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Unpaid domestic work

by Matt Morris

Unpaid domestic work – from housework and childcare to home maintenance and repairs – has always made a significant contribution to New Zealand’s economy. New Zealand’s do-it-yourself ethos has produced some world-renowned backyard inventions.

The importance of unpaid work

Traditionally a substantial amount of New Zealanders’ work has been done in the home without direct pay. This includes housework, raising children, caring for the sick or elderly, making clothes, preserving food, keeping hens, growing fruit and vegetables, household maintenance and small construction projects.

Unpaid domestic work is a significant economic activity. It often saves on the cost of purchasing goods and services, though it can create a financial drain on the household by taking time and energy that could be used for paid employment.

Without the unpaid work done – largely by women – in the home, family members could not spend as much time at paid work outside the home. Unpaid work has been described as ‘the invisible infrastructure which keeps everything else going – a vast springboard-cum-safety net spread beneath the formal economy’.1

However, unpaid work is not counted in the country’s economic statistics. In 1988 economist Marilyn Waring commented that ‘women and children count for nothing’ because their contribution to the economy is not included in official statistics.2

The value of unpaid work in New Zealand in 1999 was calculated at $40 billion, equivalent to 39% of gross domestic product. Each person aged 15 or over spent an average of 27.6 hours per week on unpaid work activities.

Men and women

Men and women traditionally had separate roles in unpaid domestic work in Pākehā New Zealand culture. Men stayed out of the kitchen and women kept out of the shed – the household’s home maintenance centre.



American sociologist David Ausubel, visiting New Zealand in the 1950s, noted that in New Zealand ‘the “do-it-yourself” dictum is carried to the point of fanaticism, the general principle being that it is next to sinful to spend good money on a purchase or on hired labour if one can do it oneself, irrespective of how long it takes.’ 3


In the early 2000s women still did the greater share of unpaid domestic work. A national Time Use Survey, conducted in 1998–99 for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, found that although men and women spent the same amount of time working, women spent two more hours a day doing unpaid work, and men spent two more hours a day in paid work. The 2006 census found that women were still more likely than men to do unpaid work.

Men spent considerably more time than women on household maintenance jobs, according to the Time Use Survey. They also spent slightly more time on grounds maintenance and animal care.

Pay for housewives

In the 1890s the National Council of Women wanted wives to be paid for domestic work, suggesting they be given an equal share in a husband’s income by law.

Press and public opinion was negative. The Lyttelton Times said this would lead to ‘the degradation of woman from the position of man’s equal to that of paid housekeeper’ and ‘something a thousand times more revolting … wives would be paid a price for exercising the sacred function of motherhood’.4 Council president Amey Daldy responded, ‘I believe many a wife would rejoice to be raised to the level of a paid housekeeper; in that case she would have fewer duties, more leisure and higher pay.’5

In the early 20th century, groups like the Women’s Institute wanted the status of mothers and housewives enhanced. Housewives’ unions were set up in 1912 and the New Zealand Housewives Association in 1939 – the two groups amalgamating as the Federation of New Zealand Housewives in 1957 – but their agenda was more about the rising price of household goods than pay for housework. Twentieth-century feminist groups did not pick up the campaign for paid housework from feminism’s first wave.

The Matrimonial Property Act 1976 legislated women’s unpaid contribution into a share of assets on the break-up of a marriage.

    • Anne Else, False economy: New Zealanders face the conflict between paid and unpaid work. Auckland: Tandem, 1996, p. 14. Back
    • Marilyn Waring, Counting for nothing: what men value & what women are worth. Wellington: Allen & Unwin/Port Nicholson Press, 1988, p. 134. Back
    • Quoted in Jim Weir, New Zealand wit and wisdom: quotations with attitude. Auckland: Tandem, 1998, p. 13. Back
    • Quoted in Roberta Nicholls, The women’s parliament. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1996, p. 41. Back
    • Quoted in The women’s parliament, p. 42. Back

Housework and caregiving


In the 19th and early 20th centuries many New Zealand women did much of their own housework. Servants were hard to get, especially those with skill and experience. Most people who employed a servant had just one. But there was so much household work that the ‘mistresses’ often did at least the cooking herself. Daughters were usually expected to do a great deal of housework. The 1901 census recorded that domestic duties were the occupation of 50,000 daughters or other relatives (excluding wives).



