During first half of the last century (sounds like a long time ago, doesn't it? But wait—I lived through two thirds of that long ago century—unbelievable!) many farm equipment dealers sold water systems, lighting plants, washing machines and other household appliances. These dealers had long been used to selling only to “the man of the house,” because it was he who controlled the purse strings.
A writer in the July 29th, 1922 issue of Implement & Tractor Trade Journal, a magazine aimed at dealers, has much to say about that “mistaken idea,” as he calls it. He traveled through Rice County, Kansas, during wheat harvest time and says the wheat crop was good and the fall’s corn crop would be just as fine. As a result, farmers were already planning to buy lots of new field equipment.
On a hunch, he talked to twenty or so farm women and found that although there were many fine farm houses, the wives still lagged way behind their husbands in labor saving equipment. The county had 305 tractors, but only 188 power washing machines, 90 home lighting systems, and 139 homes with running water in the kitchen, with the last item being the most desirable to the ladies followed by a home lighting plant.
One farm wife, who had a twelve room house with “practically every modern convenience,” told him, “Don’t blame the men because more women don’t have these things. The women could have conveniences if they would ask for them. She could have labor saving equipment providing she just demands it. You should direct your selling arguments at her.”
Another lady told the reporter that, due to her conveniences, she was able to regulate her work in an orderly manner. Monday is washing day, the wash being done and the house straightened up by 10 o’clock due to her power washer. Tuesday is ironing day and the day the light plant batteries are charged, probably due to the drain on them from the 32-volt iron. Wednesday she makes butter in the morning using an electric churn and sews with her electric sewing machine. Thursday is her “day off” to which she believes she’s entitled. Friday is cleaning day using the electric vacuum sweeper. Saturday is baking time, the dough being prepared by the children in an electric bread mixer before breakfast. This lady also reported that she had been to town three times that week on harvest errands for her husband, but was still up with her work.
A Mrs. Tobias credited her running water, light plant, and electric washer and iron with making the family $1,200 the previous year. That’s how much her flock of chickens had made and she explained that she could never have tended such a large flock without the conveniences.
Mrs. Tobias also told the reporter that “When my child was a little baby, I told my husband if he would get me a power washer I would gladly dispense with a girl to help, so he spent $90 on a washer. A neighbor, who also had a baby, hired a girl at $10 a week to help. She kept the girl four months, spent $160, and had nothing to show for it at the end.”
An enlightened farmer named Lattimer said he has had a lighting plant for six years that powers 32 lights, a washer and an iron. He also uses the gas engine on the light plant to saw his cord wood. Lattimer says, “The woman should get a piece of labor saving equipment every time the man does. It is true that the fields and herds of the farm bring in the money but efficiency and comfort are as necessary in the home as in the barn and field if you are to have a happy, contented farm family.”
At the last house he visited, the reporter found evidence that the farm wife herself was often to blame for the lack of modern conveniences. The farm was rented and that lady, a Mrs. Correll, who had only running water in her kitchen from a gravity tank outside, told him the story. The men of the family had a spare tank and offered rig it up to give her running water in the kitchen. She said she “objected strenuously,” because she “did not want to spend any money on a rented place.” The men went ahead anyway and the project cost but $15.00. “Now,” said Mrs. Correll, “I wouldn't be without water in my kitchen for the world.”
So the reporter concluded from his interviews that “the women, themselves, are the answer to the problem of selling labor saving conveniences for the farm home, such as water systems, lighting plants and other household devices.”
When I was very small on our western Pennsylvania farm, water had to be carried about 100 yards up a steep grade from a spring below the house, as the well right outside the kitchen door had failed. We got commercial electricity about 1938 and Dad installed an electric pump in the cellar. That gave Mom running water (cold only, no water heater) in the kitchen and it was piped to the chicken houses as well (we finally got a bathroom when I was in high school).
There was an electric refrigerator, a wringer washing machine, and an electric iron, as well. Mom had to cook and bake on a coal kitchen range, hang her clothes outside to dry, and work her sewing machine with a foot treadle, but there was a radio and she had a piano that she loved to play. I don’t know if she was content, but that maybe wasn't as important to folks back then as it is today.
Photo by Sam Moore: My mother at the farm house sink in the mid-1940s.