The vacuum cleaner under the stairs: women, modernity and domestic technology in Britain between the wars


This paper draws on and extends the author’s earlier work on the history of the Daily Mail Ideal Home exhibition and suburban modernity in Britain. It contributes to historical research in material culture studies and design history on modernity and domesticity, drawing on contemporary ethnographic methodologies. It explores the ways in which new domestic technologies helped form modern identities for women as housewives and consumers in the inter-war years in Britain. This paper rejects functionalist critiques of domestic labour-saving technologies by feminists and Modernist design historians. It argues that for many women who lived in the new suburbs the significance of technology was in its symbolism rather than its rational claims to functionalism and efficiency. It posits that although appliances did not necessarily save labour, they enhanced the status of the task, by recognising women’s labour. It argues that domestic appliances were not just valued for their labour-saving potential; they were also valued for the images of modernity that they projected. Moreover, it argues that the motive for the acquisition of appliances could be to participate in a shared sociability

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