In the fall of 1924, the cover of The Country Gentleman showed a bright-faced young woman dressed in her work-day apron with the sleeves of her blouse rolled up as she scrubs her wash. Her face is lifted and her mouth open; over her ears are a pair of earphones whose wires lead down by the wash tub and presumably out of the picture to their source. Her eyes are shining and her cheeks rosy, as the young woman seems to sing along with whatever she is hearing.
We know next to nothing about the image’s illustrator, Sam Brown. Only that in the 1920s he created a series of illustrations for The Country Gentleman, Collier’s, and The Saturday Evening Post. Even so, we are left with a look at a vibrant young lady who is happily singing along while she works. The obvious message Brown conveys in this cover illustration is that work can be a good thing and that enjoying yourself while you do it makes the work more enjoyable too. According to one contemporary study, listening to music reduces stress levels.* Or, in the words of Snow White, “Just whistle while you work; And cheerfully together we can tidy up the place; So hum a merry tune; It won’t take long when there’s a song to help you set the pace.”**
Earphones were developed early in the 20th century out of the technology that created the earliest telephone earpiece. The vertical rod coming out of the top of each earphone was what the unit’s headband was connected to so that it could be tightened or loosened according to the user’s needs and kept on the wearer’s head. The Country Gentleman’s August 16, 1924 cover illustration by William Meade Prince, showed a young boy wearing similar earphones attached to his newly constructed radio.
When I went looking for a contemporary image of a woman working while wearing an i-pod for a comparison, I was surprised at how difficult it was to fulfill my visual requirements. Most images show women wear i-pod ear buds as they relax, not working, and certainly not doing laundry. At best some of them are exercising. I even saw a couple of versions of a little kitty sleeping while wearing i-pod ear phones.
The real comparison in this illustration is the new technology of the earphone compared with the old technology of the wash tub and scrub board. The scrub board was invented at the end of the 18th century. The first rotary washing machine was patented in 1858 and the first electric-powered washing machine was introduced by a Chicago company in 1908. By 1924, both Maytag and Whirlpool were busily producing washing machines out of white enameled sheet metal for home and commercial use.
Long considered the real drudgery of household chores, washing laundry, even with a new fangled machine, definitely needed the relief that music supplied. While we no longer do our weekly wash by hand in a wooden tub using a wash tub scrub board to rub the dirt out of our clothing, nor do we wear such massive ear phones while we work, the notion that we distract ourselves with music as we work is very much a part of modern life.
* Brenda Kearns, “Natural No-Fail Mood Boosters” found on the Good Housekeeping magazine web site. The quote comes from Dr. Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D. C.
** Lyrics for Whistle While You Work by Larry Morey for Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).
May 27, 2010
By Joyce K. Schiller, Curator, Rockwel Center for American Visual Studies
at the Norman Rockwell Museum