Bring in the brooms


Susan Strasser wrote what has been called the first history of American housework. That was in 1982. "Never Done" is just out in paperback.

The reason for its longevity, says the author, a social historian and professor at the University of Delaware, is simple: The basic story has not changed.

Industrialization has spawned processes and products that lighten the housework load and have played a role in creating the two-income household and a consumer culture, which she addresses in another paperback release: "Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash."

Ms. Strasser shared her thoughts on housework and trash during a recent interview.

Your history of housework is titled "Never Done." Should it really be "Never Started," given today's lifestyles?

Probably, for a lot of us (laughing). There aren't many people who have much respect for the work of cleaning and cooking and organizing at this point. In some ways, the household work has never been more dishonored, not only in terms of the aspirations of many middle-class working parents who hire other people to do the work, but also in terms of the notion that everything should be done by machines.

What's really changed in the interest people take in their homes?

Part of the difference is the attention we pay to what we can buy, specifically what is fashionable to buy, what can make our homes look good. Today's newspaper home sections are consumer-advice and fashion sections, much more than how-to sections.

Has clutter replaced dirt as the major concern of American housekeepers?

Clutter and dirt go together, and I think dirt is as big a problem as it ever was. Dust still comes in the windows, and people still walk on floors with shoes they walked outside in. I also think there is a kind of sanitation-germ obsession that's fed by the notion that everything should be completely germ-free.

So has the American home become too sterile?

There are people saying that.

With her book, "Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Housekeeping," Cheryl Mendelson has tried to redignify housework. Is she on the right track?

I suspect her attention to housework is more intense than my own. On the other hand, the fundamental message, I think, is on target. A certain amount of attention to one's living place is good. It's grounding.

What do you make of all the recycling occurring in today's homes?

Trash is created by sorting. Decisions have to be made about any material once it is used, and that's what creates trash now, just as it did 20, 50, and 100 years ago. That's pretty constant. The revival, I think, has been in sorting for industrial recycling.

People are simultaneously more consumer- and environmentally oriented. Aren't these two forces at odds?

You can consume a zillion cans of soda and throw them in the recycling bin in order to reuse the aluminum. That, however, doesn't have anything to do with the fundamental question of consumption. Recycling by itself doesn't necessarily confront the roots of the environmental issues that we really need to deal with. But I do think that recycling is an essential part of the solution.

Has the American consumer become less ashamed of using reused products?

Yes and no. I look at my students and don't see a lot of them wearing vintage clothing. That's worn by the oddballs. The rest are wearing stuff from The Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch. Yes, with e-Bay, garage sales, and the like there are all kinds of ways to collect and use what other people have used before, but I also think the dominant trend in society is: If it's old, get rid of it and get something new.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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