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Elham AbolFateh


The objects that tell the history of women: 25 things that changed our lives (not always for the better)

Thursday 08/March/2018 - 03:03 PM
Sada El Balad
Edited by: Yara Sameh

The kitchen tap، the fridge، a sliced loaf in the bread bin — we barely give a second thought to these everyday items، daily mail reported.

But as we were fascinated to discover when we set out to tell the history of women in 100 objects، it’s often the most mundane of things that have had the biggest impact on our lives.

Indeed، they chart the journey of women from second-class citizens with no legal rights، no vote and no official status to the people we are today.

They’ve shaped women’s experiences — for better and for worse.

Take shoes. We had to include shoes on the list، but they have a complicated story.

Yes، they are wonderful، pleasurable objects to many، but they have also been tools of oppression in practices such as Chinese foot-binding. And they continue to be controversial، as revealed by the recent case of the City worker who was sent home because she refused to wear high heels.

The Pill، meanwhile، is often hailed as the greatest invention of the 20th century. But has it actually liberated men more than women?

From household gadgets to our underwear، it’s the objects that surround us which have the most interesting stories to tell...


Who would imagine the humble tap played such an important role in the emancipation of women?

But for many، ensuring their town، village or hamlet had an adequate water supply became a key campaign in the Sixties، involving groups such as the Women’s Institute (WI).

Given that the Romans installed pipes and taps to bring water into homes، it seems incredible that half of rural homes in Fifties Britain still had no internal water supply. The fact women fetched it from a well clearly meant it wasn’t a priority.

One Staffordshire housewife recalled fetching water from a well that was 40ft deep: she had to make three journeys a day، taking half an hour each time.


New Jersey housewife Florence Parpart invented the electric fridge in 1914. But due to cost and lack of electricity in homes، it didn’t become commonplace until the Fifties، relieving women of the necessity to shop daily.

Another woman، Josephine Cochrane، was responsible for the first dishwasher in 1886. Her machine used high water pressure، a boiler and a wire rack.

Ironically، though، she didn’t use it — her servants did!

But considering women all over the world still do the lion’s share of household chores، many question whether such ‘labour-saving’ machines — and the higher expectations of cleanliness that come with them — have actually made a rod for our own backs.


Designer shoes have a huge price tag and have become objects of female desire.

But our obsession with dainty feet has a chequered history.

In the 19th century، 40-50 per cent of Chinese women had bound feet. Other cultures also revered small feet — think of Cinderella’s dainty glass slippers.

Modern high heels، so revered as the height of femininity and fashion، have been linked to a range of medical conditions including bunions، osteoarthritis and tendon injuries. Little wonder that some have compared them to restrictive corsets.

In 2016، receptionist Nicola Thorp، who was sent home without pay for refusing to wear heels to work، led a 150،000-signature petition against such footwear at work and sparked a Parliamentary debate.


Not long after her marriage in 1867، Millicent Fawcett — later a leader in the suffragist movement — had a run-in with a pickpocket who stole a purse from her handbag.

When the thief appeared in court، he was charged with stealing her husband’s property، not hers. She later recalled that she ‘felt as if I had been charged with theft myself’ and the incident spurred her on to campaign for women’s equality.


Although these days bread-making is more of a hobby، for centuries it was a time-consuming chore، preventing women from getting on with other things. A figurine dating back to 500BC shows a woman seated in front of an oven holding a loaf of bread.

The phrase ‘the best thing since sliced bread’ was coined after the first machine to slice and wrap bread was introduced in the UK in the late Thirties.


Canned soup and baked beans are store cupboard staples. But during World War II، women canned their own food because their lives depended on it.

Such was the food shortage، any surplus crops needed to be preserved pronto، so canning centres were opened up by the WI across Britain. One mother of five from Sussex recalled working the canning machine. Precision was of the essence because faulty cans were liable to explode.


According to one economist، the invention of the washing machine is more significant than the internet because it released women from the bind of doing the laundry by hand.

Automatic machines weren’t sold for domestic use until 1937.

