Selling Mrs. Consumer
Christine Frederick and the Rise of Household Efficiency

Janice Williams Rutherford

How one woman made the American home hum with efficiency


"An engaging biography that simultaneously illuminates the relations between women's private and public lives and advances our understanding of the growth of their public initiatives during the Progressive Era."
—Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Eleanore Raoul Professor of History, Emory University

"A significant contribution to women's studies and American history."
—Natalie A. Naylor, Professor of History Emerita, Hofstra University

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This first book-length treatment of the life and work of Christine Frederick (1883–1970) reveals an important dilemma that faced educated women of the early twentieth century. Contrary to her professional role as home efficiency expert, advertising consultant, and consumer advocate, Christine Frederick espoused the nineteenth-century ideal of preserving the virtuous home–and a woman's place in it. In an effort to reconcile her desire to succeed in the public sphere of modernization and consumerism with the knowledge that most middle-class Americans still held traditional beliefs about gender roles, Frederick fashioned a career for herself that encouraged other women to remain at home.

With the rise of home economics and scientific management, Frederick—college-educated but confined to the drudgery of housework—devised a plan for bringing the public sphere into the domestic. Her home would become her factory. She learned how to standardize tasks by observing labor-saving devices in industry and then applied this knowledge to housework. She standardized dishwashing, for example, by breaking the job into three separate operations: scraping and stacking, washing, and drying and putting away. Determined to train women to become proficient homemakers and efficient managers, Frederick secured a job writing articles for the Ladies' Home Journal. A professional career as home efficiency expert later expanded to include advertising consultant and consumer advocate. Frederick assured male advertisers that she knew women well and promised to help them sell to "Mrs. Consumer."

While Frederick sought the power and influence available only to men, she promoted a division of labor by gender and therefore served the fall of the early-twentieth-century wave of feminism. Rutherford's engaging account of Christine Frederick's life reflects a dilemma that continues to affect women today—whether to seek professional gratification or adhere to traditional family values.

Page count: 320 pp.
14 b&w photos
Trim size: 6 x 9


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Janice Williams Rutherford is Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Museum Studies at the University of Oregon.