Book Review: Household Accounts: Working-Class Economies in the Interwar United States

Susan Porter Benson. Cornell University Press: Ithaca and London, 2007. 233pp. Hardcover.
Reviewed by Harriet Fraad

The title Household Accounts seems dry and economistic. It is the opposite. In fact, Household Accounts is for me, a riveting book that captures the spirit of the USA today. The pack of wolves of job precarity, unemployment, blindness to the hard family work of women, many of whom are forced into the marketplace, the specter of illness and disability without insurance, are now howling outside of the door as well as inside the doors of American’s homes. The only thing missing for today’s times is the howling rapacious wolf of credit card debt and the fraying of ties between neighbors, friends and relatives. What Porter Benson shows us is that the prosperous period between the end of World War 11 and 1970 was not the norm, but a happy aberration for the mass of Americans.

Porter represents life for the American majority as a constant struggle with home support as the primary possibility of a better life for the next generation. Mothers then as now were overwhelmingly responsible for home lives that were always on the edge of economic and emotional desperation. In that period, only about 25% of women worked outside of he home. They usually worked to save the family in case of unemployment, disability, illness, or desertion. Now 75% of women work outside of the home. There are few financial cushions in hard times except for some unemployment insurance and credit which is quickly disappearing.

One of the most important home truths to emerge from Household Accounts is that it was not only women’s work outside of the home, but women’s networks of family and friendship support that saved families during hard times. Women took in friends’, neighbors’ or relatives’ children when women had to leave to work outside the home. Nearby friends and relatives brought food pretending that they had it left over. Women consoled each other in lives of hardship enabling one another to persevere with their lives. Women’s domestic and emotional labor was as invisible then as it is today. Porter Benson has brought illuminated that labor in her compelling book. It is tragic that Susan Porter Benson died prematurely of cancer. She is a historian who recognized women’s lives and family and brought home life to light.

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