Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-55597f9d44-mm7gn Total loading time: 0.556 Render date: 2022-08-08T08:11:44.454Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "useRatesEcommerce": false, "useNewApi": true } hasContentIssue true

Why “More Work for Mother?” Knowledge and Household Behavior, 1870–1945

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 July 2012

Joel Mokyr
Joel Mokyr is Professor, Departments of Economics and History, Northwestern University, Evanston IL 60208


It is widely agreed that the burden of housework in the industrialized West did not decrease as much as might be expected since 1880, and may have actually increased for long periods. The article proposes a new explanation: that increases in knowledge on the causes and transmission mechanisms of infectious diseases persuaded women that household members' health depended on the amount of housework carried out. The article traces the origin of this knowledge in the scientific developments of the nineteenth century and describes the mechanisms by which households were persuaded to allocate more time and resources to housework.

Copyright © The Economic History Association 2000

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Apple, Rima D.Mothers and Medicine: A Social History of Infant Feeding, 1890–1950. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.Google Scholar
Kathleen, Babbitt R. “Legitimizing Nutrition Education: The Impact of the Great Depression.” In Home Economics: Women and the History of a Profession, edited by Stage, Sarah and Vincenti, Virginia, 145–62. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press,1997.Google Scholar
Ball, Helen H., and Swedlund, Alan. “Poor Women and Bad Mothers: Placing the Blame for Turn-of the-Century Infant Mortality.” Northeast Anthropology no. 52 (1996): 3152.Google Scholar
Bartel, Ann P., and Lichtenberg, Frank R.. “The Comparative Advantage of Educated Workers in Implementing new Technology.” Review of Economics and Statistics 69 (02. 1987): 111.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Becker, Gary A. A Treatise on the Family. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.Google Scholar
Bourke, , , Joanna. Husbandry to Housewifery: Women, Economic Change and Housework in Ireland 1890–1914. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bourke, , Joanna, . “Housewifery in Working Class England, 1860–1914.” Past and Present no. 143 (05 1994): 167–97.Google Scholar
Brown, John C.Coping with Crisis? The Diffusion of Waterworks in Late Nineteenth-Century German Towns.” This JOURNAL 48, no. 2 (1988): 307–18.Google Scholar
Brownlee, W. Elliot. “Household Values, Women's Work, and Economic Growth, 1800–1930.” This JOURNAL 39, no. 1 (1979): 199209.Google Scholar
Bryant, W. Keith. “A Comparison of the Household Work of Married Females: The Mid-1920s and the Late 1960s.” Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal 24, no.4 (1996): 358–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Caldwell, John C.Education as a Factor in Mortality Decline: An Examination of Nigerian Data.” Population Studies 33, no. 3 (1979): 395413.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Campbell, Helen. Household Economics. New York: Putnam, 1900.Google Scholar
Carpenter, Kenneth J.The History of Scurvy and Vitamin C. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.Google Scholar
Chadwick, Edwin. Report on The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain. Edited by Flinn, M. W.. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1965. [Originally published 1843]Google Scholar
Cigno, Allesandro. Economics of the Family. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.Google Scholar
Coleman, William. Death is a Social Disease: Public Health and Political Economy in Early industrial France. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982.Google Scholar
Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. More Work for Mother. New York: Basic Books, 1983.Google Scholar
Cullen, M. J.The Statistical Movement in Early Victorian Britain. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1975.Google Scholar
Daunton, M. J.House and Home in the Victorian City. London: Edward Arnold, 1983.Google Scholar
de Vries, Jan. “Between Purchasing Power and the World of Goods: Understanding the Household Economy in Early Modern Europe.” In Consumption and the World of Goods, edited by John, Brewer and Roy, Porter, 85132. London: Routledge, 1993.Google Scholar
deVries, Jan Vries, Jan. “The Industrial Revolution and the Industrious Revolution.” This JOURNAL 54, no. 2 (1994): 249–70.Google Scholar
Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger. London: Routledge, 1966.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Dyhouse, Carol. “Social Darwinistic Ideas and the Development of Women's Education in England, 1880–1920.” History of Education, 5 no. 1 (1976): 4158.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Dyhouse, Carol. “Working-Class Mothers and Infant Mortality in England, 1895–1914.” Journal of Social History 12, no.2 (1978): 248–67.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Dyhouse, Carol. Girls Growing Up in Late Victorian and Edwardian England. London: Routledge, 1981.Google Scholar
