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{Quick Review} Selling Mrs. Consumer: Christine Frederick and the Rise of Household Efficiency

By February 18, 2009Uncategorized


The Gist: “This text covers the life and work of Christine Frederick (1883-1970) and reveals an important dilemma that faced educated women of the early 20th century. Contrary to her role as home efficiency expert, she epoused the 19th century ideal of preserving the virtuous home – and a woman’s place in it.” {Amazon}

{image via Powells}

{image via Powells}

My Frothy Opinion: History, technology, domesticity. Three areas that I could easily turn into 10 years of research and reading. Studying domesticity and the culture of “home” is really the foundry of culture, viewpoint, and intimacy. Nowhere could you find a better intersection of domesticity, technology and feminism (or lacktherof) than Christine Frederick. Her life is a complete play-by-play of how early 20th century ideas of efficient technological advancement became entangled in a most tepid time for women’s rights and traditional gender roles. Born in 1883 she represents really the birth of choice and prospect for the women of her generation. Do you seize new opportunities through opportunities in education or cling to safety in the domestic sphere, often indoctrinated as the moral scope of “true womanhood.”

Hers became something unique altogether.

After marrying in 1907, she quickly finds the domestic sphere not only un-challenging but ‘drudgery’, and a stark contrast to the enjoyment and independence she felt in college. Forging ground in Advertising (really at its explosive growth during the Industrial Revolution), her husband brought his work, contacts and professional circles directly home, and she quickly found an outlet in writing and copywriting. This work landed her freelance writing pieces with Women’s Journal’s, making her both notable and sought after. Her skill and approach in applying scientific efficiency concepts used in the business world to the domestic sphere earned her a reputation of trusted authority much like Martha Stewart. Her articles and responses to millions of readers brought her to homes across the country.

This however, also birthed her greatest dilemma.

While Frederick advocated labor saving technology and courted advertisers by advocating their brand-names, she also encouraged women to embrace technology, in essence nullifying housework and negating her work. Her articles and “science” also advocated time-consuming management strategies that included detailed grocery inventories and cleaning routines that created more work, leaving less leisure that she claimed technology would create. While many early feminists encouraged the break down of single family homes and experimented with communal living arrangements, Frederick pressed the moral obligation of women to hold on to realm of home and single-family dwelling. In a time when suffrage and growing opportunities for women were in discussion, she was essentially advocating modernization society while clinging to traditional gender and family structure.

In essence, Mrs. Frederick’s life adhered to the motto of “Do as I say, not as I do.” Constantly in a roundabout circle of potentially nullifying and disappointing her different demographics, Christine Frederick lived a life of eventful hypocrisy. While I don’t fault her or think less of her, knowing she lived in a different time; she failed to acknowledge that opportunities and choice played a great role in her life because she was consumed with advocating the duty and moral obligation she felt women were responsible for in remaining home, being a helpmeet, and raising children. I see her as a woman who was juggling:

  • Juggling to be a journalist in topics that I think she felt relegated to.
  • Juggling to be a mother and a caretaker while living a lifestyle that very much catered to her own interests.
  • Juggling to be a wife and advocating a position of helpmeet while being the breadwinner at the helm.
  • Juggling to be an advocate for women having choice.
  • Juggling to be an advocate for the moral sphere of what “true womanhood” has always meant
  • Juggling to be a businessMAN as a woman, which often meant throwing women under the bus as “gullible,” “ignorant,” and uneducated.
  • Juggling to merely keep up and stay relevant in a quickly changing political and technological revolution.

Ironically, I think the main reason many of us don’t hold her to the fire more after reading this book is because she IS a woman, and you feel sorry for her because WE are women who struggle with many of these same concepts, questions and dilemmas to this day. As easilly as women can be built up, they can be quickly broken down on the basis of these same gender roles. You stupidly repeat over and over in your head as you read this, “she should have just been happy with _____,” or “she should have just done ________.”

With the focus of this book being on the personal and ideological contradictions between Christine Frederick and other predaccessors like Catharine Beecher (almost to the point of nausea) you don’t really get to hear as much about feminism and its patriots as much as you would like. It is an important work however, one of the few that really addresses feminism, domesticity, and the greater issue of technological efficiency development.

Who should read this book? Do you like to read? Do you like non-fiction? Do you like American History? Are you interested in suffrage/gender role issues based on society and traditional religious morality? then yes.

Rating: Out of 10 stars, I’d give it 7

Where is it Available? Google Books