In Photos: Life As A Housewife In The 1920s

It’s been about a century since the Roaring Twenties, and life sure has changed. Women are educated and hold important jobs. Men sometimes stay home full time with the kids. Line drying clothing is passé and dishwashers come standard in many households.

As obvious as the differences are, you still may find yourself shocked to see exactly what being a 1920s housewife looked like: grown women practicing mothering on baby dolls, mopping the floors in high heels, and even washing their husbands’ hair. Get ready for a history lesson compliments of early film rolls.

The Joy Of A Dishwasher

A woman watches as a dishwasher cleans on the counter.
Getty Images
Getty Images

According to the original caption of this 1921 picture, this dishwasher was created by a school teacher who felt for his wife and the endless stream of dishes she had to clean. What a champ he is for inventing something to do it for her.

A manufacturing company bought the rights in an effort to “add a little joy to thousands of other housewives.” They claimed the invention would make dishes clean in a short two minutes and only required water. Where the soap came from and went to is a mystery.

Make Sure To Get The Curtains

A woman uses an extended vacuum to clean the curtains.
ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images
ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

When was the last time you remembered to vacuum your curtains? Apparently, it was a thing in 1926. When being a housewife was your only job, it was expected that every inch of the house would be clean at all times.

You can see that the vacuum has more of an extension than ones nowadays typically do. Today, many people just straighten their homes and leave the nitty-gritty cleaning to the professionals. In the 1920s, housewives were the professionals.

Polishing Floors Was No Joke

A woman cleans wooden floors on her hands and knees.
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

These days, there are a variety of cleaning products for every task you can imagine, and tools to make things more convenient. But before the day of Swiffer Sweepers and Pledge, there was a bucket of water and a rag.

Considering housewives wore heels and dresses all of the time, cleaning the floor on hands and knees wouldn’t exactly be convenient. Most of us would be wearing sweats, socks, and a look of despair while scrubbing the floors today. This woman wears a bright smile.

Just Scrubbing My Husband’s Head

A woman smiles while scrubbing her husband's head in the sink.
Sasha Stone/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Sasha Stone/ullstein bild via Getty Images

It’s hard to come to grips with what is actually happening in this photograph. The woman seems to be smiling as she scrubs thick suds all over her husband’s head and face. Is this not something he could have done on his own?

Granted, hairdressers still wash their clients’ hair today. Though they had barbers back then, a wife who could handle the task was all the more marriage material. Cheers to this woman for washing her able-bodied husband in the sink.

The Latest And Greatest In Kitchenware

A woman smiles in front of a 1920s stove.
Minnesota Historical Society/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
Minnesota Historical Society/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

While we often think of stoves today as being box-shaped, this one looks like an iron countertop with knobs attached. Overhead, that tiny compartment is the oven. In order to make a meal for the entire family, you would have to prepare baked items at separate times.

While that would rack up the cooking time, a housewife had all day to cook and clean. Part of doing a good job was having meals prepared by a certain time. Just imagine concocting Thanksgiving dinner with that setup.

The Protos Turbo Washer

A woman tilts her washing machine.
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ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

That contraption that looks like a large trashbin is actually a Protos Turbo washer. The housewife is tipping it in order to remove suds from her clothing. The photograph was taken in 1929 to advertise the newfangled invention.

Laundry washing is such a basic task these days that stackable washer-dryers can be shoved into just about any room. However, back in the early days of laundry machines, an entire room was designated to the complicated chore.

Put Through The Wringer

A woman reads while pumping her washing machine.
Redmond/Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
Redmond/Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

The common expression “put through the wringer” actually stems from this 1920s washing machine. The wringer, or mangle, is that device sitting on top that looks like a scroll. Clothes would be placed into the machine with boiling hot water and soap.

The woman here is using her foot to pump the water, which agitated the clothes for a more thorough clean. Afterward, she’ll have to put down her reading material and feed the clothes one by one into the wringer, which will remove the water from the clothes so they can hang to dry.

Electric Irons Were A Big Deal

A woman smiles while she irons.
ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images
ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

By the 1920s, most homes had electricity to support the modern iron that we know today. This may be one of the few items that hasn’t changed much in the past century. However, we should note that this ironing board appears to be wooden, which has to be a fire hazard.

The electric iron only came into prominence in 1905, so you can see why this woman looks so happy while ironing what appears to be a table cloth or runner.

Actual Grocery Baskets

A women walks along the sidewalk with a grocery basket in each hand.
Claere Sonderhoff/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Claere Sonderhoff/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Nowadays, grocery baskets are those plastic carriers that are smaller alternatives to grocery carts. You return them for bags at the end of your purchase and that’s that. However, the original term referred to woven baskets, like the ones she’s carrying in the photo.

If you think forgetting to bring your reusable bag is bad, just imagine forgetting your grocery basket. They did have paper bags at that time, but they couldn’t carry much weight. For a housewife who needs to get to cooking, that could be a problem.

Getting A Higher Education

Women in aprons give their attention to a woman at a chalkboard.
Imagno/Getty Images
Imagno/Getty Images

Though women had been going to school for some time, college was another territory. The argument in support of women’s education was that it would help them become better citizens, mothers, and wives. This led to a boom in female college degrees in the 1930s.

