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A Brief History Of Housework

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Housework is a necessary evil. It is something many of us dread, but must do on a daily basis. While chores like cooking and doing laundry are still time-consuming, they used to be a lot more time-consuming in years gone by before cleaning products and appliances were invented. Unless you were wealthy enough to have a maid or a team of servants, you had to do it all yourself – and it was typically the women that did all of it. Fortunately, standards were not as high as they were today. Many women also did not work, and so there was more time to carry out these tasks. However, housework was still very tough. This post delves into some of the main housework tasks and how they have evolved over time.


Households used to constantly be preparing meals. Soups and stews were popular among the working class and would be left to boil throughout the day. The first ovens were made of bricks and were heated using wood. Cast iron stoves became popular at the end of the 1700s, and by the late 1800s gas and electric ovens began to be introduced to homes.

Food did not keep for long and so meals could not be planned far in advance. Until the invention of the refrigerator, most meat and dairy was stored in a cold larder, or was bought to be eaten that day. Working class families had to work with whatever they could get their hands on. This led to a lot of creativity in the kitchen – every part of an animal would be used and leftovers would always be reused. Recipe blogs did not exist, but recipe books did and were very popular. 

It’s only within the last 50 years that quick and easy meals have taken over. Fridges and freezers became popular in the 1950s and the first domestic microwave went on sale in the 1940s. This led to a growth in TV dinners or ready meals – pre-cooked meals that can be kept in the fridge or freezer and then heated up in the oven or microwave. Many of us rely on these foods today, although a growing organic and healthy eating movement is starting to encourage more people to cook from scratch again. 

Washing dishes

Doing the dishes used to be a lot more of a chore than it is today. Before access to hot water taps, water had to be collected and boiled to be used for washing dishes. The likes of lye and vinegar may be used to help with cleaning. To reduce washing up, some working class homes would rarely use plates and bowls and would instead serve food on a thick slab of bread that would be consumed after. 

Hot running water became popular in homes by the late 1800s. Liquid dish soap did not become available for domestic use until 1949. Dishwashers became more popular in the late 20th century, although most of us still prefer to wash dishes by hand. 


Hate laundry? Spare a thought for those that didn’t have washing machines or tumble dryers. Washing clothes used to be gruelling work. It was so gruelling that some working class families did it very rarely, preferring to rewear dirty clothes as long as possible. Clothes would be washed in a river or in giant barrels where they would be stirred or trod on underfoot. Lye and even human urine were used to help remove dirt and stains. The invention of the washboard allowed for much easier scrubbing. The first manual washing machines were invented in the 1800s, and by the early 1900s electric washing machines had been invented and were widely used. 

In the 1800s, all washing would be done on a Monday – a chore that would usually last the entire day. This would be hung and left to dry throughout the week before being pressed and folded so that it could be used by the following Sunday. Clothes pegs were not invented until 1853. The first electric dryer was invented in 1938.


Evidence shows that as far back as 40,000 years ago, heated rocks were used to smooth out animal hides. Flat irons were invented in medieval times. Up until the 20th century, only the wealthy would iron their clothes (and it was usually a servant that would do it). The invention of the electric iron in 1882 made ironing easier and more popular among people of all classes.

Nowadays, much fewer people iron their clothes. There are a few reasons for this. The first reason is that modern clothes are not so prone to creasing due to more heavy use of synthetic fibers like polyester. Many of us also rely on electric dryers to dry our clothes, which can help remove creases without the need for an iron, providing that they are folded and put away immediately after. Most of us still own an iron, but it’s typically only older generations that still iron regularly out of habit. 

Cleaning floors

The first floors in homes were typically nothing but dirt covered in straw. Livestock would live in homes with humans and so this straw would get very dirty and smelly. Herbs were sprinkled on it to help it smell better and the straw was typically replaced once per year. 

By the 18th century, a lot more homes had stone or wooden floors. These were swept, mopped and scrubbed by hand. The electric portable vacuum cleaner wasn’t invented until the early 1900s. Few homes could afford a vacuum cleaner at first, and they only became common household appliances after the second world war. This led to a boom in carpets – before the vacuum cleaner, carpets were incredibly high maintenance and only an option for the wealthy. 

Nowadays, most homes have laminate flooring or carpets – the former becoming more popular due to being easier to clean. In fact, carpets have been going out of fashion (although are still quite popular in bedrooms and homes in cooler climates where they offer warmth and comfort). 

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