People have always thought they were busy. How do I know? I collect old magazines, and how to save time is a perennial topic. In 1963—50 years ago and incidentally the year Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique was published—Good Housekeeping ran a feature on "127 Bright Ideas for Busy Wives" describing "Ways to make the most of your time and energy . . . and have some left 'all to yourself'!"
The promise of having time to yourself is a cover line a magazine could still run today (if the part on "Busy Wives" seems odd). Yet a quick look at the time-saving tips shows that time, and what we think we must do with our time, can change a lot in 50 years. Probably 50 years from now, our grandchildren will complain about how busy they are, too—but the exact nature of their busyness would be incomprehensible now.
For instance, the May 1963 issue of Good Housekeeping told its readers that, "If you had to choose just one appliance to lighten your work and free large chunks of time, it might well be a dishwasher." This was a new-fangled household item at the time, and magazines from this era are full of ads for gloves to protect your hands from hours of suds exposure.
Meals were quite elaborate; another time-saving tip features a recipe for a "miraculous meringue that ‘bakes’ in a turned-off oven while you’re asleep. Comes the great moment of serving, pile it high with fresh fruits and ice-cream balls." Two later tips suggest using the newest polishes on decorative brass, copper, and silver, because these new inventions "leave a tarnish-resistant film." Also, "You’ll find table silver needs cleaning much less often if you keep it in a chest or drawer that is lined with antitarnish cloth." Apparently readers at the time spent enough hours polishing cutlery and serving dishes that a quicker way to do it would seem like a useful tip.
These housework standards show up in time logs from the era. One study of married women with kids from 1965 found that they spent 5.1 hours a week on meal cleanup. They spent 10.9 hours cooking, 8.7 on housecleaning, and 6.6 hours on laundry and ironing (All figures are from the 2006 book Changing Rhythms of American Family Life.)
These days, all these totals have fallen. According to the American Time Use Survey, even moms who are not in the workforce spend just 10 hours a week on cooking and meal cleanup combined—down from 16 weekly combined hours in the 1960s (moms who work outside the home now spend less time on these tasks). Adding up modern housekeeping totals, mothers who are not employed spend just shy of 12 hours weekly on these tasks, versus the more than 15 hours women on average spent on housecleaning and laundry combined in the 1960s.
Since we’re looking at homemakers (in the modern totals), it’s not that work crowded out time for household tasks. Though some technology, like dishwashers, changed things, it’s mostly that the standards of what is the right amount of housework to do dropped. The 1963 reader might have been planning a three-course dinner every night, but to a modern reader who wants dessert, it seems as though just serving fruit and ice cream would save a lot more time than trying to throw a meringue into the mix. Instead of trying to polish decorative dishes and silverware faster, you probably don’t own things that require such upkeep, or else you don’t keep them as sparkly as people once did.
It’s interesting to think what time-saving tips will look like in the future. Readers 50 years ago might have thought we wouldn’t need tips for using our commutes well, because we’d have flying cars by now. Perhaps washing machines 50 years from now will run a spin cycle in just 5 minutes, or perhaps we’ll wear disposable clothes, thus obviating the question of how to do laundry in less time.
But whatever happens, people will still think they’re busy. And as they look back on our time-saving tips, they’ll probably think we didn’t understand how un-busy we are, which is the impression one gets from a 1963 Good Housekeeping. A real suggestion in the article on 127 time-saving tips? "As you lean back and loaf in your bath, cover your eyelids with a cool, damp washcloth. Clears tired eyes quickly."