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Men & housework 1940-1950?

Aileen M. J. Marshall, our summer intern here in Business Reference is our guest author today.


There are a lot of questions that come to us through our Ask a Librarian service and last week I had the opportunity to work on a question where the patron needed information on whether men were performing more household tasks in the 1950s than in previous times. I know what some of you might be thinking right now … but let’s not jump to conclusions.


Man cooking, as woman reads. Phila., U.S.A. : C.H. Graves, publisher, c1903.

A subject search in the catalog revealed some promising subject headings for finding information such as: Sexual division of labor, Masculinity–United States, Housekeeping–Social Aspects, Sex role–United States–History and Househusbands. The majority of these publications, however, explored the time after 1975, which is roughly the time when the feminist movement penetrated most layers of society, and statistics about the division of housework seemed to be of interest to researchers.

One title found in the Househusbands results, Househusbands: Men and Housework in American Families, had some information for the time period in question. It stated that “in 1950 the number of men listed by the census as outside the labor force because they were “keeping house” was 81,000 whereas in 1971 it was 296,000, an increase of 265 percent.” I felt I was getting closer.

Next stop … U.S government websites and publications. Information and statistics published by various agencies are usually one of the first things I consult for questions looking for numbers over time periods.  Especially if it is a subject that the government might cover … which is essentially everything you can think of and more.  Still, people manage to come up with questions for which no statistics have ever been gathered!  Be that as it may, I owe a big thank you to the professor who taught my Government Information Class a few semesters ago.

How do or did Americans spend their time? The Bureau of Labor Statistics has a wonderful survey called the American Time Use Survey (ATUS), which measures the amount of time people spend doing various activities, such as paid work, childcare, volunteering, and socializing. Unfortunately this survey began in 2003 so it was not a lot of help for this particular question.

Luckily the U.S. Census Bureau provides the Catalog of the United States Census

Man washing dishes, as woman reads. Phila., U.S.A. : C.H. Graves, publisher, c1903.

Publications, 1790 – 1972 online, so I checked the index to see if there was an entry related to work, the work- or labor force and people who were not in the labor force.  Bingo!  It referred me to the Sixteenth Census of the United States: 1940, more specifically the table titled Population. Characteristics of Persons Not in The Labor Force, 14 Years and Over (this table is also available online).  This table lists the overall numbers of male persons, 14 and over, “engaged in own home housework”, March 1940 reflected a total number of 273,760, with the biggest percentage being in the 45-54 bracket.

As you can see, the Census is your friend in many cases, and unless you (like me) are allergic to dust (and spend the rest of the day sneezing), working with it is relatively painless and actually quite fun. I have to admit though that I prefer databases … they are a lot less dusty!

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