A Recent History of Domestic Cleaning

Throughout the course of time, domestic workers have always been present, in one form or another. This makes it very hard for us to decide where to begin our timeline, but two relatively recent events -the First and Second World Wars- dramatically changed the way the domestic service industry functioned.

It has been suggested that even before the first World War began in 1914, there was a growing shortage of people available for domestic service, as the population of the UK grew and the number of middle & upper class families (who, typically, were the employers of domestic staff) expanded. Jenny Webb is an author, home economist, and appliance historian. She explained how war brought about a shift in employment of those in service:

“Historically the masses had a hard life, but those with wealth enjoyed life on a very different level. The lady of the house did not expect to cook, wash & iron, clean floors & carpets, polish, dust, and carry out every other requirement to run a household. Thus, they employed servants in the form of service”.

“In 1914, some two and a quarter million people were in service, many of whom were women. Over the following years they took over the roles of those jobs which had been done by the men who had taken up arms”.

“Consequently, women who had previously only experienced domestic roles became aware of their other abilities and their personal value. Once the war was over in 1918, people found other forms of employment, and by 1919 those in service had dropped to less than a million”.

 As far as employment within the domestic service industry is concerned,  the second World War was merely a repeat of the first. But with domestic workers already at a premium, when World War II ended in 1945, fewer people than ever were engaged in domestic service. This introduced a significant change in the way households were managed; this time the middle-class and upper-class housewife found herself having to run her own home.

Says Jenny: “The effect of the war also had an effect on many wealthy households and the lady of the house needed to find a way of compensating for the lack of staff, and to educate themselves in the form of household action rather than management”.

“They attended cookery schools, lectures, read books on home management, and joined organisations such as the Electrical Development Association which had been formed to promote the wider use of electricity and household appliances. To make life easier for some, they employed staff that could help in the house on a daily basis or when required”.

Although many electrical appliances had been available for several years, they were expensive to purchase, and as long as servants and domestic staff were on hand, the wealthy didn’t need to concern themselves too much with how the work was carried out. To that end, the presence of labour-saving appliances was rather limited, as was, in many cases,  the number of homes with an electricity supply.

But now that the wealthy housewife was responsible for doing the bulk of her own housework, she was not prepared to simply ‘put up’ with the apparatus which her staff may have used; she wanted the electric iron and the washing machine, a modern cooker and a vacuum cleaner. Because of this, sales of appliances increased dramatically. In turn, prices fell, making appliances more accessible to all, and in doing so,  sales grew further.

By 1955 the number of British homes with mains electricity had risen to 88%.  (source: Electricity Gallery, Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester). It was in this year that Jenny Webb began working as a trainee demonstrator for the London Electricity Board.

“It was very much a boom time” Jenny told us. “There was choice, there was hire-purchase, all sorts of things to encourage people to buy”.

“We had a lot of middle-class and upper-class ladies coming in to see demonstrators, and of course if you think about it, until the war they probably had servants all the time, and then suddenly these poor women couldn’t have servants and they had to learn how to cook and how to wash”.

Two of the many people we interviewed for this article are Mr & Mrs Williams of Sutton Coldfield. In 1955, they were celebrating their first wedding anniversary. When asked what appliances they had when they married, Mrs Williams -who describes herself as middle-class- fondly listed a number of items:

“I had a second-hand Servis washing machine. It was a single-tub with a wringer. We had a second-hand fridge, and I also had an electric floor polisher. We didn’t believe we could afford to have all new appliances, but our bedroom and lounge furniture was brand-new, as was our dining suite”.

Despite moving house, the suite in question still takes pride of place in their current dining area. Interestingly, whilst vacuum cleaners were a must-have purchase for those whose budget could stretch to it, neither Mr nor Mrs Williams could recall owning one at that point in time. But one thing the Williams do very much remember having is a lady to help out with the cleaning.

“Her name was Mrs Crowe”, explained Mrs Williams.  “I carried on working in the family business after I got married, and she came in one morning each week. She was already working for my mother and agreed to come to us too when we bought our first home”.

As time progressed, a number of changes were made which compensated for the lack of domestic workers.  Coal and open fires left the house filthy and in need of  thorough, daily cleaning, but were soon to be replaced by ‘clean’ gas and electric heating devices. Rooms stayed cleaner for longer, and there was no need to spend time clearing & preparing the fire each day.