Before washing machines, doing the laundry meant boiling water in a copper – a huge copper bowl set in concrete with a fire lit underneath. One woman remembered: ‘Every Monday morning I’d send my husband out to chop the wood and light the copper. It took the whole morning to do the washing … it would be cold meat and mashed potatoes for dinner because I was too tired to cook anything. When I finally got a washing machine I thought I was made.’1 Before the mid-1950s less than half of New Zealand households had a washing machine.


Women with a paid job were expected to give it up when they married. The expectation was that the husband’s wage would keep the family – it was a point of pride that a man could support a wife who worked only in the home.

Children were expected to pitch in with household chores, sometimes for ‘pocket money’.

More recently, a survey in 1998–99 found that the most common household duties were meal preparation and subsequent cleaning up, indoor cleaning and laundry. Most of this work was done by women, who spent an average of an hour more per day on housework than men. Women also spent more than twice as long as men on caregiving for other household members – predominantly young children, but sometimes also an elderly, ill or disabled person.


New Zealand mothers have traditionally taken care of their children in the home without paid assistance. In the 19th century families were relatively large – an average of seven children in the 1870s. Also, many Pākehā were immigrants, and often lacked extended family such as grandmothers and aunts. As a result children often helped look after their younger siblings.

Māori children were traditionally cared for by the whole extended whānau (family), not just the nuclear family. However, Māori urbanisation after the Second World War dislocated traditional support networks and led to some Māori living in smaller nuclear families.

The baby boom

A record number of babies (more than 41,000) were born in 1946, the year after the Second World War ended. The upward trend continued through the 1950s, with 50,000 babies born in 1956.

For the vast majority of the mothers of these ‘baby boom’ children, unpaid domestic work was a career. They stayed at home, raised their children without paid help, and spent much of their time on housework and projects that saved money, such as sewing, knitting and bottling fruit. This was an era of practically full employment and the ideal of the ‘breadwinner’s wage’ in which a man’s pay was intended to support a family.

‘Suburban neurosis’

The assumption that women wanted to spend their lives on housework and childcare was questioned in the media in the 1960s. Margot Roth’s controversial 1959 Listener article, ‘Housewives or human beings?’, opined that domesticity was thrust upon women and limited their educational opportunities. In 1968 Thursday magazine’s article ‘Who says I’m a cabbage?’ suggested that ‘suburban neurosis’ was ‘filling our mental hospitals with depressed young women’.2 A 1971 study found that 8.3% of married women used tranquillisers compared with 3.5% of unmarried women and 3.3% of men.

Women in the paid workforce

In the 1970s social assumptions about how women wanted to spend their time were challenged by second-wave feminism. The feminist movement pushed for equal pay for women and free childcare so mothers could work outside the home. They also pushed for fathers to do more childcare.

The ideal of the ‘breadwinner’s wage’ supporting the family lost ground. In many families the wife became a second breadwinner out of financial necessity. As women entered the paid workforce it became more acceptable to employ others to help with housework and childcare.

Funding childcare

The government started funding childcare in the mid-1990s. In the early 2000s pre-school children were eligible for between nine and 50 hours of subsidised childcare per week.

The OSCAR (Out of School Care and Recreation) programme provided subsidised care and recreational activities for children aged 5–14 before and after school and during school holidays. This targeted low-income families and made it easier for parents to take paid work. About 10,000 children received OSCAR services in 2008.

Other caregiving

Another significant area of unpaid work was caregiving for the elderly, ill or disabled. In the 2006 census, 8% of the New Zealand population reported looking after a member of their own household who was ill or had a disability. Of these caregivers, 61% were female.

    • Quoted in Sandra Coney, Standing in the sunshine: a history of New Zealand women since they won the vote. Auckland:Viking, 1993, p. 214. Back
    • Thursday, 3 October 1968, p. 28. Back

Making clothes and preserving food

Until the second half of the 20th century various forms of ‘self-provisioning’ – including fruit preserving and jam making, sewing and knitting – made a significant contribution to New Zealand households. These activities were also an enjoyable creative outlet for some women.

Making clothes

Sewing and knitting skills were regarded as essential for girls and women. From the 1890s sewing machines were imported in large numbers and girls were taught to sew at school.

Many New Zealand women made their own clothes from fabrics and patterns bought in draperies and department stores. Old clothes were ‘kept going’ by mending and darning or were ‘cut down’ for children. Clothes were often ‘handed down’ within families and between friends and neighbours.

