This is what it feels like to live during an historic event. Sixty-thousand dead. Tens of millions unemployed. Even for those of us lucky enough not to experience the pain of bereavement or the hopelessness of losing our job, the impact of COVID-19 on our daily lives is unmistakable. At the same time that our homes have become a literal refuge from the outside world, we have transformed them into schoolrooms for our children, and offices for our work. There is no longer a divide between work and leisure: These two activities occupy a single physical space.
Dizzying as these rapid changes have felt, it is helpful to remember that the idea of separating home from the workplace is a relatively new development in human history. For thousands of years, the home was the site of most human activities, including work, raising children and play.
In the United States, the structure of our lives began to change in the first decades of the 19th century. Early industrialization began in the textile mills of New England. Until the 1800s, most commercial cloth was either imported from England (which experienced the Industrial Revolution about 50 years before the U.S.) or made at home through "cottage industry." Families worked together to produce cloth to earn a little extra money on the side. Kids would get in on the action, carding wool to make sure that the fibers faced the same direction, before their mothers spun the wool into yarn, and their fathers then weaved the yarn into cloth.
The invention of mechanized power looms changed all this. Work moved outside of the home because early looms were powered by water wheels, which meant that the new factories had to be built on rivers. Mill workers, who were most often young women and children (chosen for their small, dexterous fingers, and ability to crawl between moving machine parts to fix threads), had to leave their homes to travel to work. The work patterns established during the early years of the textile industry spread to other sectors of the economy as the Industrial Revolution accelerated in the 19th century.
Industrialization altered time through the creation of shift work and the concept of the working day. Families who had produced cloth at home used to work to a quota. It was up to them when they worked, just so long as they filled their order. Mill workers, however, worked set shifts. Workshop foremen exercised new discipline over their workers. Stopping to use the bathroom or to take a drink was forbidden. Indeed, one of the most significant changes wrought by this new industrial discipline was sobriety at work. Tradesmen had traditionally boozed it up at work (in part because alcohol was often safer than the local water source), but industrialization put an end to drinking on the job. It also changed the way we sleep. The idea that we should sleep eight hours a night is a product of the industrial age. Before industrialization reorganized our time, most people slept in two four-hour sessions, separated by several hours of wakefulness.
As work changed, so did the home. The Victorian ideal of the home as a refuge from the ravages of the working world encapsulated the new separation of family life from the workspace. It also reflected the growing gendered division of labor. Men and women had not enjoyed equality before industrialization, but men and women had labored alongside one another when the home was a site of production. When industrialization moved work outside of the home, it changed male and female roles. Work was a place for men; home was a place for women. Men earned a wage; women kept the home as a tranquil domestic space separate from work.
Industrialization also changed how we raise children. Most ordinary children labored at home through much of their childhood. Industry, however, required skilled workers, who could read and do basic math. The growth of public education in the 19th century was aimed at providing industrialists with enough skilled workers to fulfill their needs. In doing so, public schools moved education out of the home.
Work has come home. Work, school, play have literally changed overnight. One day we were yucking it up at the water fountain, the next day we were on a Zoom meeting with our kids fighting in the background. But as we try to navigate the day-to-day challenges of pandemic life, we need to remember that the way we work has changed before. It can and will change again. The great hope is that once the pandemic is over, we can choose how we organize where and when we work. In the meantime, perhaps we can resurrect the great American tradition of cracking open a cold one at work? Drink responsibly. ♦
Lawrence B. A. Hatter is an award-winning author and associate professor of early American history at Washington State University. These views are his own and do not reflect those of WSU.