When I decided to do the 50s Housewife Experiment, it was not to make fun of the ladies of the 1950s. After all, they are - depending on who's reading this - our mothers and grandmothers. Without them, we all wouldn't be here to enjoy the brilliant prose of a certain long-winded blogger.
No, I was never here to mock them. Well, except for the food thing. Because ... seriously? Seriously? No, seriously?
I thought the 50s housewife was such a neat little specimen, doing her thing, looking so darling - but a part of me felt sorry for her. After all, she didn't have the bevy of choices women have today. The expectations on her, if you're to believe everything in my household guides at the time, were rather exacting. Plus, she likely went to work to support the war effort in the 40s, discovered she could do more than anyone ever allowed her to believe, and then she was stuffed back in the kitchen - to serve her man and, eventually, a brood of children that she was expected to produce on the double.
The following is the intro to my Bride's Reference Book, which basically spells out the role of the 50s housewife. If you click on it, it will expand (hopefully in a new tab) to full size.:That last sentence - "woman's most important job, husbandry" - causes many a modern person (and not just women) to flinch.
I'm not sure if it's residual resentment from societal expectations / limitations like the one above, a new set of expectations that you're not really contributing (to society / your home / womanhood, even) unless you bring home a paycheck, or new standards of living that insist we need to be making more money - but the appreciation for the homemaker has dwindled along with the number of people who actually earnestly take on the role. You don't hear of many people who have chosen a career in homemaking. Yes, there is the stay-at-home mom (although of the stay-at-home moms I personally know, all but one brings in some revenue through at-home businesses, part-time work or consulting - so even she often wears a career hat). But the stay-at-home wife (and not the trophy-wife-with-a-maid variety)? She's officially on the endangered list.
But regardless of whether you think the homemaker has any value or role today, there's still plenty we can learn from her - or at least, plenty that I did. Here are ten lessons I learned from being a 50s housewife:
1. Maybe We're a Bit Too Distracted
Pre-50s Experiment, Patrick would get home and I'd be at the computer. Always. There I'd stay until he eventually wandered in the house and found me. Then he'd start complaining about something (his transit ride home, something about work, the strange sounds emanating from our cleaning closet) and I'd barely turn my head from the computer but just make those "Uh huh. Mm. Yep" noises. Eventually Patrick would say, "Oh, wait, you're still working, aren't you?" I'd give him a relieved look that he finally noticed he was interrupting me, say I was almost done (but wouldn't actually finish until several hours later) and then he'd wander off and complain about being hungry.
It wasn't unusual for my husband and I to be sitting in the same room, amongst a mess, both wishing dinner would somehow appear, each staring into laptops, with no conversation between us for hours. We weren't in a fight - we were just hugely distracted with non-stop work, yapping with strangers on Twitter and the fleeting entertainment of websites that feature a bunch of asshole cats (better than a site of cats' assholes, I suppose). And when we did stop and eat, it was on the couch with the TV on. Both of our faces would be pointed at the blinky box or at whatever made-in-10-minutes meal was in our hands. Our main interaction during this time was when something funny happened on TV or one of us spilled something.
Our life together, ladies and gentlemen.
The 50s housewife was a smart, smart lady and she would have none of that. She greeted her partner when he arrived and aimed to have dinner timed so they could both enjoy it shortly thereafter.
Eating at the table (with cutlery!) was an instant change. We suddenly were sitting across from each other twice a day, enjoying a meal that both of us contributed to (he with the $, me with the cooking) and with nothing but the other for entertainment and communication. And for the first time in a long time, I'm ashamed to admit, I listened to what Patrick was saying about his job, his day, his - sigh - fantasy baseball league. While that last one required many silent prayers to Ron MacLean, the Patron Saint of Keeping a Straight Face, it was actually really nice - for both of us - to have time devoted to the others' thoughts. Even though not every meal was a culinary delight, I got to see his appreciation for it all the same, which goes a long way when you've worked on it for a while.
* Greeting each other when we get home - keeping it!
* Eating our dinners at the table without distractions - keeping it!
* Reducing TV time - keeping it!
* Setting greater limits on how much work gets done while we're together - keeping it!
2. The Benefits of a Clean House Go Beyond the Surface
So - using metal polish on the bathroom taps, deep-cleaning the oven and flipping the mattress every week was a bit much. That, you can guarantee, will not be kept (at least not at that frequency!), but man, was it / is it nice to have a tidy, organized home. Here are some things we noticed:
- It was relaxing! The place just felt ... calm. Having a made bed each day made such a difference in the evenings, too. Sometimes when a show was on, Patrick and I would watch it in the bedroom, on the bed (not in the bed), curled up - because it was just so cozy in there!
- With less dust about, we slept better!
- We found stuff! I was so pleased to discover a pair of sandals during one of my cleans. Yes!
