Housewives and Domestic Servants in the United States, 1920-1945

By Phyllis Palmer

Temple University Press. 214 pp. $29.95

As they did in 1890 -- but not in 1790 -- women today struggle to provide adequate care for household and family without being overwhelmed by work themselves. In 1790 young Northern women routinely worked in the homes of others en route to becoming housewives themselves, thus providing a supply of household help for the entire region. In the South, slave women and indentured servants met this need. But by 1890, the "servant problem" was a staple of discussion in women's magazines, because the pool of workers had begun to diminish, owing to the end of slavery and to increasing opportunities of gainful employment for young women. Moreover, although most married women were still not employed outside the home, they found the volume of work -- absent the 20th-century revolution in home technology -- to be too large to be comfortably performed by one person.

Now, despite the plethora of products and appliances designed to make running a home easier, so many mothers of young children are employed and so many women are working at demanding jobs that the problem of how to maintain the home seems more intractable than ever. The well-documented reluctance of men to perform 50 percent of the housework compounds the problem.

The current dilemma, then, has a history going back more than a hundred years -- although the reasons for the dilemma have changed over time. In "Domesticity and Dirt: Housewives and Domestic Servants in the United States, 1920-1945," Phyllis Palmer has chosen to write about one short period of that history. Her work is path-breaking, because she includes both employer and employee in her analysis.

The book has many strengths. In the first place, Palmer (who teaches at George Washington University) is right on target in focusing on the contradictions that have lain at the heart of our national domestic life. The American home, portrayed in the media of the inter-war years as the seat of undiluted value and goodness, depended on the exploitation of women. When middle-class women escaped from this exploitation, it was at the expense of other women whose class, and perhaps race, made them vulnerable to mistreatment. Especially powerful in making this case are the words of the domestics themselves, drawn from letters to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. The letters tell of heartbreakingly long workdays and callous treatment by their employers.

Another strength is the book's pioneering examination of the impact of public policy on the home and the position of domestic servants. From laws governing the allocation of public funds to educate domestics to laws changing the nature of the relationship between workers and their employers, the home has been affected by the world outside.

Yet in her eagerness to make a case for the significance of the topic, Palmer goes beyond the evidence in some of her generalizations. All the evidence from the census, for example, indicates that middle-class housewives who had servants at mid-century were distinctly in the minority. Nonetheless, Palmer sees much of the middle-class housewife's satisfaction about her own domestic role as being shaped by the confidence that she could push the dirtiest work off onto servants. In fact, Palmer states, "In the mid-twentieth century the rewards of the contrast between housewife and servant were as important as the attractions of consumerism to the middle-class woman who decided to spend much of her adult life as a housewife." I would need to see much more data than the book contains before I would find this contention to be convincing.

I suspect that here regional differences are especially crucial: In Palmer's native Texas such attitudes may well have been more prevalent than they were in other parts of the country. What I can say with certainty is that growing up in small-town Southern California in the 1950s (admittedly 10 years after the period of Palmer's study) in a servantless but solidly middle-class home I remember not a single one of my friends whose mother had regular household help. Therefore, it is impossible that the mothers' attitudes toward their lives could have been predicated on their ability to feel superior to a domestic.

This criticism aside, the book makes a useful contribution to the debate about one of the most pressing issues of our time: how to reconcile justice for women -- all women -- with homes that provide at least some of the nurture for children as well as comfort and beauty for the entire society.

The reviewer, author of "Just a Housewife: The Rise and Fall of Domesticity in America," teaches history at Stanford University.