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Was it easier being a mother in 1908?

On the first Mother's Day 100 years ago, moms had a tough – but rewarding – job, just as they do today.

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 8, 2008

: A woman uses a vacuum cleaner in 1910. Vacuums were all the rage with young and wealthy wives. But many households couldn't use one because they didn't have electricity.

Popperfoto/Getty Images/File


Motherhood ranks as one of the hardest jobs to do, yet one of the easiest to romanticize.

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This Sunday, May 11, as families shower mothers with cards, gifts, and superlatives, they will be part of an observance that had its humble beginnings 100 years ago. On Sunday, May 10, 1908, simple church services in Grafton, W.Va., and Philadelphia honored the nation's mothers. A bill introduced in the US Senate that year failed to establish an official Mother's Day, but it set the stage for a successful measure in 1914.

With their tightly laced corsets, long skirts, heavy shoes, and upswept hair, the mothers of 1908 bear little physical resemblance to their counterparts in 2008, dressed in shorts, Spandex, and sneakers. But as today's busy mothers savor their holiday, some might think longingly of simpler times, before women spoke of "juggling" or "balancing" work and family. They might even be tempted to idealize mothers of a century ago, whose serene images grace family photo albums.

But wait. "It's not a time to be romanticized," says Stephanie Coontz, a historian and author of "Marriage: A History." "Mothers in 1908 spent less time mothering than they do today. Even in the middle classes, they spent much less time with their kids than we would have imagined."

One reason for this time deficit involves work. "Most families needed several wage earners," Ms. Coontz says. "Women took in boarders, did sewing at home, cleaning, and all sorts of jobs that weren't counted as jobs on the Census but were time-consuming."

A photo from that era shows a mother balancing a baby on her lap while she assembles cigarettes at her kitchen table. Two other children stand nearby.

Even mothers without paid employment labored endlessly doing housework. In 1908, a New York settlement worker estimated that the average woman, even in middle-class families, spent 40 hours a week just cleaning and shopping. Laundry was an arduous, two-day task, washing one day and ironing the next. Wood and coal stoves required tending and cleaning.

In 1908, Hoover introduced the electric suction sweeper, revolutionizing housecleaning. "It'll sell itself if we can get the ladies to try it," Mr. Hoover said. Assuming, of course, that the ladies had electricity. A majority of women still lived on farms. Until the New Deal Rural Electrification program was implemented in the 1930s, electricity was unavailable to huge sections of the country.

Although the birthrate was falling in the early 1900s, women still bore an average of 3.5 children. Farm women averaged closer to five.

The mothers of 1908, like their counterparts today, received advice from pediatricians. Emmett Holt, author of "The Care and Feeding of Children," was the Dr. Spock of his era, Coontz says. His advice to women: Don't pick babies up when they cry, and do not breast-feed. And a noted psychologist, Dr. J.B. Watson, cautioned against using pacifiers or indulging in displays of affection. He wrote, "When you are tempted to pet your child, remember that mother love is a dangerous instrument."