As Theresa May settles into Downing Street and Hilary Clinton campaigns for the White House, anyone travelling in time from the early 1930s would be surprised by the changes in women’s lives. In the UK of the 1930s, after all, the vote had been extended to all women aged over 21 as recently as 1928*; women in the professions were relatively rare; and marriage was still the usual destination (despite the shortage of men after the slaughter of the First World War). Women were routinely expected to stop working on marriage (why, supported by their husbands, would they need jobs?) and in some cases, such as teaching and the civil service, were required to do so#. Looking after husband, children and home was the norm.
It seems that, whatever else has changed, the provision of advice on home-making is a constant. Today, the main channel tends to be television, with Kirstie, Nigella, Sarah and the rest appearing on our screens and producing tie-in books etc. In the 1930s, women may have looked for advice to books from the local library if the following (to us, rather patronising) paragraph from Sheffield Libraries’ occasional magazine, Books and Readers, is anything to go by.
Is the housewife paying greater attention to details in the home nowadays? It is difficult to say as we have no comparative details on which to base a statement. But it is revealed from the issue of 12,632 books on domestic economy from the Libraries last year that the women of Sheffield are not ashamed to confess that they find need for help and guidance in domestic affairs. It is very gratifying to think that even in the prosaic details of housekeeping the Public Library is having a very considerable influence. “Feed the brute” has always been a fairly popular maxim, but “feed the brute intelligently and in improved surroundings” is better still.
The books on offer included, for example: Dinners Long and Short (1928) by A H Adair; What Shall We Have Today (1931) by X M Boulestin; and Feeding the Family: Hints for the Intelligent Housewife (1929) by M L Eyles. ‘Feed the brute’, by the way, was a well-known phrase from Don’ts for Wives (1913) by Blanche Ebbutt.
What was the life of a 1930s housewife? It depended on your place in society. Working class wives and mothers had no help, other than perhaps their daughters (not sons – they were generally exempted from household chores). In the Depression of the 1930s, many such women were struggling to keep their families together. Middle and upper class women, who were perhaps the only ones who had the time or energy to borrow books about housekeeping, had it better, managing the household and directing servants or perhaps just a daily. The servants doing housework were usually women, of course.
But, whoever did the work, it was hard grind, without the labour-saving devices and products we take for granted. When, in 2011, Proctor and Gamble challenged some bloggers to live the life of a 1930s housewife for a day, they commented on: the length of time it took to make three meals from scratch; the drudgery of the laundry without a washer-dryer or even a spinner; and using vinegar and newsprint to clean windows and lemon and baking powder to clean floors. Here is a typical account. Or if you want read some (roughly) contemporary accounts, there is: Love on the Dole (1933), by Walter Greenwood, about the Salford slums; South Riding (1936), by Winifred Holtby, where the Holly family struggle to survive; or House-bound (1942), by Winifred Peck, about a middle-class woman who struggles to do her own housework during WWII.
* From 1918, women over 30 and property owners could vote, but this excluded about 60 per cent of the gender.
# In the UK, the marriage bar for teaching was abolished in 1944, for the Home Civil Service in 1946 and for the Foreign Service in 1973. Equal pay was a dream until the 1970 Equal Pay Act, and for some women it still is.