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Household Accounts: Working Class Family Economies in the Interwar United States

Author(s):Benson, Susan Porter
Reviewer(s):Ward, Marianne

Published by EH.NET (February 2008)

Susan Porter Benson, Household Accounts: Working Class Family Economies in the Interwar United States. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007. xiii + 233 pp. $45 (hardcover), IBSN: 978-0-8014-3723-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Marianne Ward, Department of Economics, Loyola College of Maryland.

The late Susan Porter Benson has left us with a fascinating account of the consumption patterns of working class women and their families in the interwar United States. The findings are based on interviews of working class women by agents from the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor in the 1920s and early 1930s and studies of families confronting unemployment in the late 1920s and 1930s.

The main themes of the book are laid out in the introductory chapter. Consumption patterns for working class families in the interwar period highlighted a constant battle against insecure and irregular incomes, lack of access to credit, and the use of non-market alternatives to secure consumption goods and services. In this environment, family relationships took center stage, and emerged as the source of both conflict and cooperation regarding the allocation of household resources. The struggle for survival that characterized daily life led Benson to characterize the emergence of mass consumption in the 1920s as a “class” phenomenon rather than a “mass” phenomenon (p. 12).

Chapter 1, titled “Living on the Margin,” examines how working class husbands and wives navigated the marriage relationship in this uncertain environment. Economic survival dictated that traditional gender roles of the male breadwinner and female consumer and household manager were fluid, and adapted to individual circumstances. Often, the male figure emerged as an unreliable breadwinner due to low wages, irregular work, delinquency, or desertion. Wives therefore found themselves constrained in their management of the family budget. In addition to the need to supplement their husbands’ incomes, wives often worked due to a desire to contribute to the family fund, as a source of discretionary income, and to provide support for non-resident relatives. In a similar manner, husbands assumed roles traditionally reserved for their wives by participating in housework and childcare.

Chapter 2, titled “Cooperative Conflict,” deals with the role of working children. There were substantial gender differences in the nature of children’s contribution to the family budget. While girls often turned over their entire salaries to the household, this occurred in fewer cases for boys. Moreover, girls’ contributions were seen as a duty, while boys’ sporadic contributions were tolerated without complaint. Over time, children began to keep more of their pay for themselves. This increased autonomy sometimes became a source of family contention, as did the increased use of installment credit by children.

Chapter 3, titled “The Mutuality of Shared Spaces,” examines shared housing among working class families. Shared housing was described as an important survival strategy for working class families. This sharing occurred both for rental and ownership of homes, in single family and multifamily dwellings. The formation of these expanded households tended to hinge on connections between female kin, with cross-generational sharing more common (mothers/daughters or aunts/nieces) than sharing among members of the same generation. In many cases, homeowners charged co-habiting relatives below market rates for room and board, thereby helping to stretch family budgets. While shared housing undoubtedly help working class families cope with a variety of life cycle changes, it created discontent when there were unclear expectations regarding monetary and household contributions.

Chapter 4, titled “What Goes ‘Round, Comes ‘Round,” deals with reciprocity, or the exchange of goods, services and labor among working class families. Reciprocal arrangements were common for housework, childcare, clothing, food and cash. A separate, but related issue regarding childcare was that of fostering children. As in the case of shared housing, reciprocal arrangements tended to hinge on the relationships among women. Children were also of paramount importance. The provision of food, clothing and other services for children was of special concern. In particular, there was less pressure for repayment when services were provided for children as compared to when they were provided for adults. These reciprocal arrangements were often the lifeline that kept working class families afloat when they faced setbacks or disaster. Yet not all families were able to benefit from these arrangements. Those best able to benefit from reciprocity had strong social networks, and, in the case of cash, a reputation for timely repayment.

Chapter 5, titled “The Family Economy in the Marketplace,” deals with the ways in which market transactions enhanced the operation of working class households. Purchases of goods and services helped to create more time for female workforce participation. For example, the purchase of baked goods, ready-made clothing, varying levels of laundry services, and household appliances such as washing machines, irons and sewing machines could reduce the time women spent on household duties. Participation in the second hand market helped working class families obtain items that would otherwise be unaffordable, such as clothing, furniture and work tools. Credit was often used by these families to meet regular expenses, like food or rent, during periods of unemployment or difficulty. In general, however, the use of credit for additional purchases was viewed with fear and avoided.

The final chapter of the book, titled “Class, Gender and Reciprocity,” presents David Montgomery’s tribute to Susan Porter Benson and her contributions to our understanding of working women in the United States of the early twentieth century.

This book was enjoyable to read due to the detailed and often colorful accounts of the lives of individual women and their families. It is, however, a very different investigation of working class lives than found in the many cost of living studies that are based on working class budgets, or Peter Shergold’s specific examination of the working classes in Working-Class Life: The “American Standard” in Comparative Perspective, 1899-1913 (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982). Specifically, the book offers little in the way of aggregate statistics. When provided, they raise questions about the importance attached to specific characteristics of the working class lives under consideration. For example, the importance of shared housing is addressed in Chapter 3. Tables 1, 2 and 3 in the notes to Chapter 3 suggest that shared housing was a reality for approximately 17 percent of the households surveyed. Economists will find this general absence of quantification frustrating.

Marianne Ward is Associate Professor in the Department of Economics at Loyola College in Maryland. She is currently working on reconciliations of international comparisons across time and space. She also continues work on a longer term project to produce international price and income benchmarks for a large group of countries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Subject(s):Household, Family and Consumer History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII