Never an escape from drudgery: How cleaning innovations were advertised to women
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The technology we use at work and at home have one thing in common: They haven’t reduced our workload in either place.
Remember when Slack launched and enthusiasts thought it would make us all more productive? They couldn’t have been more wrong. Now we struggle to keep up with our Slack messages while our inboxes continue to overflow.
What Slack and other business messaging apps have done is create new standards for communication between colleagues. Slack launched, our communication increased, and now the average user sends 200 messages per week — and our workload hasn’t decreased.
Something similar happened to women during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Between 1860–1965, we saw the invention and mass adoption of the electric washing machine, dishwasher, and vacuum cleaner. Paper towels reduced the amount of rags to clean. Liquid soap and germ-killing disinfectant sprays made it easier to sanitize surfaces.
And none of it reduced the amount of hours spent on housework.
In a 2008 study, Valerie A. Ramey, an economics research associate at the University of California, San Diego, found that, “Surprisingly, while electricity, running water, and washing machines probably increased household output and reduced the drudgery of household tasks, they had little impact on the time spent on housework before 1965.”
In the 1960s, housewives finally did begin to spend less time on cleaning — but they replaced those activities with other housework, like the care of others and the purchasing of household items. And it wasn’t just housewives — in 1965, the average single, employed woman was spending 17 hours per week on home production. By 2005, that time had increased to 18.1 hours per week.
So what gives? If technology is supposed to free up our time for more luxury, as we’re so often promised, why did domestic cleaning innovations fail to reduce the amount of time women spend on housework? (In case you’re wondering, women still do most of the household chores compared to men.)
As it turns out, that’s a trick question: Many of the ads for cleaning products throughout history promised no such thing. Keep reading to find out what they promised instead.
Modern household innovation timeline
1782: Henry Sidgier invents the first washing machine that cleans clothing with wooden rods inside a rotating drum.
1860: Daniel Hess invents the first manual vacuum cleaner, then called a “carpet sweeper” that gathered dust with a rotating brush and sucked it up with a pair of bellows.
1865: William Shepphard invents a liquid version of soap.
1886: Josephine Cochran invents the first dishwasher to clean dishes using water pressure instead of scrubbers.
1889: Gustav Raupenstrauch develops the first Lysol antiseptic disinfectant to end the cholera epidemic in Germany.
1898: B.J. Johnson makes liquid soap from palm and olive oils, which becomes Palmolive.
1907: The Scott Paper Company, founded by brothers E. Irvin Scott and Clarence R. Scott, invents paper towels after a schoolteacher expresses disgust at her students sharing the same restroom cloth towel all day.
1907: Department store janitor James Murray Spangler invents the first portable electric vacuum cleaner, later selling the patent to William Henry Hoover, who would continue to improve the invention into the 1920s.
1910: Alva J. Fisher receives a patent for the first washing machine with an electric motor.
1914: The Electro-Alkaline Company makes the first commercially produced bleach, Clorox.
1918: Lysol is advertised by Lehn & Fink as a way to fight the spread of influenza during the Spanish flu pandemic.
1933: The “soap opera” genre is born when Procter & Gamble sponsors radio dramas to advertise its Oxydol soap powder.
1956: Procter & Gamble starts making Comet cleanser.
1962: Lehn & Fink starts manufacturing Lysol disinfectant spray for surfaces in the home.
1990: Joy Mangano invents the Miracle Mop, an absorbent cotton self-wringing mop.
1997: Max Appel of Orange Glo International invents OxiClean, a chlorine-free stain remover made famous by Billy Mays’ infomercials starting in 2000.
1998: Procter & Gamble re-launches Febreze after a failed attempt in 1996.
1999: R&D firm Continuum invents the Swiffer after employees visited an elderly woman and saw her clean up a floor mess with a damp paper towel instead of a mop.
2002: iRobot, founded by MIT roboticists Colin Angle, Helen Greiner, and Rodney Brooks, launches the Roomba, a robotic vacuum cleaner.
2006: Offer Shlomi, otherwise known as Vince Offer, launches the ShamWow!, which at first claims to hold “20 times its weight in liquid” (which turned out to be more like 10–12 times its weight).
