Top of page

Men & housework 1940-1950?

Share this post:

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!

Comments (9)

  1. Thank you so much for braving the dust particles. The info on househusbands was an interesting surprise. Your sharing of how to access the various information within the census is of incalcuable value. Thank you for your time in this endeavor.

  2. While this is generally an interesting topic, I find the answer rather unsatisfying. Is 273,760 a lot? A little? Impressive? Sad?

    Without any references to total population, male population and number of households as well as number of women that were performing housekeeping tasks, the isolated listing of the total amount of men participating in household tasks is essentially useless and can only serve as a starting point to answer the question. Those totals need to be put in context to provide a useful answer.

  3. Congrats on the internship, Aileen! I really enjoyed your piece. Great links too. Who knew that in the 1940’s nearly as many men were doing housework as in 1970’s

  4. Alex,

    I can see your point, but to provide all the numbers needed to put the number listed above into context would have been beyond the scope of a normal blog post … I would have to do a research paper on this 🙂

    Plus, you might be interested in a completely different context than the patron who asked the question.

    Another point to consider is the time period the patron was interested in: Before 1950 we had the Great Depression, and many people were out of work and hence spent more time around the house. After 1950 men were confronted with the Second-wave feminism. Both occurrences lead to more (public) interest in men and housework and related statistics.

    However, if you are interested in the topic and would like some more numbers, you are welcome to look at the census publication I mentioned as well as previous and later ones.


  5. I notice in this aricle, that one of your articles specifically mentions married people, why does anyone think that a married person is more important than a single person or that they are better than them? And yet, most would deny that, they would say no sir we make no distinctions between married and unmarried, but yes you do and if the men helped their wives that was a nice thing to do, but some of those married men also got some women pregnant and did not tell those women that they were married to someone else and or the boys of our society have been taught to get what they can and walk away and the girls have had to take up the slack or have an abortion or give the child up for adoption or have it taken from her, all things that in fact have been proven to be harmful to our society. I have seen so many things, and think I must have been directed here for a reason to set some things straight, women have been the traditional caretakers and domestic workers since the beginning of time in fact in the beginning there was only one group of women that took care of them selves the Amazon women and people were afraid of them and told all kinds of tales about them, from 1971 is merely like one day in the history of mankind. So if we use faulty and flawed statistics based on bad evidence how does that make any thing any better for anyone? Women have been treated badly and then psychiatrically treated for it and drugged all at the hands of our good government. So one needs to look at this stereotyping further.

  6. We can only legally have slavery in this country under our constitution as a punishment for someone. Yet we call the disabled and the single doing volunteery work or working for free and get angry and upset with them due to them not working, but when you are training someone and making them do your work for free for you that is slavery, and this county does it to single mothers all the time, refuses them the same benefits that they provide for married mothers and also then, so they are punishing them for having their children and yet the truth is that they also punish them for having abortions and abandoning their children in different ways, men haven’t ever faced that. They get to do anything they want to and get away with it and use the throw away mentality of this country and the greedy mindsets that put women down for not working they run away from their families, so let’s not try to make this all pretty looking, it isn’t.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.