Dwork, Deborah. War is Good for Babies and Other Young Children. London: Tavistock, 1987.Google Scholar
Easterlin, Richard. Growth Triumphant. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ehrenreich, Barbara, and English, Deirdre. “The Manufacture of Housework.” Socialist Revolution 26 (1012. 1975): 541.Google Scholar
Ehrenreich, Barbara, and English, Deirdre. For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Experts' Advice to Women. Garden City, NY: Anchor/Doubleday, 1978.Google Scholar
Elliott, S. Maria. Household Hygiene. Chicago: American School of Household Economics, 1907.Google Scholar
Evans, William N., and Montgomery, Edward. “Education and Health.” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 4949, 1994.Google Scholar
Ewbank, Douglas C., and Preston, Samuel H.. “Personal Health Behavior and the Decline of Infant and Child Mortality: the United States, 1900–1930.” In What we Know About Health Transition, edited by John, Caldwell et al., 116–48. Canberra: Australian National University, Health Transition Series, 1990.Google Scholar
Eyler, John M.Victorian Social Medicine: The Ideas and Methods of William Farr. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.Google Scholar
Flinn, Michael W. “Introduction” to Edwin Chadwick's The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain, new edition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1965.Google Scholar
Folbre, Nancy. “Cleaning House: New Perspectives on Households and Economic Development.” Journal of Development Economics 22, no. 1 (1986): 540.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Forty, Adrian. Objects of Desire. New York: Pantheon, 1986.Google Scholar
French, Roger K. “Scurvy.” In The Cambridge World History of Human Disease, edited by Kenneth, F. Kiple, 1000–05. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gershuny, Jonathan, and John, P. Robinson. “Historical Changes in the Household Division of Labor.” Demography 25, no. 4 (1988): 537–52.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Gigerenzer, Gerd, et al. The Empire of Chance: How Probability Changed Science and Everyday Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Goldin, Claudia. Understanding the Gender Gap: an Economic History of American Women. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.Google Scholar
Grossman, Michael. “On the Concept of Health Capital and the Demand for Health.” Journal of Political Economy 80, no. 2 (1972): 223–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hakim, Catherine. “Census Reports as Documentary Evidence: The Census Commentaries, 1801–1951.” Sociological Review 28, no. 3 (1980): 551–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hamlin, Christopher. A Science of Impurity: Water Analysis in Nineteenth Century Britain. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.Google Scholar
Hardy, Anne. The Epidemic Streets: Infectious Disease and the Rise of Preventive Medicine, 1856–1900. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hart, Samuel. “Invisible Assailants of Health.” Popular Science Monthly 37 (10. 1890): 806–14.Google Scholar
Headrick, Daniel. When Information Came of Age: Technologies of Knowledge in the Age of Reason and Revolution, 1700–1850. New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming.Google Scholar
Hitching, Wilena. Home Management. London: W & R Chambers, 1912.Google Scholar
Hopkins, Eric. Childhood Transformed: Working-Class Children in Nineteenth-Century England. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994.Google Scholar
Horrell, Sara, and Humphries, Jane. “Women's Labor Force Participation and the Transition to the Male-Breadwinner Family, 1790–1865.” Economic History Review 48, no. 1 (1995): 89117.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Horsfield, Margaret. Biting the Dust: The Joys of Housework. New York: St. Martin's, 1998.Google Scholar
Hoy, Suellen. Chasing Dirt: The American Pursuit of Cleanliness. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.Google Scholar
Hudson, Robert P.Disease and Its Control: the Shaping of Modern Thought. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1983.Google Scholar
Humphries, Jane. “Women and Paid Work.” In Women's History: Britain, 1850–1945, An Introduction, edited by June, Purvis, 85105. New York: St. Martin's, 1995.Google Scholar
Johansson, Sheila Ryan. “Death and Doctors: Medicine and Elite Mortality in Britain from 1500 to 1800.” Working Paper, Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, 1999.Google Scholar
Kahneman, DanielPaul, Slovic and Amos, Tversky, eds. Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kuznets, Simon. Economic Growth and Structure. New York: Norton, 1965.Google Scholar
Latour, Bruno. The Pasteurization of France. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.Google Scholar
Lebergott, Stanley. Pursuing Happiness: American Consumers in Twentieth Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.Google Scholar
Lewis, Jane. Women in England 1870–1950: Sexual Divisions and Social Change. Sussex: Wheatsheaf, 1984.Google Scholar
Lewis, JaneFamily Provision of Health and Welfare in the Mixed Economy of Care in the Late Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.” Social History of Medicine 8, no. 1 (1995): 116.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Lewontin, Richard. “Billions and Billions of Demons.” New York Review of Books, 01. 9, 1997.Google Scholar
Loewenstein, George, and Jon, Elster, eds. Choice over Time. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1992.Google Scholar
Lundberg, Shelly, and Pollak, Robert A.. “Bargaining and Distribution in Marriage.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 10, no. 4 (1996): 139–54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Meckel, Richard A.Save the Babies: American Public Health Reform and the Prevention of Infant Mortality, 1850–1929. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.Google Scholar
Mitchell, Wesley C.The Backward Art of Spending Money.” American Economic Review 2, no.2 (1912): 269–81.Google Scholar
Mokyr, Joel. “Technological Progress and the Decline of European Mortality” American Economic Review, Papers and Proceedings, 05 (1993): 324–31.Google Scholar
Mokyr, Joel “La tecnologia, l'informazione e le famiglie.” In Nel mito di prometeo. L'innovazione tecnoiogica dalla rivoluzione industriale ad oggi. Temi, inventori e protagonisti dall'ottocento al duemila, ed. Renato, Giannetti, 147–84. Firenze: Ponte alle Grazie, 1996.Google Scholar
Mokyr, Joel “Technological Selection, Information, and Changing Household Behavior, 1850–1914.” Unpublished paper, Northwestern University, 1996.Google Scholar
Mokyr, Joel “Science, Technology, and Knowledge: What Historians Can Learn from an Evolutionary Approach.” Max Planck Institute for Research into Economic Systems, Working Papers on Economics and Evolution, no. 98–03, 1998.Google Scholar
Morkyr, Joel “Knowledge, Techonology, and Economic Growth During the Industrial Revolution.” Unpublished working paper presented to the Conference on Productivity and Standards of Living, Groningen, September 1998. Revised version, 01 2000.Google Scholar
Mokyr, Joel, and Stein, Rebecca. “Science, Health and Household Techonology: The Effect of the Pasteur Revolution on Consumer Demand.” In The Economics of New Products, edited by Robert, J.Gordon and Timothy, Bresnahan, 143200. Chicago: University of Chicago Press and NBER, 1997.Google Scholar
Newman, George. Infant Mortality: A Social Problem. New York: Dutton, 1907.Google Scholar
O'Shea, M.V., and Kellogg, J.H.. Health and Cleanliness. New York: Macmillan, 1921.Google Scholar
Papillon, Fernand. “Ferments, Fermentation, and Life.” Popular Science Monthly 5 (09 1874): 542–56.Google Scholar
Plunkett, H.M.(Mrs). Women, Plumbers, and Doctors. New York: Appleton, 1885.Google Scholar
Pollock, Linda A.Forgotten Children: Parent-Child Relations from 1500 to 1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.Google Scholar
Porter, Theodore. The Rise of Statistical Thinking, 1820–1900. Princeton, NJ:Princeton University Press, 1986.Google Scholar
Preston, Samuel H., and Haines, Michael R.. Fatal Years: Child Mortality in Late Nineteenth Century America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Redelmeier, Donald A., Koehler, Derek J., Liberman, Varda and Tversky, Amos. “Probability Judgement in Medicine.”Medical Decision Making 15, no. 3 (1995): 227–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Redelmeier, Donald A., and Tversky, Amos. “On the Belief That Arthritis Plain Is Related to Weather.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 93 (1995): 2895–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Reid, , Margaret, . Economics of Household Production. New York: John Wiley, 1934.Google Scholar
Riley James, C.The Eighteenth-Century Campagian to Avoid Disease. New York: St. Martin's, 1987.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Riley James, C. “Working Health Time: A Comparison of Preindustrial, Industrial, and Post-Industrial Experience in Life and Health.” Explorations in Economic History 28, no. 2 (1991): 169–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Riley, James C.. Sick, Not Dead: The Health of British Workingmen During the Mortality Decline. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.Google Scholar
Roberts, Elizabeth. A Woman's Place: An Oral History of Working-Class Women,1890–1940. Oxford: Blackwell, 1984.Google Scholar
Roberts, Kristin, and Rupert, Peter. “The Myth of the Overworked American.” Economic Commentary. Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. 1501 1995.Google Scholar
Robinson, John P. “Housework Techonology and Household Work.” In Women and Household Labor, edited by Berk, Sarah Fenstermaker, 5367. New York: Russell Sage, 1980.Google Scholar
