Labor-Saving Thing-A-Mabobs (E)

If you detect just a smidgeon of, I don’t know, irony, sarcasm, absurd cuteness, or, dare I say, humor in the title for this piece, well, you may be right! The following “diatribe” is the direct result of a text from a friend that I received a few days ago: “Just saw a delivery drone (it was actually a delivery bot, but more on that later) coming down the sidewalk to make a delivery in Santa Monica. So cool and so freaky all in one,” she wrote. There was a time when labor-saving devices were just, “gadzooks that’s so cool.” However, now we appear to have moved beyond cool to “whoa, that’s freaky” …What’s next?

The idea of devices, systems, automation, and the improvement of life because of labor-saving devices (in reality a dubious phrase) has been with us for at least 150 years, if not longer. In fact, I found a reference to a chapter in a book (Problems in the Principles of Accounting) titled: “The Principles of Labor-Saving Devices” (Chapter VI, pp.57-66) by William Morse Cole, which was published by Harvard University Press in 1915! The title of the book should be the first clue as to what was important back then, money; however, the fact that the book was reprinted in 2013, should tell you something. Given that we have been dealing with and thinking about “things” that save us labor for this long, I suppose we should not be that surprised by something like a remote controlled device delivering a package to a particular geographic location, should we? Damn straight we should, but first some background before getting back to the drones/bots.

There has been a great deal written about labor-saving devices, especially in the home, which is particularly important especially with respect to women. For men, the impact of automation was more impactful outside the home and at work, as automation of the workplace became more prevalent. A perfect example of this is Charlie Chaplin’s film “Modern Times,” as you can see from the clip below:

For women, it was primarily the kitchen and innovations to supposedly make life easier, but as has been well documented, the opposite was almost always true for a variety of reasons. These devices started to appear in the mid to late 1860s, and some that particularly stand out, are those made by a pioneer in that field, David Goodell.

In 1864 Mr. Goodell invented and patented the “lightning apple peeler,” which of course peeled an apple faster and easier than by hand.

In the first two years he sold a few thousand, but in 1866 he went out on the road (keep in mind that that phrase “went on the road” has a different meaning in 1866 than it does now, not to mention different results)! In just three weeks on this road trip, he sold 24,000 of the apple peelers! Then came a barrage of similar devices for other types of fruits, as well as a larger variety of different types of the same one, especially for apples. Here are some of these:

Apple Parer
Apple Slicer
Cherry Pitter

As mentioned above, these devices were supposed to lessen the workload for women, but the opposite was almost always true, especially with devices that came later in the 50s and 60s. A great deal of this had to do with standards for certain domestic chores changing because of the new technology. For example, one of the photos at the start of this piece shows a woman beating rugs with some kind of stick, an activity that probably was not done every day. When the vacuum cleaner became widely available, keeping your rugs clean became much easier, but the “standard” for what was considered a “clean” home went up, meaning women were vacuuming their rugs daily, so the time saved by the technology was really an illusion! However, back in the earlier days of labor-saving (late19th and early 20th centuries), it was different. In an article, Nov.1, 2019, In “Longreads,” by Ben Huberman, quoting from the 1983 book More Work for Mother, by Ruth Schwartz Cowan: “Labor-saving Kitchen Gadgets End up Creating More Work for Women,” he argues that it was from the period of industrialization (1860-1960), that the American household steadily shed its colonial character and became industrialized. Back in the day, in pre-industrial rural kitchens, men and women were “forced,” through necessity, to collaborate (pool their efforts) in order to prepare food. For example, the advent of industrially milled flour, cast-iron stoves, and running water, left women alone in the kitchen. And much like the above-mentioned rise in standards for cleanliness, culinary expectations were also raised!

In the 1950s and 60s, advertisers and household-focused magazines did their part in promoting the myth of labor-saving, as you can see from the examples below:

These ads speak for themselves, and if you cringed after looking at them, you are not alone. However, my favorite for its cringe worthiness is this one:

Yes, we have come a long way!

Now that your memory has been jogged, let’s get back to drones, bots, and why at the outset I said that we should be “surprised” and perhaps “fearful” of these new labor-saving technologies. One of the reasons I feel we need to be wary of these devices is that we are not as ready for them as we have been in the past. The reason, I think, is that the rolling out of new “gadgets” was more gradual back then. There was always, well at least as far back as I can remember, some device just before the “next-best-thing,” so there wasn’t that “shock” factor. I feel it’s best to illustrate what I am getting at in photos:

All of these devices do essentially the same thing. They give us a means to document what is in our heads. Yes, one could argue that computers do so much more, and they do, but their initial function, before other technologies made them multi-purpose, was simply an extension of our hand, in much the same way that bicycles, trains, and then cars were extensions of our legs! But what about drones and bots?

Delivery drones and bots can certainly be seen in the same light, as improvements over existing delivery methods, but what are they extensions of?

Delivery Bot
Delivery Drone

In the case of delivery bots, they are extensions of legs and trucks. However, in the case of drones, they are an extension of this country’s and others “military industrial complex,” which is defined as a country’s military establishment and those industries producing arms or other military materials, regarded as a powerful vested interest. When you have a labor-saving device that doubles as a weapon…Well, that’s when the alarm bells go off for me. Take, for example, this recent observation in “The Atlantic from Jan. 3, 2023: “The Russians, according to the Ukrainian government, fired more than 80 weapons (mostly, it seems, Iranian-made drones) at Ukraine since the start of the new year.” As far as I know, your washing machine just cleans clothes, and your vacuum cleaner, well it just cleans rugs. And if you’ve ever seen one of these used as a weapon, you’re probably watching a really cheesy sci-fi movie, or you need to lay off of whatever it is that’s giving you these visions!

Los Angeles 2023

6 thoughts on “Labor-Saving Thing-A-Mabobs (E)

  1. I read Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s More Work for Mother in grad school in the 80s and it vindicated every feeling I’ve ever had about labor-saving devices – it just ups the expectations of what woman should do every day to keep the home front clean and functioning. However, as much as I hate hate hate vacuuming, I HAVE beaten rugs with a stick. I’ll take the vacuum. And the electric washer and dryer!

    Sent from my iPad


    Liked by 1 person

  2. The one about not burning the beer really can’t be topped. Thank you for this — and you’re spot on about drones and the danger of becoming blind to their dark side. Happy new year to you and Lil! Susan and the little caballero


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  3. As a short story writer, I found this piece on the history and impact of labor-saving devices to be both informative and thought-provoking. The idea of technology and automation being both a blessing and a curse is something that I will definitely keep in mind as I continue to write. It’s interesting to see how the standards for domestic work have changed over time due to these devices, and how they have not always lived up to their promises of making life easier. The mention of Charlie Chaplin’s film “Modern Times” also inspires me to consider how these themes of technology and labor could be woven into a fictional narrative. Overall, this post has given me plenty of food for thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank-you for your kind words.. I am glad that you found the piece both informative and thought-provoking. I only scratched the surface of this ongoing struggle with technological advancements and what it means to those of us who have had to adapt to their presence in our lives over time. Another reason why the title of Chaplin’s film is so poignant. Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

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