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Household management

by Megan Cook

The often mundane activities of household management underpin the rest of life. Tasks such as housework, gardening, home repairs and feeding a household have changed over time as technology has evolved.

Overview of household management

The mundane, taken-for-granted business of household management underpins the rest of life. Running a household involves housework, gardening, home repairs, maintenance, renovation, budgeting, buying food, organising tradespeople, paying rates and insurance. Paid work and household tasks impinge on care of children, the elderly or the unwell.

Household management has been shaped by technology, ethnicity and class. The people living in a home – their age, relationship and number – also determine many routines.


Although many tasks have not changed, the way they are carried out has altered. Change has usually been driven by technological developments. From the 19th to the mid-20th century heavy work became lighter. This occurred first away from home – farms and factories were the first to use new sources of power and machinery – but by the 1960s running a household was far less physically demanding than it had previously been.


A household’s wealth affected how it was run. The poor and lower middle class did most things themselves, while the middle class and wealthy were able to delegate. Servants were hard to find, though, and by the later 19th and early 20th centuries, only about 10% of households had a servant or servants.

Reading to the family

Family reading sessions took place in many 19th-century households. The Bible, a daily newspaper, a novel or a serialised story in a magazine provided entertainment, education or religious instruction. If an adult in the household couldn’t read, someone else would read letters to them and write out their reply. The household’s reader might be an adult, but could also be a child.

Who and how many

In Pākehā households the presence of young children, the elderly or the unwell usually meant a more home-centred life, and added to a household’s tasks. A very large family or the presence of unmarried adult family members meant more work, but also that tasks were shared around more. Until the 1950s many Māori lived in extended-family households, with the presence of young, old, married and unmarried adults taken for granted. The extra care needed by young and old along with the extra help provided by many adults were probably also taken for granted.

Gender roles

From early settlement to the later 20th century, Pākehā men and boys were responsible for outdoor tasks, while women and girls cared for household members and performed indoor tasks. This division of work was not rigid. A different tradition, personal preference or necessity might dictate other patterns of behaviour.

Learning to keep house

Pākehā spent a great deal of energy persuading Māori to follow European household routines. Girls in particular were taught cooking, sewing and household hygiene. At first the training was seen as a way of turning Māori into brown Britons. Later, when Māori population decline became obvious, many Pākehā and some Māori believed these routines would improve Māori health.

Small farms, particularly while being established, often required the labour of all those available. In some rural households, women’s work included both the house and the farmyard with its hens, home garden and house cow. In town or country, a father might feed children or wipe a snotty nose, particularly in a large family with young children. Older children helped in many households, particularly if the family was large or parents were unavailable. Historical evidence of home repairs and maintenance suggests that this work (except painting) was consistently done by men.

Loss of a husband or wife radically altered the experience of running a household, as the remaining partner and older children struggled to do the extra work or find someone else to undertake it.


In the early 20th century nearly half of all households were renting their home. Home ownership rose from the 1920s, reaching approximately 73% in the 1980s, and began to fall again in the 1990s. Apart from repair and maintenance work, which those in a rented home were far less likely to do, the work of household management remained the same.

This changed once flatting – groups of unrelated people living together – became common in the 1960s. Some flats had a shared food budget and shopping, cooked as a group and ate together. In others the occupants did little more than share facilities and power costs.

Inside work

Keeping the house clean and aired, getting food, cooking, and washing dishes and clothes were the ordinary stuff of household work in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Versions of many of these tasks were equally common in the 19th and earlier 20th centuries, but the similarity is deceptive.

Water and power

Water was carried by bucket from streams, wells or cisterns and heated in kettles or pots until the 1880s, when reasonably priced corrugated-iron water tanks and wetback ranges became available. Water began to be piped into the kitchen, although not necessarily to the wetback – some wetbacks were filled by bucket and emptied through a tap on the range.

Wood and coal fires were the commonest source of power and warmth until the early 20th century, and remained so for some households until the 1950s.


Electrical appliances made household tasks lighter and sometimes safer. Few New Zealand households had access to electric power until the 1920s. It was the 1930s before the use of appliances was common in well-to-do homes, and the 1940s and 1950s before they were standard in all households.

Māori households were generally poorer than those of Pākehā. Running water and electricity were the exception for Māori until well into the 20th century. As late as 1961, 44% of Māori lived in homes without a flush toilet, 30% lived without a hot-water system and 72% used an open fire for heating.


The women and girls of a 19th- and early-20th-century household made many of the items that were needed within it. Particularly important was soap, used for scrubbing benches, floors and verandahs, and for washing clothes and people. In the 19th century, when contagious diseases were rife (made worse by backyard cesspits), household cleanliness was essential. In the 20th century it remained a matter of personal pride and proof of respectability.

