Brad DeLong shares a tremendous amount of fascinating economic history in The World in 1900: Poverty:
A quarter of American households in 1900 had boarders or lodgers (compared to two percent today). Half of American households in 1900 had fewer rooms than persons (compared to five percent today). A quarter of American households in 1900 had running water (compared to ninety-nine percent today). An eighth of American households in 1900 had flush toilets (compared to ninety-eight percent today). Less than a fifth had refrigerators, less than one-twelfth had gas or electric lights, less than one-twentieth had telephones or washing machines, and of course there were no radios or televisions or vacuum cleaners or central heating, to list just those major appliances that have greater than ninety percent coverage today.
And even if you did have a four room house, could you afford to heat more than one room of it? Many Homestead four-room houses became two-room houses — the kitchen and the bedroom — in the depths of the western Pennsylvania winter.
Almost always the first luxury that a working-class family moving up would purchase would be the services of a laundress: since laundry was expensive and difficult, few working-class families could maintain upper-middle-class standards of cleanliness. How often would you take baths if the water had to brought in from an outside pump, and then heated on the stove? How often would you wash your clothes if everything had to be washed out in the sink, if the fabrics were three times as heavy and the detergents one-third as powerful as the ones available today, and if as a result the laundry was a full day’s chore? Hand laundry was not a two hour a week task. Those who could afford the resources to maintain bourgeois styles of cleanliness flaunted it. White shirts, white dresses, white gloves are all powerful indications of wealth in turn of the century America. They said “I don’t have to do my own laundry and ,” and they said it loudly.
I’ve been saying this an awful lot lately, but read the whole thing.