The mechanized house: Housework as serious business
In Machina Ex Dea: Feminist Perspectives on Technology, Joan Rothschild argued that home technology “has aided a capitalist-patriarchal poilitical order to reinforce the gender division of labor and to lock women more firmly into their traditional roles in the home.”
While there are several ways the “mechanization of the home” may have bound women to domestic chores, one of the most compelling is the loss of women’s contributions to household income.
In the 19th century and early decades of the 20th century, it was common for women to earn money by taking in laundry and sewing. As electric washing machines and sewing machines became more common, people were able to complete these tasks at home and no longer needed to pay other women for these services.
This loss of income stream meant the loss of a potential lifeline if a woman could no longer rely on her husband for financial support. To make matters worse, urbanization and city bylaws prohibiting yard animals cut off yet another source of revenue: eggs, milk, and other animal products gathered and sold by women at markets for extra cash.
As a way to make sense of their shifting identities, housewives didn’t necessarily rebel against their diminishing roles as family earners. Instead, as University of Toronto sociologist Bonnie Fox says, they attempted to “give structure and meaning to privatized, low status work”.
In her analysis of Ladies’ Home Journal ads for home cleaning products between 1910–1980, Fox found that most ads were more concerned with making housework into “serious business” than emphasizing a release from drudgery. Many ads emphasized increased productivity, a cleaner home, and the meeting of “domestic-science standards”.
These ads, which were designed mostly by men, didn’t much consider whether women would want more leisure time at home. That would have been like telling men to work less at the office rather than getting more done to please their boss.
But Fox’s analysis is from just one source, Ladies' Home Journal. Let’s take a look at some ads for cleaning products from multiple sources, and assign similar value props to each.
The first washing machine was invented in 1782, but people still needed to operate it by hand. Alva J. Fisher’s 1910 invention of the first electric washing machine was the true beginning of laundry automation.
Before the electric washing machine, people would set aside an entire day for laundry. It’s difficult to imagine any other innovation in domestic chores saving people more time than the electric washing machine. That’s why it’s not surprising that this 1917 ad for Fisher’s machine, Thor, references the “drudgery of the old-fashioned wash-day,” assuming the audience would give it up gladly.
Fourteen years later in 1931, after urbanization had transferred much of the outsourced work of laundry to housewives, Thor ads targeted women more directly, specifically “women who still work on washday.”
Note the emphasis on “work” here, which supports Joan Rothschild’s Machina Ex Dea thesis that the mechanization of the household firmly bound women’s work to house work. The following ad for Thor in the Spokesman Review assumes that, for women, “working on a Monday” is synonymous with the work of laundry. But contrary to some of Fox’s findings in the Ladies’ Home Journal, the ad claims to “bring relief and leisure” on washday Mondays.
Fast forward 16 years, however, and we start to see some of Fox’s Ladies’ Home Journal analysis play out. In this 1947 ad for Bendix — maker of the first automatic washing machine able to autofill, wash, rinse, and spin-dry — the washing machine does work while you do more work as a serious housewife.
In the 1940s, for upper- and middle-class folks who could afford a washing machine, the drudgery of the washboard was but a memory. It makes sense that ads wouldn’t sell their audience on saving time if the maximum limits of the benefit had already been realized.
Even still, the vivid imagery of the busy mom popping clothes into the washing machine so she can multitask between domestic duties and childcare carries vague notes of B2B advertising today. “Let X do the work, so you can do the work you love.”
The ad assumes women love motherhood more than laundry, which … maybe? Maybe not. Maybe women always deserved more choices than that.
In 1898, the B.J. Johnson Soap Company introduced Palmolive, a soap made from palm and olive oils. Into the 1950s, the soap was marketed as a beauty bar that cleaned skin while improving complexion — so it’s no surprise Palmolive adapted the beauty benefit to fit its later product, dish soap.
From 1966 to 1992, Palmolive ran a series of ads featuring a manicurist named Madge who would soak her clients’ hands in dish soap while doing their nails. The ad formula was consistent:
- Madge makes a comment about the nasty state of her client’s hands.
- The client is embarrassed and says her hands are ravaged by the chore of handwashing dishes.
- Madge recommends Palmolive dish soap, which just happens to be sitting on the table.