One of their predecessors was the 18th-century wooden washing dolly. About 1m high، with a handle at the top and legs spreading out at the bottom، you rotated and lifted it up and down to clean the clothes in tubs of water.

Historically، girls were required to take time off school to pitch in on washing day — thus puncturing their education.


The invention of the sewing machine (we have Thomas Saint to thank، in 1790) meant a simple dress، which had taken ten hours to make by hand، could now be produced in only an hour.

Sewing machines also provided opportunities for women to work outside the home، as their nimble fingers made them more suitable as machinists.

But they were often exploited، with poor working conditions، long hours and pitiful pay — and still are in sweatshops in places such as China، India، Sri Lanka، Bangladesh and Vietnam.

Do corsets mean we take control — or pander to men?

Women’s relationship with cosmetics goes back a very long way.

Traces of ingredients used in ancient times — including kohl، ochre، wax، and perfumed oils dating from 1350BC — have been excavated from graves.

In the 20th century، make-up boxes became more portable، to cater for women’s changing lives.

The swivel metal lipstick case، powder compacts، block ‘spit and brush’ mascara and later the pen-shaped applicator were introduced، all able to be popped into a handbag rather more easily than a Bronze Age cosmetics box.


The Victorians are synonymous with the fashion for tight-laced corsets، a practice condemned by doctors for causing ill-health.

The Industrial Revolution played an interesting role here: the invention of the metal eyelet in 1823 meant corsets could be tightly laced without the material tearing، while in 1839 Frenchman Jean Werly patented the machine-made woven corset، after which they became more widely available.

Interest in corsets was revived after World War II when Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ signalled a return to the hourglass figure، with a small waist and high bust.

Debate rages over whether the corset’s recent revival shows women taking control of their sexuality or pandering to men’s fantasies.


One of the very first vibrators، invented in the early 20th century، was for curing ‘nervous headaches’. Any newspaper that was too open about its other uses was at risk of prosecution.

In 1902، one advert pushed the boundaries by saying ‘all the pleasure of youth will throb within you’.

Feminists went on to encourage women to explore their own bodies in the Sixties and Seventies. But it wasn’t until the dual-action vibrator، The Rabbit (invented in 1984)، was featured in TV show Sex And The City in the late Nineties that the gadget became mainstream.


The discovery of a 4،000 year-old terracotta baby-feeder suggests that the seemingly modern dilemma of working mothers — how to feed a baby when you return to the workplace — is anything but.

Over the centuries women have used wet nurses، animal milk and other substitutes as a way of getting round the problem.

The first factory-made formula milk dates back to 1867.

In the early 20th century، sterilising bottles was a problem for poorer families، especially as some were attached to long tubes so that babies could suckle on demand. These devices became known as ‘murder bottles’ because the tubes became a breeding ground for bacteria.


Carrying babies in a sling dates back to the era of the pharoahs.

Traditionally، it allowed women to weed and harvest crops even when their baby was very small.

One of the earliest prams was invented in 1733، but was cumbersome and designed to be pulled by a small pony or goat.

By the early 20th century، perambulators were common. But it was the Maclaren buggy، designed in 1965 by a retired aeronautical engineer، which truly liberated mothers. The lightweight pushchair could be folded up، lifted on to trains and put in the boot of cars. Millions were sold worldwide.

Psychologists’ suggestion that carrying infants in a sling helps establish a closer bond between mother and baby has fuelled a new trend for slings recently، meaning we’ve come full circle.


It sounds like a scene from The Handmaid’s Tale: a woman led into the town centre wearing a bridle traditionally used to control horses. But there was a time when those who spoke out of turn were paraded through the streets in the ‘scold’s bridle’ — a practice that continued well into the 18th century and was later used on slaves in the New World.

Some might draw comparisons with today’s vicious online trolling of women in the public eye who dare speak their minds.


‘All a girl needs when she goes out shopping’ — so declared one of the earliest adverts for Barclaycard when it was launched in the Sixties.

But، first، women seeking credit had to answer detailed questions about their personal life and marital status.

Single women had to be accompanied by a man، often their father، to apply for a credit card or mortgage until the mid-Seventies.


