Conventional wisdom assumes that technological advances make our lives more comfortable by automating and speeding up previously manual, time-intensive tasks. As Bee Wilson shows in an essay at Bustle (an excerpt from Women on Food), that’s rarely the case — at least when it comes to home cooking. Wilson’s history of women’s labor in the kitchen celebrates the few inventions — the Instant Pot, the gas oven — that have indeed revolutionized the way domestic cooks prepare food. But they’re outliers in a long parade of gadgets and appliances that increased, rather than reduced, the labor necessary for putting together a meal.
Due to its coinciding with a radical adjustment in the division of labor between the sexes, the arrival of appliances did not necessarily make life any easier for women. This case was made, with scholarship and wit, by Ruth Schwartz Cowan in her groundbreaking 1983 book More Work for Mother. From around 1860 to 1960, the American household steadily shed its colonial character and became industrialized. That century saw countless new contraptions hit the market, from cheese graters to toaster ovens; electric waffle presses to blenders. But, at the same time, the whole workflow of household cooking changed, and not to the benefit of women. Cowan observed that in the preindustrial rural kitchens of the United States, men and women were forced to collaborate to prepare food. The housewife might stew a simple meal of meat and grains in a kettle, but her husband would have grown the grains, butchered the meat, and constructed the fireplace. He grew corn; she baked cornbread. Children would also have helped out their parents by carrying pails of water. By contrast, the advent of industrially milled flour and cast-iron stoves and running water left women alone in the kitchen, solely responsible for making dinner.
Another problem with the labor-saving devices aimed at women is that they have always come along at the same time as a rise in culinary expectations, so the net result was a cook who was more exhausted than ever. From 1850 onward, eggbeaters became a veritable obsession in the American household. From 1856 to 1920 there were an astonishing 692 separate patents issued for this tool, the most famous of which was the Dover with its two revolving beaters. When it came to getting fluffy egg whites, not one of these elaborate designs was an upgrade from the French balloon whisk (an unimprovable piece of engineering) or even on the old-fashioned birch twig whisk, which can do a surprisingly effective job if you don’t mind the occasional fragment of bark in your meringue. It would not be until the electric mixers of the twentieth century that beating eggs became radically easier. The early patent eggbeaters, by contrast, brought only the illusion of ease, coupled with a sense that producing perfectly beaten eggs was something that women ought to do, and a woman in possession of a Dover felt obliged to make fancy cakes with it. The popularity of these whirligigs also corresponded to a new vogue for angel food cakes, which necessitated huge volumes of eggs to be beaten, the whites and the yolks separately. So far from halving a woman’s work, this latest, greatest mechanism could actually multiply it.