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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: Comparing Period Sources

The following excerpts present two opinions on the advantages and disadvantages of working as a servant. Both written in the early 1900s, each author compares and contrasts working in the home with working in shops and factories.

"Housework versus Shop and Factories"

To summarize the advantages of the houseworker:
The excess of wages above living expenses is greater than for girls in shops and restaurants, and taken from year to year is almost as great as in mills and factories.
The work is more healthful than in mills, factories or shops.
The demand for workers is little affected by prosperous or dull times.
The older and more thoughtful women of all occupations recognize another advantage: Houseworkers are better prepared for contented lives in homes of their own. The other girls not only know little about the care of a house, but they form a taste for the excitement of numbers that often leads them to continue work after marriage. 'The mill is the last place for my girl; housework learns a woman to be a woman,' said a weaver, forty years of whose life had been spent in the mill.
The objections to housework seem to be: The hours are long and indefinite. There is invariably Sunday work. Work is not often specialized. Each household has its own method of doing things.
There is no chance to rise to a better place.
There is little opportunity to visit friends, and small satisfaction in receiving them.
The relations with employers seem more irritating than in other occupations. There is a solitude that is the result of continual contact with people with whom they have nothing in common.
In the opinion of working girls the advantages do not weigh against the disadvantages, so that under existing circumstances any attempt to attract intelligent girls to housework seems to be futile.

Excerpted from Mary E. Trueblood, "Housework versus Shop and Factories," The Independent, November 13, 1902, page 2693.
Mary E. Trueblood taught at Mt. Holyoke College and at the time of this writing had just finished an investigation for the Massachusetts Bureau of Labor regarding employment of women in the state.

"Out of Work"

A glance at the columns of advertisements reveals the fact that it is housework that invariably demands a 'good, strong girl.' Employees say 'stair-climbing ten to twenty times a day is thought nothing of,' and yet most women know that this is most injurious. In many instances we found girls working under an unusual physical strain, and yet shop girls and factory employees have received the legislation for hours, seats, and sanitation because of the fond belief that housework regulates itself. A few comparisons have been made of the healthful conditions in the factory and household, and they do not favor the latter so much as would be expected. A recent study by an experienced observer shows that housework is not necessarily good all-around work, and that among such employees, weak backs, and women's disease are prevalent.

In the matter of healthful exercise, housework has scarcely been questioned. We doubt if many other occupations like this consist of anything less desirable than washing in steam rooms and going directly into the open air. Certainly breathing the dust from sweeping and beating rugs would not be advocated as an ideal form of exercise. Then there are employees, thousands of them, who do not go out of the house between their 'times off.' How does this compare with vigorous outdoor walks which a factory girl must take to her car or to her home each day? The great majority of employers stipulate that the rest time of an employee must be spent in the house, and one employer said, where we were filling a position; 'Why, I should want you a dozen times if I thought you were out of the house.' This was in response to a simple request for a walk around the block. Another said, 'A walk during the afternoon! Don't she get enough during work?' But every one will admit that recreation implies at least change and usually separation from work. The average healthy woman knows that two or three consecutive days in the house without outdoor walks or drives, or social contact, or at least outdoor breathing, make her depressed, restless, and oftentimes irritable. This is not a question of mistress and maid, but of nerves and muscles and bodily functions, which no one has yet found to be different for different social classes. Certainly housework as performed in the average home cannot rank high in view of what science and experience are teaching of the best forms of exercise, and certainly play and games, the greatest of all recreations, are totally eliminated from the houseworker's sphere. The factory and store girls have these in their working girls' club, settlement gymnasium, or recreation centre.

Excerpted from Frances Kellor, Out of Work, 1904, pages 133-135.
Frances Kellor wrote a regular column on domestic service for the popular women's magazine
The Ladies' Home Journal and conducted an investigation of employment offices for servants, which resulted in her book Out of Work.

Questions for Reading 3

1. From the articles above and classroom textbooks, list some of the jobs available to women at the time this article was written. Do you think these jobs would be preferable to housework? Why or why not?

2. Make a chart showing the advantages and disadvantages of housework versus work outside the home for each excerpt. What conclusions can you make about each author's opinion of housework based on these articles? Do you agree or disagree with them? Why?

3. How does each author characterize the health benefits of housework? Are the arguments presented similar or not? Explain your answer.

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