Most American families in the 1900s were large by the standards of the late twentieth century, but their size was already diminishing. The birthrate in the United States in 1900 was 32.3 births per thousand people. A century earlier it had been 55 births per thousand people. The average number of children per family was 3.56. Poorer families tended to have more children, since they often needed the income their offspring could provide. Life expectancy was low, and it varied significantly by class, race, and sex. The life expectancy for white women in 1900 was 48.7 years; for nonwhite women it was 33.5 years. For white men in that year the average life expectancy was 46.6 years, compared to 32.5 years for nonwhite men. Short life expectancy and high infant mortality meant that many families had to cope with the loss of a child or a parent. For the average
working family, loss of income because of the injury or illness of a wage earner could prove catastrophic.
Household chores such as cooking and cleaning, which fell on the shoulders of mothers and daughters in working-class families and to hired domestic servants in the homes of the upper middle class and the well-to-do, became easier, though still laborious, in the 1900s. Women cooked on unregulated stoves that burned coal or wood. They had to guess at cooking times and feed the fire while preparing meals. Cleaning was hard toil, and new products such as Sapolio, a scouring soap, were eagerly welcomed by consumers during this decade. Only the middle class and the wealthy were likely to have indoor-plumbing facilities: in 1907-1908 Robert Coit Chapin observed that only one in twenty-five of the poorest New Yorkers had bathrooms, and of the working poor only one-third had a toilet in their apartment buildings. Laundry was by far the most arduous task, and it took all day to do. Most women did their washing in tubs that had to be hauled into the kitchen. Clothes were soaked, scrubbed, and rinsed several times according to the amount of dirt on them, then boiled, starched, wrung out, and hung to dry. The water for this had to be boiled and poured each time. One popular option in cities was sending clothes out to power laundries; by 1909 even some of the poorest slum dwellers used them. There were some improvements in the process during this decade: Lux, in 1906, became the first laundry soap to be sold in flakes, not bars. Among other conveniences were iceboxes, which most urban dwellers had by the 1900s, largely because it had become possible during the 1890s to manufacture ice cheaply and reliably. Canning was improved, too, lowering the price of canned goods and allowing the housewife to opt out of home canning. And the development of large food processing companies and the rapid spread of chain grocery stores such as A&P in the first two decades of the twentieth century transformed marketing by increasing the awareness of national brands and threatening the survival of local merchants.
The spread of electricity, and with it of new electric appliances, helped to make some household jobs easier. David Kenney patented the electric vacuum cleaner in 1907, and the Hoover vacuum cleaner was patented in 1908. Vacuuming promised to replace the arduous task of sweeping floors and beating rugs to remove dust and dirt. These new appliances remained out of the reach of most Americans during this decade, since they were expensive to purchase and operate. But electric appliances were marketed as basic requirements of the "modern" home, and in the 1910s and 1920s the use of small and large appliances followed the spread of electricity across the country.
Susan Strasser, Never Done: A History of American Housework (New York: Pantheon, 1982).