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English Electric Washing Machine, c. 1950 (On display at Hertford Museum)

If there’s one comment guaranteed to provoke a reaction in my classroom, it’s my suggestion that the arrival of the washing machine had a greater impact on the lives of women than the vote. It’s a remark that is usually met with shocked looks. I’m not downplaying the importance of the vote, but, as I explain to students, for the ‘ordinary’ woman, any technological advancements that made her day-to-day life easier was of far greater relevance than the more abstract idea of the vote. This was really brought home to them when I played an extract from an interview that I did with my mum about her memories of my grandmother’s domestic routine. My mum recalled how, as was the case for most Irishwomen, Monday was wash day. My grandmother would begin hand washing as my mum and her brothers and sisters were leaving for school in the morning, and she was still washing when they returned in the late afternoon. The arrival of a washing machine into the house made a huge difference to her life, significantly freeing up her time on Mondays.

I’m in Dublin at the moment for a few days, and have been at the National Library of Ireland reading issues of Woman’s Way from the 1960s as part of the research for my women in the media project. The magazine is filled with advertisements for new technology — like the washing machine — promising to improve the lives of women. The most common was an ad from the ESB (Electricity Supply Board) asking, ‘Have you got your fridge yet?’ One of the benefits, according to the advertisement, was the ability to ‘cut down your shopping time to one day a week’.

On 15 June 1963, Woman’s Way carried a major feature on the refrigerator, which was noted to have become a ‘necessity from the economic and health viewpoint’ rather than a ‘luxurious addition’ to the kitchen.

Woman's Way, 15 June 1963
Woman’s Way, 15 June 1963

Over several pages, readers were shown how the housewife and her new fridge were ‘going to be very close friends’. The feature included ‘dos and don’ts’ tips on using the refrigerator, a recipe page entitled ‘Cooking with a refrigerator in the background’ and a spread on the different types of fridges available, depending on the size of one’s kitchen.

The feature was clear as to the positive impact that the fridge could have, most notably (and similar to the washing-machine) on the housewife’s time:

You can work out a whole new working-plan whereby your leisure will be increased. Complete meals may be prepared and stored for a day or two when you have a refrigerator to keep them fresh. It could even happen that the refrigerator will give you a little longer in bed in the morning! Some people prepare breakfast the night before and leave it ready for the actual cooking next day. The same clever housewives prepare the evening meal in the morning and leave themselves a free day until the actual cooking period starts, they prepare a whole day’s supply of baby food in the morning, too.

It is hardly surprising that this multi-page feature appeared at a time when refrigerators were becoming more affordable — taking them out of the ‘luxury item’ bracket — and were increasing in popularity. Not only did they keep produce fresh and perishable items lasted longer than they would at room temperature, but their popularity can also be explained because of the contribution they made to day-to-day lives of housewives.