Women’s work


Journalist Rosemary McLeod wrote of the importance of housework and handcrafts to New Zealand women: ‘Our mothers and grandmothers and their grandmothers before them stayed at home all their lives, running households that relied on the thrift, ingenuity and housewifely skills they had learnt from their mothers to enable them to do more than just survive. The quality of their own families’ lives depended on those skills in their turn, and in their handwork, these women revealed dreams and aspirations that were seldom realised.’ 1


The economic depression of the 1930s and the Second World War enforced a mentality of ‘make do and mend’. The depression has been described as the ‘sugarbag years’ because of the way sacks were turned to all sorts of uses, including making clothes such as school gym frocks. During the war, material and items such as zips and elastic were very expensive and difficult to buy.

Preserving food

Most households grew fruit and vegetables, and commercially processed foods were expensive. Stocking the pantry with surplus produce from the autumn harvest was an important task. The fruit was ‘bottled’ in jars, and vegetables were bottled, pickled, preserved in crocks or, after the arrival of the household freezer in the 1960s, frozen. Fruit and vegetables were also made into chutneys, jams and jellies.

Eggs were also preserved. Before battery farming, hens laid in spring and early summer but not in winter. Surplus eggs were stored using a variety of methods to seal the egg from oxygen. J. T. Norton of Lyttelton produced one of the most popular brands of egg preservative – a compound which was painted on eggs, or in which they were immersed. These preserved eggs were used in baking.

Many New Zealand women continued to preserve produce in spite of the availability of canned fruit and vegetables in the 1930s and later frozen vegetables. During the Second World War sugar was rationed, but during the fruit harvest extra was available for bottling. The 1948 edition of the popular Aunt Daisy’s cookbook had 42 pages of recipes for bottling and preserving.

By the 1990s the necessities of bottling – specially designed jars with vacuum seals – had largely disappeared from supermarket shelves. But in the 2000s there has been a resurgence in bottling and other preserving methods, including dehydrating fruit and pickling vegetables.

Home-made alcohol

Home-made wine was also made out of surplus fruit from the garden or orchard – usually by a father or grandfather. Another mainly male pursuit was making home-brewed beer – often an absorbing hobby as well as a way of saving money.

    • Rosemary McLeod, Thrift to fantasy: home textile crafts of the 1930s–1950s. Auckland: HarperCollins, 2005, p. 13. Back

Gardens, orchards and poultry

From colonial times through to the 1970s, New Zealanders spent many hours tending vegetable gardens and orchards and keeping chickens. Food production at home by working-class landholders was ‘their most important economic protection’ according to historian Miles Fairburn, ‘something to fall back on during spells of unemployment’ and in old age.1

A long day


Landowner John Cracroft Wilson complained in 1854 that ‘it is an ordinary occurrence for a man to get up at 4 o’clock am in the Summer, and work hard for three hours in his own garden or field. Having thus taken, to use a vulgar phrase, the shine out of himself for his own benefit, he works listlessly enough, for his Employers for 8 hours; and then … gives his own garden or field the benefit of two additional hours’ good hard labour.’2


Vegetable gardens and orchards were usually the husband’s responsibility while the wife took charge of preserving the fruits of his labour. But in many families everybody had to pitch in to grow enough food for the household, particularly in difficult times such as the early colonial period and during depressions and wars.

Orchards and vegetable gardens

Up to the mid-20th century many houses had orchards. Fruit trees made a property more valuable, and they were often mentioned in advertisements for houses for sale from the 1860s through to the First World War.

The vegetable garden was usually sited behind the house. Until about the end of the Second World War it was not unusual for a household’s vegetable gardens to take up at least as big an area as the house.

Gardening know-how

The technical knowledge needed to maintain large gardens and feed a family throughout the year included knowing when to sow and to plant, how and when to spray and prune, how to plan crop rotations and how to fertilise the soil.

Most people who learned how to garden probably did so by watching and working with their parents. From the 1920s boys were taught vegetable gardening at school. There was a particular emphasis on this – for both boys and girls – during the government’s ‘Dig for victory’ campaign in the Second World War.

The Yates garden guide, first produced in 1895 by the Yates seed company, became common in New Zealand households. Newspaper gardening columns appeared from the beginning of the 20th century and gardening clubs were set up in the 1940s.

When Jim Matthews launched the New Zealand Gardener magazine during the Second World War, a special act of Parliament was needed to authorise the use of scarce paper for printing a magazine. But the government believed it was necessary for the war effort as people had to grow their own vegetables while commercial crops went to the armed services. Jim and his wife Barbara wrote many books and articles to help New Zealanders to get the most out of their gardens. New Zealand Gardener was still the country’s best-selling gardening magazine in 2009.

