Cover image for Domesticity and dirt : housewives and domestic servants in the United States, 1920-1945
Domesticity and dirt : housewives and domestic servants in the United States, 1920-1945
Palmer, Phyllis M.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Philadelphia : Temple University Press, 1989.
Physical Description:
xvi, 214 pages ; 24 cm.
General Note:
Includes index.
Reading Level:
1580 Lexile.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Central Library HD6072.2.U5 P35 1989 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



In the era after Suffrage, white middle-class housewives abandoned moves toward paid work for themselves, embraced domestic life, and felt entitled to servants. In "Domesticity and Dirt," Phyllis Palmer examines the cultural norms that led such women to take on the ornamental and emotional elements of the job while relegating the hard physical work and demeaning service tasks to servantsOComainly women of color. Using novels, films, magazine articles, home economics texts, and government-funded domestic training course manuals, the author details cultural expectations about middle-class homelife.

Palmer describes how government-funded education programs encouraged the divisions of labor and identity and undercut domestic workersOCO organized efforts during the 1930s to win inclusion in New Deal programs regulating labor conditions. Aided by less powerful black civil rights groups, without the assistance of trade unions or womenOCOs clubs, domestics failed to win legal protections and the legal authority and self-respect these brought to covered workers. The author also reveals how middle- class women responded ambivalently to the call to aid women workers when labor reforms threatened their domestic arrangements.

Throughout her study, Palmer questions why white middle-class women looked to new technology and domestic help to deal with cultural demands upon the perfect housewife rather than expecting their husbands to help. When the supply of servants declined during the 1950s, middle-class housewives were left isolated with lots of housework. Although they rapidly followed their servants into paid work outside the home, they remain responsible for housework and child care.
In the series "Women in the Political Economy," edited by Ronnie J. Steinberg.

Reviews 2

Library Journal Review

When productive work moved outside the household, why did the elite married white woman agree to stay behind? In part, Palmer explains, because she was promised a managerial job at home, supervising the domestic servants--usually women of color--who would do the dirty work. This division fed white women's sense of racial and class superiority, and ``persuaded . . . them to accept their exclusion from centers of male power.'' In a well-written scholarly examination of the interwar years, Palmer elaborates on the perspectives and experiences of both middle-class employers and the workers they exploited, playing out the implications of a domestic work system based upon class and race. For academic and larger public libraries.-- Cynthia Harrison, Federal Judicial Ctr., Washington, D.C. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Palmer's book has a dual purpose: to depict the historical reality and images about housewives and servants during the interwar years and to argue for a more humane treatment of domestic workers in the future. Palmer asserts that white middle-class women use working-class women, particularly women of color, for the most physically demanding chores in the house as well as for child care largely because delegating these chores enabled middle-class women to preserve the image of themselves as pure, noble housewives while avoiding the drudgery associated with the role. With the advent of WW II domestic workers found higher-paid employment in the defense industries and abandoned housework. One consequence was the discontent of the white middle-class housewife who was often forced to do the boring and sometimes difficult domestic tasks previously performed by servants. Palmer provides this historical background to convince contemporary women of the need to redefine housework so that all members of the family perform some of the tasks. In the situation where domestic work is done by others, employers should offer adequate compensation, protection, and insurance. Palmer's goal is a worthy one, but the evidence presented generally confirms commonsense assumptions. Two intriguing issues are raised but not fully explored: why did feminists not lobby successfully to obtain labor laws protecting domestic workers, and is there any evidence to prove that the post-WW II feminism is largely based upon discontented housewives robbed of their servants? Only for libraries with extensive women's studies collections. -J. Sochen, Northeastern Illinois University

Table of Contents

Prefacep. ix
Acknowledgmentsp. xv
1 Domestic Work Between the Warsp. 1
2 The Housewife In A Modern Marriagep. 17
3 The Businessman's Wife At Workp. 41
4 The Domestic Does Her Jobp. 65
5 Education for The Vocation of Houseworkp. 89
6 Negotiating The Law of Servicep. 111
7 Dirt and Divisions Among Womenp. 137
Afterwordp. 153
Notesp. 163
Indexp. 207

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