of modern appliances such as washing machines and refrigerators had a profound impact on 20th Century society, according to a new Université de Montréal study. Plug-in conveniences transformed women’s lives and enabled them to enter the workforce, says Professor Emanuela Cardia, from the Department of Economics.
Within a short time-span, household technology became accessible to the majority. In the late 1910s, a refrigerator sold for $1,600 and 26 years later such appliances could be purchased for $170. Access to electric stoves, washing machines and vacuum cleaners was also generalized.
“These innovations changed the lives of women,” says Professor Cardia. “Although it wasn’t a revolution per se, the arrival of this technology in households had an important impact on the workforce and the economy.”
Professor Cardia based her research on more than 3,000 censuses conducted between 1940 and 1950, from thousands of American households, across urban and rural areas. “We calculated that women who loaded their stove with coal saved 30 minutes every day with an electric stove,” says Cardia. “The result is that women flooded the workforce. In 1900, five percent of married women had jobs. In 1980, that number jumped to 51 percent.”
In 1913, the vacuum cleaner became available, in 1916 it was the washing machine, in 1918 it was the refrigerator, in 1947 the freezer, and in 1973 the microwave was on the market. All of these technologies had an impact on home life, but none had a stronger impact than running water.
“We often forget that running water is a century-old innovation in North America, and it is even more recent in Europe. Of all innovations, it’s the one with the most important impact,” says Cardia.
In 1890, 25 percent of American households had running water and eight percent had electricity. In 1950, 83 percent had running water and 94% had electricity. According to Cardia, in 1900, a woman spent 58 hours per week on household chores. In 1975, it was 18 hours.
While there have been several studies on the industrial revolution and different aspects of technology, says Cardia, very few investigations have focused on the household revolution. “Yet, women play a very important role in the economy whether they hold a job or work at home.”
What are the appliances deemed more revolutionary by the population?
The washing machine remains the main product, because it has eliminated the great labour of hand washing, which often was done outside homes, in public washrooms, at the mercy of the weather inclemency. The advent of a machine that performed by itself this heavy task significantly changed women’s life in terms of alleviation of fatigue, more free time but also improvement of the physical appearance and of health.
The second household appliance by importance is the refrigerator, which allowed preserving foods and varying the diet, without the limits imposed by iceboxes. Refrigeration appliances brought an important transformation in Italians’ alimentary model.
Also the dishwasher, which never reached the success of the washing machine, being today present in not more than 55% of houses, contributed in alleviating housework and in improving the hygiene of dishes, pots and pans.
The increment of free time and the performance quality of household appliances were then perfectly perceived and assessed, to the extent that at the end of the Eighties they were still deeply rooted in the population’s mind.
When did the household appliance become a status symbol?
When a phenomenon becomes a mass custom, an internal segmentation is created according to which privileged groups, healthier, more educated or more subjected to international phenomena, do not want a product like the one owned by others but one able to distinguish them. For that reason, status symbols, which are based on various characteristics, arise.
The differentiation criteria in household appliances were several. In the Seventies there was, for instance, the design boom, to the extent that the appliances standing out for the most exclusive design were exhibited in famous museums.
Then the technological evolution came and determined the birth of new status symbols, thanks to extremely sophisticated appliances.
In recent years the ecologist trend is successfully spreading and orients consumers’ choice towards products with minor environmental impact.