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24 November 2021

What the history of the vacuum cleaner tells us about our attitudes to work

Nice Try! Interior looks at a number of contemporary gadgets, asking how their development and popularity through time can help us understand society.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

In her landmark 1983 book More Work For Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave, the historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan explains how many supposedly time-saving domestic products changed, but did not reduce, the amount of work expected of women in the home. Technology encouraged domestic chores once viewed as collaborative, and the shared responsibility of the entire family, to be seen as achievable by one person with the help of a machine – and therefore solely the mother’s responsibility. “Modern labour-saving devices eliminated drudgery,” Cowan writes, “not labour.”

Nice Try! Interior – a podcast from Vox Media hosted by Avery Trufelman – applies Cowan’s understanding of domestic labour to a number of contemporary gadgets, asking how their development and popularity through time can help us understand work. Take the vacuum cleaner. In 1901, an English engineer invented a suction pump powered by a gas motor, which was driven by horses around London. Residents would open their doors and windows to welcome its long flexible tube into their home to suck up the dust. Trufelman rather enjoys this image of a huge, communal vacuum cleaner because of its “inside-out nature”. She likes the idea of an invention, she explains, that involves “private chores being acknowledged in public. Because housework is work.”

From these early conceptions of a vacuum cleaner to complex mid-century Electrolux machines and the Dysons and Roombas of today, Trufelman considers how the popular understanding of housework as a private, individual, and usually invisible task enables it to be devalued until it is no longer seen as real work. Across the series, Trufelman takes other everyday items – from Crockpot slow cookers to trendy modern-day mattresses – and unpicks what they tell us about our societal priorities of work, care, leisure and rest.

Nice Try! Interior
Vox Media

[See also: A new podcast claims to hold the mainstream media to account]

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This article appears in the 24 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Agent of Chaos