The Lucy Baldwin analgesia apparatus، named after the wife of Conservative politician Stanley Baldwin who campaigned tirelessly to reduce maternal mortality rates، was the first obstetric analgesia (gas and air). Introduced in the Fifties، it provided a mixture of oxygen and nitrous oxide through a face mask.

It was not the first such pain relief، but a new mobile form of it. The apparatus was cumbersome but could be wheeled between wards، radically changing the experience of childbirth.


Long before the internet، the wireless gave women access to the popular and political culture of the societies in which they lived. Programmes provided entertainment and education while they cooked، cleaned and cared for children or elderly relatives.

In the afternoons، when many were preparing the evening meal، the BBC Radio Aunties and Uncles occupied their little ones by providing a Children’s Hour.


The contraceptive pill، available on the NHS from 1961، is often described as the greatest scientific invention of the 20th century.

Although it proved very effective in preventing conception، the side-effects (headaches، nausea، dizziness، bloating) were initially played down.

Yes، it enabled women to engage in recreational sex on the same terms as men. But some feminists، such as Germaine Greer، have suggested that the Pill has not led to women having greater choice and control over their sexuality، but rather to an expectation and pressure that they are sexually available، which liberates men more than women.


Few modern teenage girls could imagine life without their precious mobile phone.

After Alexander Graham Bell patented the first telephone in 1876، phones offered women a range of working opportunities that didn’t exist before.

The soft tones of a helpful and reassuring female voice were seen to be ideal for the role of switchboard operator; these women said ‘number please’ at least 120 times an hour، eight hours a day، as they connected calls.

Would-be switchboard operators had their height and arm length measured to ensure they could work in the tight spaces required.

But did the telephone hold women back in the long run because this was seen as ‘women’s work’?


Before sanitary protection، a woman’s time of the month was very limiting.

The early sanitary towel prototypes were made of wool and proved difficult to advertise because of their intimate nature. Some stores had a money box so women could take a packet and pay without having to ask the shopkeeper. Tampons weren’t invented until 1929.


One female social reformer declared in 1896 that cycling had ‘done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world’.

It certainly liberated women from their heavy skirts. To avoid the latter getting tangled round the pedals، knickerbockers — the forerunner to trousers for women — were born.

Some men، however، objected to a female’s posture astride a bicycle as likely to lead women into prostitution. Doctors were concerned that the saddle would cause pelvic inflammation or infertility at worst، as well as more masculine-looking muscles.


While computer technology has offered women a range of new، flexible ways of working from home، the typewriter — invented in the 1860s — opened up offices as a rapidly expanding area of employment for women.

But it also trapped them in low‑paid work for decades.

Office admin jobs became seen as genteel positions. Business colleges sprang up to give women the skills they needed.

An experienced shorthand typist could earn £2 to £3 a week، and in 1911 a top secretary could earn up to £250 a year. But there were no promotion prospects and the hours were long.


For housewives in the Western world، the Mini sparked a revolution، enabling them to undertake the weekly shop or the school run without relying on public transport. It gave women new freedom to escape the domestic sphere، and its success spurred other manufacturers to produce smaller، cheaper cars targeted at women and the young.

Little wonder that the Mini was once voted the most significant car of the 20th century.


The book that first turned formal dining into a competitive pursuit was published in 1861 and had sold two million copies by 1868.

Isabella Beeton was only 21 when she compiled Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. She died at the age of 28.

Her kitchen bible was expanded and continually re-published after her death.


A quarter of today’s children are brought up in single-parent families. But for centuries، lives were defined by the stigma of illegitimacy.

The London Foundling Museum has a collection of tokens left in the 18th and 19th century by unmarried mothers in the hope they would one day be reunited with their babies. Tragically، of 18،000 tokens، only two children were ever reclaimed.

It wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th century that most women kept their babies who had been born out of wedlock.

Professor Andrews is a cultural historian at the University of Worcester and Dr Lomas is a retired university historian.

Adapted from A History Of Women In 100 Objects، by Maggie Andrews and Janis Lomas (The History Press).




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