- We created more space! With things put away and stuff donated to Goodwill, our home felt larger and better used.
- Friends came over! No more house shame! And when you can have friends over, you still spend less feeding them than all going out for coffee or to a bar. Yes!
* Washing everything by hand - no thanks! Forget the Internet, the best invention ever was the dishwasher!
3. Jell-o Molds are the Devil
Sorry, Aunt Janice! (But I challenge you to prove me wrong at the next family gathering!) While I made fun of the 50s housewife food quite a bit - and there is much to make fun of - she did have a few things right:
- Have a larger, well-rounded breakfast
- Fresh-squeezed orange juice is super yum and really doesn't take that much time to make
- Having a meal plan for a few days in advance can keep you organized and your nutrition and / or food variety well-rounded
- Men and women don't need to eat the same serving sizes
* Doing breakfast - keeping it!
* More homemade juices - keeping it!
4. There are Always Ways to Save More Money
Before this experiment, I had figured we were doing pretty good with keeping spending in check. When I decided to drop the full-time job and go freelance, our income went down (but my sanity increased), which meant that I had to ensure we were better with our budgets. But when I discovered during this 50s housewife experiment that we probably saved $340 in two weeks - while still having fun, seeing friends - and I couldn't believe it. Alright - some of that was by buying cheaper (canned, yarg) food. But a lot of it was just not buying as much random crap, having people in instead of going out and avoiding convenience foods (like bagged salad, pre-made sandwiches) and take-out / restaurant offerings. Savings like that actually make being a housewife more economically viable! Here are some of the tips of the 50s housewife trade that helped cut our spending budget:
* Checking for coupons before shopping - keeping it!
* Sticking to a list with no impulse buys (using cash-only forces this more!) - keeping it!
* Expecting more from brands. If you buy something and you don't like it, write a letter (or e-mail, nowadays) and ask for a refund - keeping it!
* Look toward the top and bottom level of grocery shelves for lower priced items - keeping it!
* Use your "byproducts" more efficiently (more on that below) - keeping it!
* Buying and cooking strategically to get oomph out of leftovers - keeping it!
* Reducing purchases of pre-made foods, ordering out and take out - keeping it!
* Suggesting socializing with friends at home more often rather than out & buying drinks and food - keeping it!
5. The 50s Housewife Was a Natural Eco-Warrior
You wouldn't find a 'Save The Whales' t-shirt under her apron, but the 50s housewife's penchant for saving money made her the queen of reuse, reduce and recycle. Not only did she not waste money and resources when she didn't need to (you realize every time you buy something new - even the eco-friendly and green stuff we get to make ourselves feel
For example, when the lady of house came back from the store with crackers, she realized she didn't just have crackers - she also had a box and a waxy bag that contained the snack food. The box was used to store stuff - even if it was just rags in the garage. The waxy bag was cut and used to wrap her husband's sandwich with for lunch.
Some other examples:
- The plastic bags you get when you buy bulk items, produce or our favourite - hot dog buns - can be used as lunch bags, ice bags (if you need to make extra ice, dump your ice cubes into one of these and leave it in the freezer), even shower caps
- Paper bags - including the type flour and sugar come in - can be reused or cut open and used as package wrapping
- An empty tissue box can serve as a great plastic bag holder
- You can clean your windows and glass with crumpled newspaper instead of paper towel (and you can still recycle the newspaper afterward)
- Newspaper can also be stuffed in shoes to remove some odours
- Jars can always be used for storage, preserves or for keeping bulk foods (plus, your stuff is less likely to get pantry bugs when it's in an airtight container rather than a bag)
- Besides storage, a cleaned can would be used for making candles
- She fixed things as best she could (even if it was just sewing the button on a pair of pants) or sent them out to be fixed
- Old, worn-out clothes were cut for rags. "Twinless" socks made for great "dust puppets" (slip one over your hand and do your dusting that way!)
- Vinegar, lemon juice, baking soda, water and soap (esp. castile soap) can clean just about anything - and they're safe to dump down the drain or have around the body
* Buy less, reuse more, fix stuff, clean with natural products - keeping it!
6. Johnny Cash Makes Everything Better
The world was once a bleak place. But then, in 1955, a man named Johnny Cash hit the airwaves and brought the awesome. It didn't matter if I was sweeping away mouse turds, picking up Patrick's socks for the millionth time or making something truly ridiculous for dinner - when I had a Johnny Cash song on my "radio", all was fine. In fact, I think The Man in Black may be the one responsible for my blood pressure going down.
* Whistling while you work, especially if it's to "Guess Things Happen That Way" - keeping it!
