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Northwestern Utilities Limited both at Edmonton Exhibition, Edmonton, 1935.  Glenbow ArchivesAs we will see in the next section, Wage Labour, women’s role in domestic labour was transformed with the urbanization and industrialization of Albertan society.  This transformation was largely due to the emergence of a women’s work force.  However, domestic labour also evolved as a result of changes to technology in the home.  The home was transformed over the 20th century very quickly from being one that contained only the simplest domestic tools, such as an axe, pots and kettles, to being one that contained all the modern conveniences, such as refrigerators, vacuum cleaners and stoves. 

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Heritage Trails #46 - House Design: Kitchens Post 1930

After the 1930s, kitchen design was changing again. This time, the advent of electricity would be a major influence. Kitchens were also beginning to take on a more open feel, reflected in the floor plan.

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Through advancements such as central heating and indoor plumbing a greater number of domestic dwellings in Alberta had central heating and sanitary appliances, which reduced the time and effort required to find wood and water and to make a fire to heat water. When electricity was gradually introduced into  the homes of rural communities around the mid-20th century, the look and feel of homes was immediately transformed. These new technologies were designed to increase sanitation, efficiency and enjoyment of the home and, as result, they forever changed the work of the housewife and even how she was perceived in society.

With the rise of consumer culture, many of the goods once produced from scratch by women could be purchased from a store, including most foods and clothing.  Markets and grocery stores meant that no longer did a woman have to spend hours milking cows, churning butter or baking bread. Department stores also transformed the type and number of goods available to the consumer.  Of course, there was not a department store located in every small Albertan town, but there was the Eaton's catalogue that by the 1930s was sent out even to the remotest farmhouses. The Eaton's catalogue was sometimes referred to as the "Prairie Bible" since in many homes its pages were flipped through more often than the Bible itself.  Snowsuits, shoes, household appliances, bikes, underwear and even "build-your-own" house kits were just a few of the many items available in the catalogue. Many women ordered their wedding dress from Eaton's and one could even pay for personal shoppers to pick out all the items needed for a wedding according to taste and budget. If a woman could not afford to purchase the clothes shown in the catalogue, she could at least use it as a guide to current styles and make her own copies. The Eaton's catalogue, therefore, represented one of the first advances into the world of consumer culture, a world that rapidly expanded especially after the prosperous post-war years in Alberta.

Calgary Power's mobile electirc kitchen exhibit, Calgary 1939.  Glenbow ArchivesDuring the early 20th century producers and advertisers, like Eaton's, turned their attention to the housewife.  They realized that she represented a very important market, since she made many of the decisions about what would be purchased for the home. Since she spent most of her time in the kitchen - it was where she performed the majority of her labour - advertisers also focused their campaigns in the kitchen.  As we will see in the Education section, there was a growing belief that housekeeping was a science.  Although she still was not paid, the housewife, it was believed, should receive training on proper housekeeping methods such as nutrition, health and sanitation.  She should have the proper "scientific" tools and place of work, all of which advertisers claimed they could provide.  The new kitchen would be "Mother's Workshop and Laboratory," designed like a factory for efficiency and sanitation. 1

Modern electric conveniences grouped closely together would ensure that the housewife would not waste time on needlessly time-consuming tasks. Hard, resilient floors, and painted (instead of wallpapered) walls allowed for easy clean-up and reduced the areas in which germs could build.  Also, an increased number of windows allowed for proper ventilation and would, therefore, contribute to a more cheerful environment. Companies like Eaton's and Calgary Power even designed mobile kitchens that displayed the most desirable aspects of the modern, efficient kitchen which, of course, included their own products. These kitchens were staffed by women in white nurse-like uniforms, emphasizing the belief that housekeeping was scientific and caring profession. 

These modern conveniences and changes in kitchen design were meant, advertisers claimed, to save women time and free them all the all-consuming nature of domestic labour. Now they would have more time for the real purpose of their profession: loving and supporting their family. However, historian, Dianne Dodd argues that advancements in domestic technology did not emancipate the housewife; along with the growth of these conveniences, pressures on women also grew as she was expected to create a more sanitary, comfortable and happy home. The communal nature of women’s tasks decreased and, as result, women became more isolated within their home. Finally, Dodd points out that the rise in domestic technology did not disrupt the gender lines of labour, but rather reinforced them as women were still encouraged to be primarily involved in their domestic role.

Sources:

  • Dodd, Dianne.  "Women and Domestic Technology: Household Drudgery, 'Democratized Consumption,' and Patriarchy."  Framing Our Past.  Eds. Sharon Cook, et al.  Montreal: McGill University Press, 2001.
      

  • Gagnon, Anne.  "'Our parents did not raise us to be independent:' The Work and Schooling of Young Franco-Albertan Women, 1890-1940." Prairie Forum 1994 19(2): 169-185.
      

  • McManus, Sheila.  "Gender(ed) Tensions in the Work and Politics of Alberta Farm Women, 1905-29."  Telling Tales.  Eds. Randi Warne and Catherine Cavanaugh.  Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2000.
      

  • Millar, Nancy.  Once Upon a Wedding.  Calgary: Bayeux Arts, 2000.
      

  • Wetherall, Donald and Irene Kmet.  Homes in Alberta: Building, Trends, and Design 1870-1967.  Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1991.

 

 

  
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