Hard work by hand
In the 19th and early 20th centuries cleaning the house was a daily task done by hand. All jobs involved physical labour.
Dishes were washed by hand in a basin or sink. Later Victorian and Edwardian interiors were often crammed with ornaments, which required regular, careful dusting. Fixed carpets were rare and most houses had painted or varnished wooden floors and rugs. The floor was regularly mopped and polished. The heavy rugs were hauled outside and beaten to remove dust and other detritus. Because this was so difficult, rugs were cleaned infrequently. The advent of carpet sweepers in the late 19th century made this job a little easier.
The germ theory of disease, formulated in the late 19th century, elevated household cleaning to a scientific endeavour. Women were charged with ridding their homes of the unseen germs that threatened the family’s health.
Electric appliances became more common in New Zealand homes in the 1920s as towns and cities were connected to the national grid. Both the electricity and appliances were expensive and only found in wealthy homes. The number of appliances increased in the 1930s and 1940s and they became far more common in the 1950s.
Electric vacuum cleaners were a key device in the war against household germs and were seen as far superior to older methods of cleaning. In the 1930s, advertisements for Electrolux models declared: ‘Whenever you flick a duster or move a broom – you release countless disease-laden germs within your home’.1 Dishwashers were a post-Second World War innovation and something most households did without until the 21st century.
By the 1960s New Zealand’s rate of appliance ownership was high by international standards. In 1963, 92% of New Zealand households owned a vacuum cleaner, compared to 76% of Australian and 72% of British households.
Pop & rattle
A writer for the literary journal Here & Now wrote about the charms of the vacuum cleaner in 1953: ‘Now I can spend happy hours dreamily sucking fluff and crayons out of corners and listening to the pop and rattle as they rush up the tube and into the tidy little bag that saves me even the trouble of fetching the dustpan and brush.’2 The irony is palpable.
Most housewives made their own soap in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Fat from cooking was carefully hoarded. After enough had been collected it was heated and the separated fat was skimmed off the top. This was boiled with resin, water, borax and caustic soda and left to cool and set. The block was cut up into cakes of soap. Commercially made soap was available from the 19th century. Dishwashing detergent was introduced around the 1950s.
Some households employed servants to do cleaning in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but demand for servants outstripped supply in New Zealand. In households without servants, the women and girls of the house did the bulk of the cleaning. The introduction of electric appliances did not alter the status quo. Recent time use surveys have found that women spend more time than men cleaning. In the 1998–99 survey women did 43 minutes of indoor cleaning each day and men did 12 minutes, while in 2009–10 women did 32 minutes and men 10 minutes. Some households that could afford it paid professional cleaners. This became more common as women entered the paid workforce.