Today it is common in western countries for both spouses in a family to hold jobs and jointly be "breadwinners" and for many is an economic necessity. However in the past, it was common to only have one person (usually the husband) be the breadwinner, and this was economically feasible.

If we compare those times (say, the early 1900s) to today and adjust for inflation, was one breadwinner economically possible because of greater pay, lower cost of living, or some mixture of both?

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    Specify "adjust for inflation" in detail. How do you do this adjustment so it stays independent of historical change of cost of living or salaries?
    – kubanczyk
    Jan 15 '17 at 9:00
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    The middle class may have been able to survive with o one bread winner, but the mass working class wouldn't have. Working class wives would have had jobs, too - although mostly working at home - and children would be sent out to work from before the age of 10...
    – user13123
    Jan 15 '17 at 9:21
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    I'm not sure I'd use the phrase "economically feasible"; is it economically feasible to have no homemakers when you don't have electric appliances but 5-8 children to look after? Jan 15 '17 at 11:10
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    I think you have to define "economic necessity", as the increased spending of two-income families seems most often to be directed to things that are (IMHO, anyway) either luxuries or waste. Also there's a problem with the idea that both spouses working is more often from economic necessity rather than choice.
    – jamesqf
    Jan 15 '17 at 18:59
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    Frankly I think when people talk about the "good old days of one breadwinner" they are using the 1950s as a baseline. It was true for the 1950s, where female labor participation was low.
    – AlaskaRon
    Jan 16 '17 at 20:37

Excellent question; we often hear that "life was better before" and that "back in the day when there was a single bread winner, things were awesome." I contend that this presumption is a little off. To answer it we must look at the demographics of a country to get an answer. Let's look at the USA at 1900:

The 1900 census reported that the US had 60 % of its population living in rural circumstances. 60% of the population lived on the land! That implies that the largest segment of the US population engaged in farming, not wage labor. And can you visualize a housewife on a family farm just hanging out at home and reading magazines and gossiping? No way! Everyone was working their buts off the whole summer, including women and children.

So to answer your question, no in 1900 there was not a single wage earner in a typical family. There were zero wage earners and plenty of work to do.

After the industrial revolution, some farming families would send their teenage daughters to work in factory towns to be wage earners. One example of this is from 60 years earlier in Lowell. These girls traveled from their farms to Lowell, worked for 3 or 4 years and lived in company dorms. They had no spending money, as their wages was sent back to their families. This "teenage girls go to the city" stuff is still happening, if you watch China Blue you can see it in modern form. Another example I know of relates to Japan between 1870 and 1910. Silk export constituted the bulk of foreign exchange earnings that were used to modernize Japan. And the silk was processed through the underpaid labor of young Japanese women working in silk factories. They worked for years dipping their hands into boiling water to grab silkworm cocoons.

We can dig further and find more examples, but my point is obvious: In both rural and urban situations in the past, most women worked very hard for survival just like men. (Likewise, single working mothers were not rare either; disease and war were still overly common)

But why on earth do we always hear about the good old days of when Women were expected to just be housewives, and they "had to have dinner ready by the time hubby gets home from the office" and they "had to make sure to wear heels and pearls so that he is happy". We hear about this so much, but in 1900 and before, it obviously wasn't so. Where does this meme of the eternal housewife come from?

I don't have a source for this, but the concept of "working husband with a stay-at-home housewife" is a middle class / upper middle class "value" that started in the 1800 as the growing middle class sought to imitate the behavior of royalty. Supposedly in the post WWII US economy, aided by the GI Bill, most Americans became "middle class in the late 1940s and 1950s. So I think a good assumption is that the concept of "most families" having "stay at home wives" began in the 1950s.

However, I haven't seen any demographics proving this. I know both my grandmothers worked in the 50's and 60's once my parents were in school. From this anecdotal evidence, I assume that at no time in history did most families in the USA have "stay-at-home" women.

I'll make another assumption: Today, upper-middle-class women have the luxury of choice to be housewives. They might live in large suburban houses, while their partner earns a fortune doing something. These people existed in 1900 as well. However, the women today in these well-to-do situations can have a career, while in the 1900's women in this social class were expected not to work in anything except charity. Unfortunately, this wealthy class did not, and does not constitute "most people".

  • Your argument seems to support the contention that each household had multiple wage earners, not the bold-faced 'zero wage earners'.
    – justCal
    Jan 16 '17 at 0:17
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    @user2448131 Who pays the wage to subsistence farmers? And for farmers who grow crops for sale on the market, why would the farmer and his wife pay themselves wages? The idea is that wage labor industrialization go hand in hand, and that there was a time before wage labor. And subsistence farmers certainly do not hold "jobs"; for who will fire them?
    – axsvl77
    Jan 16 '17 at 0:32
  • "wage" does not appear in the question. Noting that 'jobs' may be more modern or urban circumstances historically less common than OP appears to think is good, but "zero wage earners" isn't really answering the question as asked or likely intended. Also you list several wage earing systems right after which strikes me as undermining your bolded point.
    – user22111
    Jan 16 '17 at 21:07
  • The OP asks about 'greater pay' or 'cost of living' which are largely irrelevant on a subsistence farm. And those engaged with the larger economy through commercial crops were also far more disconnected from the economy than a McDonalds worker is today. The point of my bolded statement is "economic prosperity was different then"
    – axsvl77
    Jan 16 '17 at 21:14
  • And the teen age workers, that was intended to address the 40% who were not rural population. The point of that part was that despite living in the city, women still worked outside of home-making and child rearing.
    – axsvl77
    Jan 16 '17 at 21:15

In the early 1900s, most household work (other than the man's profession) was done at home. That is, nearly all meals were prepared at home (instead of going to restaurants. Clothes were cleaned (and made) at home, instead of being cleaned at a drycleaners or being purchased from a department store. Children played at home (instead of going to soccer, or music lessons). Most of these "home" tasks were performed by the wife and mother.

In the second half of the twentieth century, women found that they could have fulfilling careers. To do so, they needed to "farm out" the above-mentioned tasks, which cost money. But many women felt they came out ahead. That was true even if they had to work at one of the main tasks, (e.g. waitressing, laundering, or teaching), because they could "specialize."

  • 1
    Not entirely true. Though I'm single (and quite reasonably prosperous), I prepare nearly all my food at home (and grow more than a bit of it), and do all of my clothes cleaning at home. I don't recall ever having taken clothes to a drycleaners or laundry. (I admit I don't make my own clothes, but that's down to lack of the requisite skills.) People MAY farm out these chores, but it's from choice, not made necessary by women working. The more prosperous housewives of 1900 would have had servants to do this work.
    – jamesqf
    Jan 16 '17 at 7:04

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