- The reveal — Madge says, “You’re soaking in it!” The client recoils her hand from the dish where her nails are indeed soaking in Palmolive dish soap.
- Madge reminds her client that Palmolive is gentle on hands and even softens them while doing the dishes.
The Palmolive Madge campaign assumes that women do the dishes and won’t be stopping anytime soon, so they may as well acquire a beautiful set of hands while they’re at it. Far from releasing women from the drudgery of washing dishes, Palmolive turns the chore into a beauty benefit.
The ads also carry an underlying message about socioeconomic class: High-class women don’t have rough hands. Handwashing dishes was a sign you couldn’t afford a dishwasher, and Palmolive helped you conceal your unfortunate class position by giving you the soft hands of a lady of leisure.
If you couldn’t live a life of leisure, Palmolive could make you look like you did.
If you could afford a dishwasher, life looked sweet with them.
While the first dishwasher was invented in 1886 by Josephine Cochran, they wouldn’t become commonplace until the post-war boom of the 1950s. Similar to how washing machines automated the all-day process of cleaning your clothes, dishwashers were convenient for urban and suburban families who no longer hired servants to handle onerous tasks like cleaning up after meals.
As the dishwasher rose the ranks of essential household items, some ads leaned into their release-from-drudgery benefits, like this one for American Kitchens’ roto-tray dishwasher. Labeled as “really work-free”, the ad’s top-page real estate depicts a housewife whimsically turning a handle, turning around, and walking away.
The dishwasher ad narrative from the 1950s to the 1980s is eerily similar to that of the washing machine 20 years earlier. Whereas a washing machine could free up your domestic chore time for childcare in the 1950s, this Whirlpool ad waited until the 1980s to tell that exact story.
Can we spot a similar narrative for vacuum cleaners?
The first portable electric vacuum cleaner was invented in 1907 by department store janitor James Murray Spangler, who later sold the patent to William Henry Hoover. But it wasn’t just Hoover and his company that would improve on the vacuum cleaner in subsequent decades.
A 1915 ad for the Frantz Premier electric cleaner demonstrates early competition for the electric vacuum. Similar to early ads for the washing machine and dishwasher, it promised women “freedom” from the work day, in this case by 9am.
Fast forward to 1959, and the vacuum cleaner wasn’t promising more time for childcare. This Hoover ad in McCall’s instead boasts a “slim-silhouette” next to a suspiciously skinny woman who’s happily creating a “cleaner playground” for her child.
Like many ads from the 1950s, the Hoover ad sold the many features of the vacuum. Post-war technological innovation created a tech-obsessed American population that loved to read about the latest gadgets. Many ads for domestic cleaning technology were chock-full of copy-heavy feature descriptions as opposed to end benefits, which flies in the face of current copywriting best practices.
In the 1950s, as women returned to the home after World War II, ads for cleaning products pushed the serious nature of housework. The idea was to make a housewife feel that her work was worthy of tech innovation, which this 1959 ad accomplished through its description of “automatic shift” and “extra power for attachments.”
Improvements to the vacuum continued over the last half of the twentieth century, but a technological leap wouldn’t come until the invention of the Roomba in 2002. Invented by MIT technologists who founded iRobot in 1990 — before the iPod made the naming convention cool — the Roomba was first marketed in 2004 as a marvel, for sure, but one that runs in the background as more of an afterthought: “The dirt was there, and then it was gone.”
Advertising for the Roomba shows us what benefits-forward marketing for cleaning innovations can look like, without waxing lyrical about time freedom or leisure.
Key takeaway: Domestic chores are serious work
While past ads for cleaning technology pushed domestic work for women as serious with an air of condescension, they’re in essence correct: Domestic chores are serious work. And they should be split equitably within a household.
We’re not there yet. A 2020 Gallup poll revealed that women are still mainly responsible for the laundry (58%) and cleaning and cooking (51%). In many households where men do contribute, it’s rare for them to take on the bulk of the responsibility, with the exception of car maintenance and yard work — tasks we’ve collectively decided are manly, for some reason.
As the simplistic adage goes, “Things would look different if men had to deal with this.” Luckily, when it comes to ads for cleaning products, we don’t have to imagine. Jason Momoa was nice enough to show us what that could look like here: