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 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.