Cutting housework time

On August 30th, 1901, Hubert Cecil Booth patented a dust-collection machine he called a vacuum cleaner. He'd seen an American machine demonstrated that blew away dust and dirt under pressure, and wondered if, instead of just spreading dust around, it could suck it up through a filter. He tested it by sucking with his mouth through a handkerchief and realized it would work.

Booth's machine was too large to go into a building, but was powered by a petrol engine and drawn by horses. It was called "Puffing Billy," and worked by sucking dust-laden air via long hoses through a cloth filter. He gained respectability when his machine as used to clean the carpets of Westminster Abbey ahead of the coronation of Edward VII. Booth later produced an electric version, then he and others refined the machines over several decades, adding brushes and wheels to produce the familiar household versions. He lost out to Hoover in the domestic market, but found commercial success in the industrial market for cleaning warehouses and factories.

Although Booth also designed Ferris wheels, suspension bridges and engines for Navy battleships, it is for the vacuum cleaner that he is most remembered. It was part of a process through which domestic appliances liberated women from the incessant drudgery of housework, and freed them to leave the home and enter the job market. Washing machines made a substantial contribution to that development, as did electric and gas ovens, floor polishers, central heating, and many other devices that used mechanical power to replace muscle power, and cut the time spent on domestic work to a fraction of what it had been.

Such things as the vacuum cleaner and other home appliances cut the market for domestic servants, one of the few job opportunities for women, but they freed women to take jobs outside the home, jobs that used new machines such as comptometers and typewriters that women could operate. It gave women a sense of status as valued contributors to the economy, and a degree of independence that ultimately led to them gaining the franchise and becoming full citizens.

In his essay, "Economic Prospects for our Grandchildren," Keynes predicted that increasing productivity might well mean we could all be working only 15 hours a week. Critics of capitalism point to the fact that we are still working about 40 hours a week, and blame the system for keeping us on the treadmill. Advertisers, they say, inculcate false needs in us to make us work for the wages that pay for them, and they tell us we should live more simply and work fewer hours, maybe starting with a 4-day week. Capitalism, they tell us, is stealing our leisure.

They miss the point. Working hours have declined, but it is the hours spent working in the home that have been reduced to a fraction of what they were. Mechanization has increased the productivity of the household to mean fewer working hours and more leisure hours. If you add workplace hours to household hours, there has indeed been a dramatic reduction, but practically all of it has come from a drop in the latter rather than the former. We now have vastly more leisure time to spend inside or outside the home, and it is pioneering inventors and engineers such as Hubert Cecil Booth who have played an honoured role in bringing that about.