A Dark Lining Around a Silver Cloud

by Don Boudreaux on August 24, 2004

in Standard of Living

This morning on NPR, correspondent Susan Stamberg interviewed Susan Strasser, author of Never Done: A History of American Housework. (Originally published in 1982, this book is now back in print.)

Listening to the interview was an exercise in controlling my frustration. I gather from the discussion between Ms. Strasser and Ms. Stamberg that everyone agrees that housework before the 20th century’s gift of electrical household appliances was ceaseless drudgery borne almost exclusively by women. In addition, everyone agrees that “big, shiny appliances” (as Ms. Stamberg kept referring to them) released women from this back-breaking drudgery, as well as made households much cleaner and more sanitary. Ms. Stamberg and Ms. Strasser agreed also that no modern woman (including themselves) would want to return to the pre-appliance days of yore.

And yet these two women, searching diligently, found the dark speck in this bright, blue sky.

For example, when women had to hang their laundry to dry, they had greater chance of encountering their neighbors doing the same in their respective backyards. A good conversation resulted. Today, according to Ms. Strasser, women are more isolated – and made so by electrical appliances, kept in their basements by the convenience of an automatic clothes dryer. Also, mindless, repetitive tasks are often a blessing, according to Ms. Strasser. Having, say, to iron wrinkled clothing or darn socks “roots us” or “cements us.” (I forget her precise words; the link to this interview won’t be posted before tomorrow.)

This interview is evidence that bright people can find the downside of any piece of good fortune – but that the same bright people do not necessarily possess the wisdom to weigh the downside properly against the upside. It’s as if a very ill child was completely cured by a talented physician, and the parents of the child, admittedly grateful, focused their discussion on the fact that now their little one will grow into adulthood and have to pay bills, suffer heartbreak in love, find a job, and encounter the many trials and tribulations that every adult endures. These are downsides, to be sure, but they hardly count against the blessing of seeing your child saved from death.

There are downsides to greater convenience and greater household cleanliness. But how weighty are they?

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