Selling Mrs. Consumer: Christine Frederick and the Rise of Household Efficiency
There are few better places to examine where history of technology meets women's history than the subject of household equipment. The life of Christine Frederick makes clear how early-twentieth-century ideals of efficiency and technological progress became entangled with social and individual uncertainty, especially over feminism and the prospect of changing gender roles. Janice Williams Rutherford portrays Frederick, born in 1883, as exemplifying the dilemma challenging many upper- and middle-class women of her generation: whether to seize new opportunities opened through education or cling to the domestic sphere of "true womanhood."
Rutherford locates this tension in Frederick's life following her 1907 marriage; Frederick found "drudgifying housework" (as she called it) a depressing contrast to her earlier enjoyment of college education and teaching school. After her husband's advertising work brought her into contact with experts in scientific management, she found an outlet for her energy and writing skills in applying efficiency concepts to domestic arrangements. In articles outlining "The New Housekeeping" published in 1912, Frederick analyzed dishwashing motions, laid out standardization charts, and recommended raising the kitchen sink to prevent stooping. The Ladies' Home Journal hired her to answer readers' homemaking questions, and she began turning out articles in increasing volume, reaching millions of readers through columns in the Hearst newspapers.
Frederick declared that each woman "should have as many of the labor-saving devices as she can possibly secure" (p. 129). Her writings instructed women about the nature of electricity and courted advertisers by touting brand-name products. Yet while Frederick encouraged women to relieve exhausting chores by embracing technology, the last thing she wanted was to ease housework to the point of its elimination. In a promotion for fruit growers, Frederick urged housewives to make more pies. She pressed women to create time-consuming inventory systems. In contrast to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's advocacy of communal domestic work, Frederick spoke to the "large majority of American women who had no intention of either leaving the home or of changing it radically" (p. 103).
At a time when feminism, the suffrage movement, and growing opportunities for women in the public sphere engendered fears "that the home was under siege," Frederick "encouraged American families to modernize, [but] reassured them that change need not disturb the traditional structure of the family" (p. 98). Rutherford links Frederick to Herbert Hoover, Edward Bok, Henry Ford, and the Progressive reformers who idealized the [End Page 906] home and "adhered to old values regarding the family while believing—in a word, modernization—would hasten society along the road to perfection" (p. 86).
While acknowledging that domestic responsibilities seemed "distasteful" to the "most intelligent" women, Frederick promised that scientific management could transform homemaking into "the most all-satisfying, broadening and stimulating career open to any woman" (p. 95). When Frederick complained that "too many women let housework weigh them down," Rutherford notes, "she failed to acknowledge that she had overcome similar negative attitudes not through housework, but through writing"
(p. 56). When Frederick told home economists that "our greatest enemy is the woman with the career," Rutherford comments, "she could ignore the fact that she herself had a career because she was working in the interest of the home" (pp. 96, 106).
Though representing herself as handling her own housework, Frederick actually spent long hours writing, traveled Chautauqua lecture circuits, and paid servants to do chores she told other women to relish. Rutherford writes: "The contradictions of Christine Frederick's life might suggest opportunism, hypocrisy, even duplicity. In fact, Christine was deceiving herself. She was caught between the ideology of the nineteenth century and the modern reality of the twentieth. Awakened to her own capabilities by a college education, drawn to new ideas, stimulated by progress and modernization, she was nevertheless held fast by . . . her Victorian upbringing" (p. 105).
While Frederick opened her career addressing women as performers of housework, her emphasis later shifted toward women as consumers. Rutherford borrows Roland Marchand's term to label Frederick an "apostle of modernity" and adds: "Frederick's optimistic view of business and her deep involvement in advertising, selling, and consumerism were a perfect reflection of the nation's mood in the 1920s" (p. 121).
With her emphasis on personal and ideological contradictions, Rutherford does not explore Frederick's ideas about housework, technology, and efficiency in much detail. While dwelling on comparisons between Frederick, Gilman, and Catharine Beecher to the point of overrepetition, she mentions only in passing others such as Lillian Gilbreth, whose perspective on efficiency, home, and family would have offered useful contrast. Still, Rutherford's work adds important depth to our understanding of the domestic side of America's efficiency movement and the sources of its appeal. Scholars working on the history of scientific management, household technology, and consumerism will find this book a valuable source.
Amy Sue Bix is associate professor in the Department of History at Iowa State University and assistant director of ISU’s Center for Historical Studies of Technology and Science.