Fruit and eggs were preserved, jam made, vegetables pickled, and bread, biscuits and cakes baked. Clothes, particularly for children, were made and repaired. These household routines changed in the 1960s. The proportion of married women in paid employment jumped from 17% in 1945 to 50% in 1971, and wages increased. The industrial production of eggs and increasing use of canned goods and then freezers meant that the need to grow and preserve food waned. Clothing costs dropped dramatically from the 1990s.

Challenging the division of labour

Women’s responsibility for housework was taken for granted until the 1970s, when the women’s liberation movement declared it a political issue. The time women spent as unpaid and often unappreciated servants was one reason they achieved less in the public world than men, feminists argued. Nor was going out to work the answer – paid employment just meant women came home and did a second shift.

Household repairs

Household repairs were usually the province of men, who might fix latches, paint windowsills or lay floor coverings. Some work of this kind became easier over time. New paint formulas were easier to apply and clean up after. Other jobs became more elaborate. For instance, once bathrooms were introduced in the 1880s there were tiles to be laid and grouting to be maintained.

Caring for young and old

Running a household meant managing and caring for those who lived there. Until the late 20th century, daily care of the young, the old or the ill was generally carried out by women and older girls. Men might be doting fathers, but the role of breadwinner meant they were not available to look after the baby. Boys were seen as needing a father’s example, and were expected to assist their father in some of his household tasks, including those that meant expeditions away from home. In the 2000s men were more likely to be involved in caring for children, and sometimes for older family members.

Outside work

The outdoor tasks associated with household management have changed substantially over time. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, most households had a vegetable garden, more than half had hens and a few kept bees or pigs. Away from home, but still for household use, wood was gathered, rabbits shot, blackberries picked and fish caught.

Outside tasks were more likely to be performed by men and boys. Boys in late-19th and early-20th-century Taradale, for example, collected and chopped wood for the stove, fed poultry, collected eggs, cleaned slaughtered hens, picked fruit and vegetables for home use and helped with the garden and cows. Their fathers supervised and usually took part in this work. This was a pattern generally followed, although women and girls were sometimes the gardeners, growing particularly but not only flowers.

For rural Māori households, gardening and foraging for food and fuel would remain a critical part of the household economy until the later 20th century. Māori women were often involved in food gathering and gardening.


Like houses, gardens had private and public areas. The front garden and verandah was a public area, its flowers and immaculate cleanliness a matter of pride. Well-to-do households with spacious grounds might have a tennis court, summer house or croquet lawn, often maintained by paid staff (whose management was part of the work of running the household). When toilets were located outside (common for middling and poorer households until the 1940s), people avoided entertaining guests other than family or close friends in the back garden.

Green baize lawn

‘We have not seen in any part of the country a lawn so beautifully kept. It is literally as green and smooth as the cloth upon a billiard table … we would recommend it as a model for any of our suburban or rural gentry,’ reported the Otago Witness in 1878.1 The lawn was owned by George Matthews, who ran a nursery, was probably assisted by a gardener, and may have penned the description himself.

For suburban households, the back garden was a working area, the location of the vegetable garden, fruit trees, incinerator and compost heap. There was often a shed in which tools were kept and bikes repaired. It was also the place where children played in sandpits and on swings.

New technology introduced over the 20th century – power mowers, hedge trimmers, weed eaters and leaf blowers – made gardening easier but did not change it dramatically. Of more importance was the general move away from home provision. The number of households growing their own vegetables dropped from over 60% to 50% between 1956 and 1971. The last national count in 1971 found 11.5% of households had backyard hens (a drop of nearly 50% from 1951). Beekeeping had become unusual after tighter regulation was introduced in 1927. Although interest in growing food and keeping hens and even bees increased in the 2000s, city and town gardens remained primarily places to grow shrubs and flowers, and to sit and play.

Repairs and maintenance

New Zealanders’ approach to home repairs and maintenance varied – many men did a few bits and pieces or went the whole hog, while others employed tradespeople to do the work for them. Those willing to do it themselves might paint, repair broken windows, replace spouting or rotting boards in a wall, fix leaking or rusting roofing iron, make garden paths and steps, and lay new flooring. Some went further, building carports, sheds or baches (holiday homes), and even laying electrical cabling or pipes.

Making a virtue of necessity

In 1875 Premier Julius Vogel advised new immigrants ‘not [to] forget that a handyman in the colonies should be able to turn his hand to almost anything’.2 Doing it yourself had become a virtue, proof of the resourcefulness and capability of colonial New Zealanders (although it is unlikely that Vogel was doing his own household repairs).

In the decades after the Second World War there was a surge in home maintenance. Fixing the house using materials bought from a local hardware shop or timber yard became a regular weekend activity for many men. From the 1970s the house was extended into the garden, with patios, barbecue areas and decks. Swimming pools and children’s play areas with slides and swings offered further scope for those keen to build.