Even so, especially in the 1920s, women would have a difficult time finding the money to attend school. Men and women received their education separately, and women often were taught about domestic life.

What Being Social Meant

Young women sow in a class.
Alfred Gross/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Alfred Gross/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Though it typically wasn’t long after marriage that children would come into the picture, the time before a housewife had a baby to care for could be spent learning tricks of her trade. Here, women gather around at a stitching class.

Especially with new inventions and advances with electricity, women could learn how to be as efficient as possible while taking care of all of the household duties. The only time she would have to pursue anything else, like school, would be after her chores were complete.

Classes On Childrearing

Women hold dolls in a childrearing class.
Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis via Getty Images
Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis via Getty Images

Many of us had to take care of a fake baby for a school project. For some, it was an egg. For others, it was a baby simulator. The women here practiced on baby dolls, which might be why little girls have loved to play with them over the years.

While most of the women appear to be looking at their dolls as though they were real children, there’s that one woman seated to the left looking off into the distance. That obvious dissatisfaction is what prompted more and more women to pursue educational degrees.

Women Stuck With Women

Housewives gather to play a game of chess on a doorstep.
Keystone View/FPG/Getty Images
Keystone View/FPG/Getty Images

Since females often shared the same tasks and daily routines, their downtime would be spent with one another. The separation of males and females dominated much of society, so women would be more likely to be around other women throughout their lives.

This image shows housewives gathered on a doorstep to play chess. A young boy is the only child present. Like women, children would see more of their mothers and their neighbors’ mothers than men since the women were home almost all of the time.

Line Drying Next To A Railroad

A woman hangs clothes on a line near a passing train.
Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Housewives worked round the clock to keep the house tidy and the family situated. This woman hangs clothes to dry on a line that’s only feet away from an oncoming train. Electrical dryers didn’t come out until 1938.

The only alternative to line drying at the time was a ventilator, which cranked clothes in a drum over an open fire. The result was soot stains, smoky-smelling clothes, and sometimes an accidental fire. That’s why many housewives stuck with line drying.

Some Appliances Were Still Old School

A woman stands in the kitchen cranking an appliance.
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Cranks were the way of appliances in the 1920s since electric appliances were still few and far between. This device appears to be stirring something, although it’s not clear what.

Though they were called the Roaring Twenties, the times weren’t as advanced as the name might imply. Inventions laid the foundation for much of what we use today, but they often weren’t widespread for decades. Many housewives carried on the tactics they learned from their mothers and grandmothers at the turn of the 20th century.

Electric Refrigerators Went Big

A woman smiles in front of an opened fridge.
Schenectady Museum; Hall of Electrical History Foundation/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
Schenectady Museum; Hall of Electrical History Foundation/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

The electric refrigerator technically came out a few years prior, but it wasn’t until the late ’20s that it became widespread. Before the fridge, a housewife might use an icebox to keep things cool, or preserve things the old fashioned way with salt.

Refrigerators were a huge plus for the 1920s housewife, though they look unimpressive by today’s standards. While the storage was far less spacious, meals were made from scratch by a housewife three times a day. Now she could plan ahead and store accordingly.

Borrowing Sugar Was A Thing

A woman holds an open book in one hand and an ingredient in the other.
H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images
H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

It’s not as likely these days that you’d run next door to ask to borrow something. However, the housewife spent most of her time planning meals. So, when she reviewed a recipe and realized she was missing something, the housewife next door would be happy to help.

Especially since being a housewife was a womanly duty, rather than a choice, women in this position had more situational similarities. Comradery would have been easy to develop with neighbors.

Daughters Stuck With Mom

A daughter watches her mother peel a potato.
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ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

While children, in general, would spend a lot of their time with their mothers, daughters were especially keen on learning their mothers’ ways. Since it was presumed that little girls would grow up to be wives, professionally speaking, there was an array of household duties that they were expected to know.

In this photo, you see a young girl watching her mother peel a potato with a knife. Many of the tools we have today that make it easier to cook and clean were not around back then. Tasks like sewing and food prep had to be understood by the woman of the household if they were to get done.

Not All Women Wanted This

A woman in a bridal gown carries cleaning supplies and looks distraught.
H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images
H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

By the 1920s, women were questioning more and more whether a life in the home was for them. Though society still had a polarized view of gender roles, World War I had begun to shed light on the fallacy in this way of thinking.

Some of the women who worked when men were fighting in the war did not want to leave the workforce. Even so, getting married was, by and large, an agreement to take care of the home and children that inevitably would follow.

Industrialization Shifted Things

A housewife leaned over a balcony, looking at the street below.
Dr. Paul Wolff & Tritschler/Corbis via Getty Images
Dr. Paul Wolff & Tritschler/Corbis via Getty Images

Despite the pressure to remain in the home, some women simply refused to do this, even in the 1920s. It wasn’t just that being a housewife was demanded, but that it was to some extent a privilege.

Many working-class couples needed both people to work. However, some industries would only allow single women to work. So it was uncommon for women to be anything but a housewife after marriage, and especially after kids, and things remained that way for decades.