But exactly how vacuum cleaners, washing machines and other appliances
affected the lives of women remains a subject of debate.

By William Allen
Post-Dispatch Science Writer

Oct. 10, 1999
Edited by Virginia Baldwin Hick

Vacuum cleaners, automatic washing machines, frozen foods and microwave ovens -- these and other home technologies changed the lives of St. Louisans, particularly women, in the 20th century.

But a history of home technology here must start with sliced bread.

That's because our town played a key role in making those clean, even slices available to all Americans -- and making the bread industry what it is today. This invention achieved fame through the slogan, "the greatest thing since sliced bread."

Actually, the first mechanical bread slicer was invented in 1927 by an Iowan, O.F. Rohwedder. But the loaves cut by his slicer looked sloppy. What's worse, they didn't sell.

Along came Gustav Papendick, a St. Louis baker. In 1928, he tried supporting the cut loaf with a cardboard tray.

What was so great about sliced bread then?

For one thing, it looked neat. For another, it sold like hotcakes.

And it made assembling a sandwich or making a piece of toast a smidgen simpler, since the cook could eliminate the step of cutting off a slice or two.

Toasting, by the way, had become easier with the advent of the electric toaster, in 1909. The pop-up toaster -- a higher technology -- came on the market in 1926.

Also in the 20th century, the air conditioner rescued many St. Louisans from the region's oppressive summer heat and humidity.

In the 1920s, Willis Carrier of Buffalo, N.Y., devised air conditioners that cooled the air in large buildings in Los Angeles and San Antonio. Scientists developed high-efficiency refrigerant gases such as Freon in the 1930s, and soon railroad trains used small units.

By 1950, air conditioners were marketed for cooling individual rooms in homes, and within a few years central air-conditioning systems -- which cooled an entire house -- began to spread into America's affluent homes.

The basic principle behind air conditioning is moving indoor air past condenser coils filled with a refrigerant. This cools the room. And when the refrigerant moves through coils in contact with outside air, the heat absorbed from inside is released outside. At various steps in this process the refrigerant evaporates and condenses, blowers move air around and a compressor moves the refrigerant.

Food refrigeration moved from the icebox and gas-powered refrigerator to electric units in the 1930s. Among other effects, this changed the way homemakers shopped. For example, rather than buy food in large quantities to keep in a storage room, housewives brought home small amounts that coul d fit in the refrigerator.

To help with housework, the vacuum cleaner was introduced in 1901. And the electric washing machine was developed around 1910, although it still used a hand-cranked wringer to remove water from clothes. Among the models available about that time was the "Happy Day Electric Home Laundry Machine," manufactured by the National Sewing Machine Co. of Belvidere, Ill.

Fully automatic washing machines hit the market in the 1930s, as did detergents. Permanent-press clothes, first sold in 1964, cut down on the ironing chores.

In the kitchen, the new items were the electric beater (1918), frozen foods (1930), cake mixes (1949), Saran Wrap (1953), TV dinners (1954), electric dishwasher (1954) and food processor (1973).

Despite these rapid advances, historians caution us not to assume that everyone made use of the new household technologies immediately, much less could afford them.

For example, before World War II, about half of U.S. families still hand-rubbed or hand-cranked their laundry or used commercial laundry services. Just over half had a refrigerator. But the numbers of families with automatic washers and refrigerators shot up after the war.

The kitchen appliance with perhaps the most impact of them all was the microwave oven. The first one went on sale in the late 1960s, and soon it was the ultimate cooking tool in many households.

The microwave cooked by flooding the oven with high-frequency electromagnetic radiation. Water, fats, sugars and other substances in the food absorbed these waves, heating the food but not the air around it. The microwave oven cooked food in a fraction of the time required by conventional ovens.

Impact on Women

Just how these and other new home technologies changed the lives of homemakers remains controversial.

The common belief is that modern appliances and aids helped housewives significantly shorten the long hours of cooking, cleaning, laundry and other work in a household.

But that notion is false, says Ruth Schwartz Cowan, a housewife and a historian at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

"Modern labor-saving devices eliminated drudgery, not labor," Cowan writes in her book, "More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave."

The devices allowed middle-class housewives to become more "productive" in achieving the goals of a household: meals, clean laundry, healthy chi ldren and well-fed adults.

"Modern technology enabled the American housewife of 1950 to produce single-handedly what her counterpart of 1850 needed a staff of three or four to produce: a middle-class standard of health and cleanliness for herself, her spouse and her children," she writes.

Household technology catalyzed the increased participation of married women in the work force.

"Most American housewives did not enter the job market because they had an enormous amount of free time on their hands, although this may have been true in a few cases," Cowan says. "Rather, American housewives discovered that, for one reason or another, they needed full-time employment; and subsequently, they discovered that, with the help of a dishwasher, a washing machine and an occasional frozen dinner, they could undertake that employment without endangering their family's living standards."