In the 1990s and 2000s less time and perhaps less inclination combined with greater government regulation to limit the larger-scale building that some homeowners had previously engaged in.

    • Quoted in Helen Leach, ‘The European house and garden in New Zealand.’ In At home in New Zealand: houses, history, people, edited by Barbara Brookes. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2000, pp. 76–77. Back
    • Quoted in Jeremy Salmond, Old New Zealand houses, 1800–1940. Auckland: Heinemann Reed, 1986, p. 71. Back

The wider world

Household management also involves dealings with the outside world. Food is bought; power, telephone and internet services organised; rates, insurance, bills and mortgages or rent paid; and tradespeople organised.


Whoever managed a household’s money paid the bills, arranged insurance and paid the rent or mortgage and rates. In some households ‘mother was treasurer, budget-controller and administrator, father was the outside earner’.1 In the 19th and early 20th centuries the poorer the family the more likely the woman was to control the money. Pay packets were brought home by fathers and working children, and given to mothers. From the mid-20th century both women-controlled finances and a family budget that included children’s earnings became less common.

Making ends meet

Some poorer and middling households kept lodgers, took in washing, sold surplus eggs, cream, butter or honey, or did sewing or knitting for other families. These strategies built on existing household routines, and helped make ends meet.

In other homes, the father was not only the outside earner, but controlled the household’s money. In many, perhaps most, middle- and upper-class families, it was usual for the man of the house to give his wife a set amount each week (the ‘housekeeping’). From that she was expected to buy food, pay for transport, and usually clothe herself and any children in the household. What was done with the rest of the family income was not her business.

Ways of managing family money also varied according to ethnicity. A study in the 1990s found that many Māori and Pacific households shared family income with wider whānau. Within some Pākehā households money continued to be pooled, while in others household expenses were shared but earning adults had separate bank accounts and managed the surplus independently.

Getting a home

For many New Zealanders, finding a house meant getting a mortgage. From 1894 finance was often provided by the government, along with building societies, lawyers and accountants. Regulatory change in the 1960s and 1970s meant that banks took over. Getting a mortgage was a job that had to be done by the man of the household – until the 1970s women were very seldom given a mortgage in their own right. Homes for rent were advertised in local newspapers, but were also found through word of mouth or by asking at shops in an area.

Homes with a history

Name-dropping in ‘to let’ ads was standard in the 1850s. A ‘commodious’ house in Bank Street had been lived in by Dr Parks, while another was ‘lately occupied’ by the Hon. C. A. Dillon. An ‘excellent Brick HOUSE’ at Coopers Bay was advertised while the surveyor general was still in residence.2 Including the name or position of the previous occupant was intended to impress potential tenants and assure them that time spent looking at the house would not be wasted.

Māori, whether living on ancestral land or not, found it difficult to get a mortgage or loan. Banks did not accept communally owned land as security. In addition, Māori faced prejudice and were sometimes stereotyped as unable to manage money. One result was that Māori were less likely to own their own homes: in 1961, for example, just under 50% of Māori owned their own homes, while nearly 70% of Pākehā did.


Neighbours were linked by friendship and favours. Children were looked after, meals cooked, tools lent and help given with big jobs. City neighbourhoods (particularly working-class ones) and farming communities were criss-crossed with links between households, but the strength of these networks diminished in the later 20th century. Links were strongest when one of the adults was at home and able to help or to arrange assistance by another member of the household. This became less common after the Second World War, as the percentage of women in paid employment climbed, from 25% in 1951 to 55% in 1995.

Do-it-yourself and the local council

Until the mid-20th century repairs, maintenance and renovation required nothing more than a willingness to do the work or the ability to pay someone else to do it. Introduction and enforcement of regulation by councils was patchy.

Build your own

Farm work was all the training Nigel Cook needed to build his first home in central Wellington in 1951. ‘I’d been working on a farm at 14. There was constant hammering, nailing, doing gates, fences, repairing farm buildings. I was comfortable with handling timber and that was all one needed to build a bach.’3 Although Cook had moved into town, getting a permit didn’t occur to him.

A building act passed in 1991 resulted in a more uniform approach, with all work on the external envelope of a house requiring a permit. Homeowners had to provide far more detailed documentation, and many minor parts of a job – the distance between balcony railings for example – were subject to regulation.

In 2012 a new regime was introduced. Work on the structure and external cladding of a house had to be carried out by a licensed builder. An exemption for homeowners allowed them to do such work under the supervision of a licensed building practitioner.

    • W. B. Sutch, Women with a cause. Wellington: New Zealand University Press, p. ix. Back
    • Daily Southern Cross, 19 November 1850, p. 2. Back
    • Nigel Cook, personal communication, September 2012. Back

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Megan Cook, 'Household management', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 April 2024)

He kōrero nā Megan Cook, i tāngia i te 5 o Hepetema 2013