Nowadays we receive considerable information about households thanks to an abundance of social surveys, census compilations and via ongoing consumer-oriented research. The pace of household formation, composition, incomes, debt, consumption patterns, entertainment preferences – there’s extensive data on all these topics. Because households in one form or another have been closely associated with human life on earth I wondered about how they evolved over the centuries.
Let’s reconstruct certain basic elements of those early households. People once inhabited castles, caves, cabins, dugouts, tents, huts, farmhouses, barns, attics, rooming houses, etc. These spaces were cramped, barely lit, with furniture and decorative features distinctly limited. People slept on the floor, on straw or mats, hammocks, or shared beds. Water was brought in from nearby wells, taken from local streams or rivers or collected as rainwater. “Bathroom” arrangements were located outside the residence. Maintaining a fire either for heating or cooking was always a challenge. Where possible, animals were kept (or hunted), certain foods grown nearby or otherwise obtained through barter or purchase. Most clothes were produced, and repaired, by hand by members of the household. Families, often extended and multigenerational, lived together, frequently augmented by servants, slaves, apprentices and borders.
Over time, how have these arrangements changed? For many, living space expanded. Separate rooms became common, the young often segregated from the adults. Servants (except in wealthy households) departed as did apprentices and boarders, and extended family members. Separate cooking areas emerged. (Fire is dangerous; best kept at a distance.) A reliable outside water supply eventually entered the living quarters, thanks to a network of pipes and pumps. Continuous reliable illumination became available as well, the result first of gas lighting, followed by electrical transmission.
The Industrial Revolution helped fill living quarters as never before. Inexpensive furniture, carpets, chairs, tables, beds, curtains, dishes, cookware, instruments and decorative objects, could now be purchased, and reliable stoves installed. Self-sufficiency gradually declined. Foodstuff could be purchased nearby and consumed at home. Clothes as well. The home could become a showplace, visitors invited in.
What are American households looking like these days? Less traditional than ever. Single individuals live alone. Heterosexual or same-sex couples reside together outside of marriage. “Blended” families as well, the consequences of divorce or death. Single parents and their children represent a growing number of households. Time devoted to cleaning and household chores is in decline (though still performed mostly by women). Members eat “out”, frequently though, thanks to microwave ovens; “fast food” can readily be “prepared” at home. Heating and cooling have become far less challenging (except for their costs), but insurance and security represent more of a burden.
The household today is more complicated, but manageable because members rely on a broad array of outside services. As a result, paying bills becomes a central task each month, as checks go out to satisfy the mortgage, credit cards and other loans, for telephone, electricity, cable and internet services, repairmen, bottled water, health and auto insurance, medical bills, charitable donations, etc. In a majority of households, women handle these chores as they do when it comes to interior decorating. Furnishings, wall décor, curtains, carpets, cookware, etc., generally reflect their tastes, men largely acquiescing in the choices made. Households have also become entertainment centers for family members and guests. Whether entering the home via satellite, cable, internet, smart phones or land lines, a bewildering variety of information sources, video games, emails, movies, sporting events, and pornography are instantly accessible and allow young and old to spend countless hours busily engaged.
The household advanced and was transformed as it moved from the cave to the condo. That this process will continue seems all but guaranteed.