7. Prettying-Up Gives You a Lift
There was one day - the day of the Bridge Luncheon - that I was running way behind schedule. I ended up trucking to the grocery store in oversized jeans, a sweatshirt and my hair held back in an elastic that used to be around a bundle of carrots. I looked like crap, I felt like crap. Then, as I was preparing everything, still in slob chic, I felt hurried and rushed and sweaty and blobby. Even though a part of me told me that I DID NOT have the time to get dolled up, I took a few minutes and freshened up, put on my dress, did my hair and a touch of make-up. And even though I was still totally behind, I felt ... calmer. More in charge. More like an adult who actually had her shit together. And everything was fine.
* Putting a bit of effort into the looks department each day - keeping it!
* Wearing a bow in the morning - no thanks!
* Wearing a hard-core girdle and bra - only if I'm going somewhere where I get to lay down the entire time
8. My Friends and Family are Awesome (but I knew that already)
They called the house and jokingly asked for "Mrs. Patrick Byck." They proudly posted my very silly entries on their Facebook pages. They tried the molds. I have to say that one again: THEY TRIED THE MOLDS. Are they amazing, or what? Having friends and family over to my place and speaking with them on the phone rather than just doing Facebook messages, e-mail and texts reminded me how important that one-on-one, real-time connecting is - and just how awesome all the people in my life are. Awww ... heart, heart, heart.
*Inviting people over to our place more often - keeping it!
9. Prioritizing Your Partner's Happiness Doesn't Make You Submissive
It turns out that when you're both pulling the weight you agreed to and your relationship is working, you want to make that other person happy - and your partner makes your happiness a priority right back. Whether or not you think it's unfair, sometimes in order to get that process started one of you may have to do this without getting something in return right away. But the return does come. The more I genuinely wanted my husband to feel good, supported, healthy and happy - the more I felt he was reflecting those desires for me.
For example, as the first week of the experiment went on, I realized that I wasn't just greeting my husband at the door so that he knew he was welcomed and missed, it was also because I got to see that he was happy to see me. It didn't fail, when he'd walk in and I'd stop what I was doing to see him right away (because really, the computer / TV / stove / laundry / whatever isn't going anywhere - you can leave it for a minute), you could practically see his tail wag. And that makes me feel good. So, why not?
You don't need to work in the home to do this. It's not about being a man or a woman. It's about showing everyday kindness, appreciation and effort toward a person you respect as a partner.
* Aim to do things that make him happy - keeping it!
10. Life is Short, Mix it up, and Have Fun
When was the last time you went bowling? Or planned a goofy theme meal? Or did a ridiculous family experiment and blogged about it? I think getting outside the usual, comfortable thing can make life interesting, can bond you and your partner in the experience and may even introduce you to something you didn't know you'd like. This experiment was that for us. But you don't have to just take my word for it:
* Doing something other than ordering in pizza and watching a movie - keeping it!
And here's a bonus #11: There's Plenty of Value in Being a Homemaker
As I began to live the 50s housewife life, with the idea that I was in charge of the business of our home, I started to gain a much better appreciation for the job and the person who took the helm of such an enterprise sixty years ago (and that lovely picture to the left is of one such lady, my Grandma Price with my grandfather).
Running a home, cooking the meals and managing the money requires dedication, planning, organization, physicality, decision-making skills, an eye for detail, creativity, intelligence and patience. Doing this all while catering to the schedules, preferences and needs of the people you love, depend on, and some days - can't stand! - is no small feat. But what I found interesting is that I was not only busy - but I felt surprisingly accomplished each day.
Every day, I saw the results of my efforts. And every day, myself and my husband directly reaped the rewards of those efforts - and perhaps that was the biggest revelation. Day in, day out - people go to work for other people. What's so wrong about going to work for yourself and your family? Or discovering you really don't need that much money or stuff to be happy and successful? How is that we think devoting oneself to our major life investments - that being our health, our relationships, our home and our financial management - investments that we are the controlling stock holders in – is somehow not contributing? Or isn't something to be admired like anyone else flourishing in their career? Or is insulting to feminism? If anything, isn't making your quality of life a priority - if that's what you want to choose - rather empowering?
... And those are just some of the rambling thoughts I have while I'm making the bed and fixing Patrick a bacon sandwich. Ha.
So, what's next?
The 50s housewife ideals are merely what were considered the best practices for running the business of homemaking at the time. In the sixty years since my 1950 household guide was printed, we've learned more about nutrition, developed plenty of household conveniences and contraptions, changed our expectations and introduced different priorities.
Next up, I plan to go about the goals (with some tweaks!) they way *I* want to do them, with my own set of 'best practices', and using all the resources available to me. Details of this Modern Housewife Experiment will come shortly ... but not before a final word on the 50s Housewife Experiment from the man who lived through it! His guest blog post is coming up next.
Image Sources: The Bride's Reference Book; MIT Open Coursewear; Country in the Town; Wix.com; AJC