Cornices and ornate mouldings, panelled doors, and picture & dado rails gradually became old-fashioned and unnecessary,  indeed often being seen as little more than a dirt-trap. Modern homes were built without them, and as ‘Do-It-Yourself’ became an increasingly popular activity, many eager homeowners were encouraged to remove such features. As well as this, materials such as hardboard and plywood were widely used to cover over old panelled doors, sides of staircases and baths, and in front of unused fireplaces. Once fitted, they were coated in contemporary gloss-paint and considered to be both fashionable and very easy-to-clean.

Attitudes towards cleaning were also changing, and people became more relaxed about the amount of housework they actually needed to do.  Fewer households seemed to be using domestic workers, though the process of finding someone to help remained as difficult as ever. Yet whereas employing  domestic staff had once been a proud sign of great wealth, in a twist of perception, it has been said by some that having a cleaner at this time was possibly an indicator that the housewife could not cope with running a home.

Although she does not recall any specific prejudice or negativity towards those who had help, Mrs Williams did report that -up until quite recently- she never had another cleaner following the eventual retirement of Mrs Crowe. She says this was partly due to finances, given that she had two growing children and was no longer working. But again, it was partly because of not being able to find someone.

“Asking people if they had a cleaner, or could they recommend anyone, was not something you would do” she said.

Once more, we see how  the increased  availability of appliances played a role in replacing staff, as by now the Williams were owners of an automatic washing machine, tumble-dryer, and dishwasher.

By the end of the 1970’s, entire companies offering packaged domestic cleaning services were beginning to emerge. They were potentially less personal and contractual than employing a cleaner or staff directly, and perhaps eased some of the guilt which those who engaged their services might otherwise have felt. By treating it almost as a transaction, there was less moral obligation on the part of the end user.

However, many of those who hired domestic staff still felt perfectly entitled to do so, even if others  had a different view. As one lady told us:

“I went back to work when my child started infant school. It was hard, and when I saw an advert for a woman who was offering cleaning services, I was keen to give it a go. However, my mother-in-law was disgusted when she found out I’d taken on a cleaner. She couldn’t understand why I felt this was necessary as she had always been able to cope and didn’t see why I couldn’t manage”.

“And yet, there was no realisation on her part that she lived in a home much smaller than ours, and had never been to work in all the years she was married. She had the time to do her own housework”.

If the mother-in-law had been upset at the prospect of a member of her family having a cleaner, she was positively outraged when she inspected the home during a visit:

“Despite what she [the mother-in-law] had to say about the quality of the housekeeping, what my cleaner could do for me in one morning was unbelievable”, the lady continued. “It would have taken me far, far longer to do all that”.

“Besides, I couldn’t really afford to pay for more than three hours a week, and certainly for a house this size I was not expecting every last surface to be cleaned on each  occasion. I was only too glad of the work she did, not worried about what she didn’t do”.

With more & more households having both adults out at work, and as people live longer, cleaning companies and services providers of all sizes have continued to flourish. Some have grown into international franchises, whilst many more have stayed local to the area where they were first set up. People who have help with the housework often consider it to be a basic necessity of the modern lifestyle, with many working class families now taking advantage of a cleaning service too.

At the time of writing, attitudes towards domestic staff have changed for the better, with many domestic workers commenting  on how respectful their clients are towards them. Frequently they are told just how vital their role is to the running of the household. Indeed, of those service users interviewed, the warmth and appreciation they had for many of their cleaners past & present was always apparent.

Certainly we are living in an era of greater equality and opportunity for all. Cleaner operatives aren’t looked upon in the way they might have been a hundred years ago, because today everyone -no matter what their class position- seems to understand the complexities of running a home.

For all of the gadgets, products, and appliances on sale, ‘elbow grease’ is by far the most valuable commodity. Domestic staff are often treasured by those who they ‘do’ for, and in the absence of a reliable cleaning personnel, the homeowners know the alternative. At best, they have to do all the cleaning themselves. At worst, no one cleans at all.

Today’s client knows only too well just how much focus and physical effort it takes to maintain their home and they certainly appreciate what has been done for them. What could be better after a long, hard day at work to find the house clean, fresh, and tidy?  As anyone who hires domestic help will tell you, it’s a process which can cost a lot of money, but as the saying goes, the quality remains when the price is long forgotten.

Sadly, not all domestic workers are fully aware of the much deeper impact of their role. To quote one we interviewed:

“I came into this simply because I needed a job. Then one of my clients told me that because of me, her weekends are now free for her to spend time with her young children. She said that I gave her the weekend back. I had no idea how important what I did for her was”.