Child labour in the garden


Food history writer David Veart grew up in Onehunga, Auckland, in the 1950s and 1960s. His family lived as much as possible off their three-quarter-acre (0.3-hectare) section, which had a huge variety of fruit trees and vines, a large vegetable garden and chickens. This meant work for the three children. ‘My father viewed his family as part of a single economic unit and we all had jobs to do. It took years before I could face a vege garden again – too much weeding, watering and white butterfly patrols (one penny for each one we caught) in my childhood.’ 3



Compost is made out of food and garden scraps as a fertiliser to enrich the soil. Up to the First World War garden soils were mostly fertilised with trenched kitchen waste and with wood ash from home bonfires.

‘Hot composting’ was popularised as a way to decompose kitchen waste for garden use during the Second World War because it did not involve digging trenches and could therefore be more easily handled by women. In this method, the compost ‘ingredients’ are layered according to a formula with the right proportions of nitrogen and carbon to ensure that the compost bin gets hot, which speeds up decomposition.

Home garden culture declines

After the Second World War, the development of fruit and vegetable retailers and supermarkets, and changing patterns of recreational time use, seriously affected New Zealand’s home gardening culture. By 1956 less than one-third of households grew vegetables.

Revival of home food production

In the 2000s there has been a resurgence of interest in home food production, because of the rising cost of fresh food, health concerns about pesticide use by commercial growers, and a desire to live more sustainably and protect the environment.


Keeping hens for eggs was a significant unpaid occupation. In 1956, 90% of the 4 million fowls in New Zealand were kept for home egg production. Home poultry keeping declined in the following years – in 1969 about 60% of the country’s eggs were produced at home, but three years later only about 40% were. Home poultry keeping continued to decline – but it has had a resurgence in the early 2000s.

    • Miles Fairburn, The ideal society and its enemies: the foundations of modern New Zealand society 1850–1900. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1989, pp.100–101. Back
    • John Cracroft Wilson, Diary/reminiscences, c. 1854, ARC 1991.53, Canterbury Museum, p. 28. Back
    • David Veart, email to Jane Tolerton, 5 February 2009. Back

The shed

‘The shed’ has traditionally been a free-standing backyard workshop where the necessities for maintaining the home are kept. This could include wood-working equipment, paint and salvaged objects waiting for repair. It could also contain gardening equipment if the household did not have a dedicated ‘garden shed’.

Blokes & sheds


Writer Jim Hopkins and photographer Julie Riley created a best-selling book when they interviewed and photographed men in their sheds in 1998. Blokes & sheds sold more than 60,000 copies. ‘The shed is so woven into the warp and weft of our character,’ says Hopkins. ‘New Zealanders never had a lot of money so you had to make it yourself or keep an old one going by fixing it up. Then add that extraordinary male passion for fixing things, pulling things apart and putting them back together again and you’ve got that whole shed culture.’ 1


A male domain

The shed is traditionally a male domain. Historian Jock Phillips has said that when faced with the restrictions of domesticity, ‘[t]he man’s response was to cordon off from the domestic environment certain exclusive male territories’.2 The shed was seen as one of these territories, although in the 2000s sheds and their tools are often also used by women.

The DIY tradition

In the workshop, fathers and sons carry out the practical do-it-yourself (DIY) traditions of New Zealand manhood. The shed’s activities showcase a man’s ability to be practical, economical, innovative and ‘handy’. In his shed, he might turn wood and build furniture, mend broken objects or mastermind painting and decorating or landscaping projects. This contributes to the household economy as money is saved on buying replacement parts or employing skilled labour.

Sheds get smaller

Later in the 20th century workshops tended to be condensed into a spare corner in the garage. This was mainly because properties were smaller, with less room for a separate shed, but also because there was less need to fix items as replacements could often be easily and cheaply bought.

Shed ministries


The Anglican church in Invercargill began what it called ‘Shed Ministries’ in 2008 after a man said he did not feel comfortable in church – he preferred being in his shed. The church describes the concept as ‘a bunch of blokes head off to see what other blokes are making in their sheds, followed by a BBQ, preferably in a shed or similar, during which a short talk is given on faith in Christ.’ 3


Workshop inventions

Many inventions have sprung from work done by New Zealand men in their home workshops – including Richard Pearse’s aeroplane, John Britten’s racing motorbike and William Hamilton’s jet boat. In his Invercargill home workshop, Burt Munro converted a 1920 Indian motorcycle into the machine in which he set world speed records in the 1960s at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. He made many of the parts and tools himself.


External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Matt Morris, 'Unpaid domestic work', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 July 2024)

Story by Matt Morris, published 11 March 2010