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Household Economy

It is conventional to assume that the output of an economy, the goods and services that it produces, is made or provided at dedicated sites of production such as factories, shops, offices, mines or farms. This is the economy that is measured by conventional economic indicators such as National Product. However, this ignores production at home where families and individuals produce much of what they want. They cook meals and feed themselves instead of going to a restaurant. They wash themselves and their clothes. They entertain themselves there instead of going out to the cinema or club. They conceive and rear children. Gardens have been places of food production too, with fruit and vegetables for the table as well as eggs from backyard hens. Home workshops have been used to make or mend furniture and many other items. Generally such activity could be defined as the production of goods and services that could be sold in the market but are not. Not all work in the home can be classified in this way. The work done by domestic servants or home help in return for the payment of wages is already counted as production in the market economy.

Attempts have been made to measure the value of activity in the household economy as a whole so as to compare it to production in the market economy and arrive at some estimate of total economic output for the nation as a whole. Data is scarce and authorities have differed significantly in their estimates, from around a third of the value of the market economy to something approaching equality with it. While these are only crude estimates they do indicate the considerable magnitude of household production at a national level. It is reasonable to assume that it is of similar magnitude in Melbourne.

The nature and level of household work has been subject to various influences. Throughout the 19th and the early part of the 20th century work in the home relied entirely on human energy and was laborious. Hot water had to be carried to where it was needed for washing bodies or clothes. Hand-operated brushes and dusters banished dirt from rooms. Cooking was aided by the gradual development of more efficient stoves but without refrigeration shopping was an almost daily event. Running a household took so much time that it was difficult for most housewives to combine it with paid outside work. Probably fewer than one in 10 did so, but more took in work such as washing to help augment the family income.

Levels of employment in the market economy have had an impact on the household economy. During the depressions of the 1890s and the 1930s, for example, the market economy contracted and people lost their paid employment. Families attempted to 'make do' by producing more at home, growing vegetables in the garden or making or mending clothes at home. Conversely, in the postwar economic boom new employment opportunities opened up for women, especially in clerical and retail areas. Married women entered the workforce in increasing numbers; in 1947 only 8% of married women had part-time or full-time paid work but by the beginning of the 1990s, 37% did so, almost a fivefold increase. This resulted in some decline in the extent of household production by, for example, going out for a meal one night a week, or buying a 'take away' meal instead of cooking at home, or buying clothes rather than making them.

The movement of married women into the paid workforce was made possible because new technologies had mechanised more of the work in the home allowing housework to be completed with less effort in a shorter time. The development of small electric motors from the early years of the 20th century had led to the invention of a new range of household equipment, washing machines, water heaters, vacuum cleaners, electric irons, fridges, dishwashers, food mixers etc. which mechanised housework and thereby speeded up its completion. There was also a growing range of mechanised tools, such as power drills, for the home handyman. Partly because more wives were bringing home a pay packet, the majority of households from the 1950s and 1960s enjoyed sufficient purchasing power to buy such products, and so substitute mechanical energy for human muscle and reduce the time required to keep a household functioning. Houses fitted more power points in each room for these new appliances. In the four decades after 1929 household electricity consumption in Victoria increased tenfold and power stations proliferated in the Latrobe Valley to keep pace with demand. Housewives do not appear to have enjoyed extra leisure time as a result of these labour-saving devices for more of them have combined household production with paid employment in the market economy, effectively combining two jobs in what has remained a very long working week.

Tony Dingle