Seven decades later American women averaged 4 hours of housework a day, only a moderate decline since 1930, accompanying the movement of large numbers of women into the workforce. What changed—and had been changing since the beginning of the century—was the dramatic easing of drudgery by new household appliances. Effort couldn't be engineered out of existence by stoves, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, and other appliances, but it was radically redefined.
Consider cooking. In practically all American households by the turn of the 20th century, the work was done on cast iron stoves that burned wood or coal. A few people mourned the passing of fireplace cooking—"The open fire was the true center of home-life," wrote one wistful observer of the changeover in the middle decades of the 19th century—but the advantages of a stove were overwhelming. It used substantially less fuel than a blaze in an open hearth, didn't require constant tending, didn't blacken the walls with soot, didn't spit out dangerous sparks and embers, and, if centrally positioned, would warm a kitchen in winter much more effectively than a fireplace. It was also versatile. Heat from the perforated fire chamber was distributed to cooking holes on the top surface and to several ovens; some of it might also be directed to a compartment that kept food warm or to an apparatus that heated water. But the stove could be exasperating and exhausting, too. The fire had to be started anew each morning and fed regular helpings of fuel—an average of 50 pounds of it over the course of a day. Controlling the heat with dampers and flues was a tricky business. Touching any part of the stove's surface might produce a burn. Ashes were usually emptied twice a day. And a waxy black polish had to be applied from time to time to prevent rusting. In all, an hour or more a day was spent simply tending the stove.
As a heat source for cooking, gas began to challenge coal and wood in the closing years of the 19th century. At that time piped gas made from coke or coal was widely available in cities for illumination, but incandescent lights were clearly the coming thing. To create an alternative demand for their product, many gas companies started to make and market gas stoves, along with water heaters and furnaces. A gas stove had some powerful selling points. It could be smaller than a coal- or wood-burning stove; most of its surface remained cool; and all the labor of toting fuel, starting and tending the fire, and removing the ashes was eliminated. The development of an oven thermostat in 1915 added to its appeal, as did the increasing use of natural gas, which was cheaper and less toxic than the earlier type. By 1930 gas ranges outnumbered coal or wood burners by almost two to one.
Electric stoves were still uncommon. Although they had originated around the turn of the century, fewer than one U.S. residence in 10 was wired for electricity at the time; moreover, such power was expensive, and the first electric stoves used it gluttonously. Another deficiency was the short life of their heating elements, but in 1905 an engineer named Albert Marsh solved that problem with a patented nickel-chrome alloy that could take the heat. In the next decade electric stoves acquired an oven thermostat, matching an important feature of their gas rivals. Meanwhile America was steadily being wired. By the mid-1920s, 60 percent of residences had electricity, and it was fast falling in price. As electric stoves became more competitive, they, like gas stoves, were given a squared-off shape and a white porcelain enamel surface that was easy to clean. They continued to gain ground, receiving a major boost with the introduction in 1963 of the self-cleaning oven, which uses very high temperatures—about 900°F—to burn food residue from oven walls. Today, many households split the difference in stove types, choosing gas for the range and electricity for the oven.