Rebecca Armstrong: Every little helps, yes, but so do washing machines

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Shoppers and commentators with a keen sense of Schadenfreude
have been huzzah-ing for the last few days over Tesco's seasonal
slip-up (its value is down £5bn because of over-expansion, lack of
investment in existing stores or because it's the supermarket
equivalent of a moatful of hungry piranhas, depending on who you
listen to).

Meanwhile, I've been taking a longer view on the pros and cons of Tesco Metros, Extras or Superstores. That's because the book I'm reading at the moment, Among the Bohemians, a history of the early 20th century's arty crowd (written by bona fide boho descendent Virginia Nicholson, granddaughter of Vanessa Bell) has given me a new insight on housekeeping, 1900s style.

"Shopping for food was in some ways easier than it is today," writes Nicholson. "The corner shop – fruiterer, butcher or fishmonger – was still all-important. Groceries were generally delivered, even in rural areas, by establishments who took orders by postcard.

"In some cases the proprietor himself would attend the mistress of the house once a month and take instructions in the drawing room over sherry and macaroons."

It sounds rather civilised. That was how the middle-class matrons – even if they did believe in free love and naked poetry readings – rolled back then. But now we're time-poor and more women than ever work, we're less likely to be able to have a tipple and a polite titter with the grocer. I'm quite glad I can nip into Tesco and its ilk on the way home from work. No, Tesco isn't very nice on lots of levels, but with its epic opening hours and even in-store Post Offices, we might love to hate it, but we still flock to its stores. Last week also saw dispatches from the cutting edge of technology, AKA the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, which had me thinking about the proto-hippy housewives of the last century. The event was stuffed with hi-tech products designed to take the drudgery out of cleaning. Automatic vacuum cleaners, fridges that monitor the freshness of their contents, washing machines that can be remotely switched on with a smartphone.

Compare this with the lot of our early 20th-century sisters: "Housework took all day – and no wonder. Until well into the post-1945 era, many British women were still using cleaning equipment which had barely evolved... Until the advent of automatic washing machines, washday was – exactly that: a day devoted to washing".

We may have lost our local shops, but thank Christ we've gained gadgets that mean we don't have to spend all day, every day, scrubbing.


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