Robinson, John P. and Godbey, Geoffrey. Time for Life: The Surprising Ways Americans Use their Time. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1997.Google Scholar
Rogers, Naomi. “Germs with Legs: Files, Disease and the New Public Health.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 63, no. 4 (1989): 599617.Google Scholar
Rogers, Naomi. Dirt and Disease: Polio before FDR. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992.Google Scholar
Rollet-Echalier, Catherine. La politique a l'égard de la petite enfance sous la IIIe République. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1990.Google Scholar
Rosen, George. “What is Social Medicine? A Genetic Analysis of the Concept.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 21, no. 5 (1947): 674733.Google Scholar
Rosen, George. A History of Public Health. New ed.Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.Google Scholar
Ross, Lee, and Anderson, Craig A.. “Shortcomings in the Attribution Process: on the Origins and Maintenance of Erroneous Social Assessments.” In Judgment Under Uncertainly: Heuristics and Biases edited by Daniel, Kahneman, Slovic, Paul, and Tversky, Amos, 128152. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.Google Scholar
Rumsey, , Henry, . Essays and Papers on Some Fallacies of Statistics Concerning Life and Death, Health and Disease. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1875.Google Scholar
Rusnock, Andrea A. “The Quantification of Things Human: Medicine and Political Arithmetic in Enlightenment England and France.” Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton University, 1990.Google Scholar
Schor, Juliet B.The Overworked American. New York: Basic Books, 1992.Google Scholar
Shaw, George Bernard. The Doctor's Dilemma. New York: Brentano's, 1913.Google Scholar
Slovic, Paul, Fischoff, Baruch, and Lichtenstein, Sarah. “Facts vs. Fears: Understanding Perceived Risks.” In Judgment Under Uncertainly: Heuristics and Biases, edited by Kahneman, Daniel, Slovic, Paul, and Tversky, Amos, 463–89. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Stage, Sarah, and Vincenti, Virginia, eds. Home Economics: Women and the History of a Profession. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.Google Scholar
Steedman, Carolyn. “Bodies, Figures, and Physiology: Margaret McMillan and the Late Nineteenth-Century Remaking of Working-Class Childhood.” In In the Name of the Child: Health and Welfare, 1880–1940, edited by Roger, Cooter, 1944. London: Routledge, 1992.Google Scholar
Strasser, Susan M. “An Enlarged Human Existence? Technology and Household Work in Nineteenth-Century America.” In Women and Household Labor, edited by Sarah, Fenstermaker Berk, 2951. New York: Russell Sage, 1980.Google Scholar
Thomas, Carol. “Domestic Labour and Health: Bringing it all Back Home.” Sociology of Health and Illness 17, no. 3 (1995): 328–52.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Tomes, Nancy. “The Private Side of Public Health: Sanitary Science, Domestic Hygiene, and the Germ Theory.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 64, no.4 (1990): 509–39.Google ScholarPubMed
Tomes, Nancy. The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women and the Microbe in American Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.Google Scholar
Vanek, Joann. “Time Spent in Homework.” Scientific American 231 (05 1974): 116–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Vigarello, Georges. Concepts of Cleanliness: Changing Attitudes in France Since the Middle Ages. Translated by Birrell, Jean. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.Google Scholar
Vinikas, Vincent. Soft Soap, Hard Sell: American Hygiene in an Age of Advertisement. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1992.Google Scholar
Viscusi, , Kip, W.. Smoking: Making the Risky Decision. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.Google Scholar
Williams, Perry. “The Laws of Health: Women, Medicine and Sanitary Reform, 1850–1890.” In Science and Sensibility: Gender and Scientific Enquiry edited by Marina, Benjamin, 6088. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.Google Scholar
Wohl, Anthony S.Endangered Lives: Public Health in Victorian Britain. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.Google Scholar
Woods, Robert I., Watterson, P. A. and Woodward, J. H.. “The Causes of Rapid Infant Mortality Decline in England and Wales, 1861–1921.” Population Studies 42, no. 3 (1988): 343–66, and 43, no. 1 (1989): 113–32.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Zelizer, Viviana A.Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children. New York: Basic Books, 1985.Google Scholar
Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Why “More Work for Mother?” Knowledge and Household Behavior, 1870–1945
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Why “More Work for Mother?” Knowledge and Household Behavior, 1870–1945
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Why “More Work for Mother?” Knowledge and Household Behavior, 1870–1945
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *