Household tools involve a work process as a part of a technological system. Pre-industrial eighteenth century one-pot meals were symbolic of the whole: simple and contributory, cooked with wood and food from the husband's labor. Hired help and class/gender divide labor was standard practice. Metal objects were something of an investment and involved the household in the market economy. Cleanliness, changes of clothing, and variation in the diet were rare. Household work was divided, and all tasks were essential.
In early stages of industrialization, big changes occurred through the introduction of municipal water systems, coal and cheap factory-ground flour. Men no longer had to chop wood, carry water or grow and haul grain to be ground into flour. Increasingly men went out to work in factories and children went to school. Women retained or added to their household tasks, including care of the sick. Symbolic of the nineteenth century was the cast-iron cookstove, which dominated the kitchen and took up much of a woman's day and work. Due to increased transportation systems, the diet was more varied and luxuries within reach. The amount of clothes any one person owned was greater and they were likely to be cleaner.
Twentieth century changes are characterized by the switch from the household as place of production to a place of consumption, but Cowan takes issue with this reading. Likewise she questions "labor-saving" devices: drudgery is saved, but time is not. Railways and factories brought butchered frozen meat, canned food, ready-made clothing, and medicines. Transportation, by contrast, obtained in individual households and no longer was provided as a service. The automobile, says Swartz, is the tool of the 20th century woman as the cookstove was the tool of the 19th century woman. Energy systems - coal, gas and electricity - changed cooking, cleaning and washing. These systems made domestic help impracticable and re-introduced production ( in the form of services?) to the household.
There were alternative systems, including laundry service, cooked food delivery, apartment and cooperative style living, hired help and family servants. All of these failed, primarily because they altered family independence and privacy in ways that most families found unacceptable. She also chronicles the demise of the gas refrigerator, which was technologically superior, but championed by small companies unable to compete with GE.
Pre-war technologies include the vacuum cleaner, waching machine and automobile.
These introduced standards of cleanliness and health for the middle class. It
was important to maintain these outward signs of class. For the poor, separate
rooms, storage space, and cleanliness were still a challenge. In the post-war
years, household work takes relatively the same amount of time to do, but working
woman should most of the burden. Cowan urges women to see the household situation
rationally, understand the unconscious rules from the past that govern their
behavior, govern household technology sensibly for the present day, and wear
that shirt twice before cleaning it.