4 Oct 2011

Yes, Some Of It Was Pure Fantasy

I sometimes get asked if I actually believe there were women who behaved like stereotypical '50s housewives or if it was a manufactured image. I think the answer is yes to both; there were women who aspired to (and were also pressured into) that particular way of life (and those who loved it, hated it, and existed somewhere in between) and there was indeed a marketing and media machine that perpetuated it. But there were also women who purposefully led completely different lives from what was so prominently idealized, and those whose days featured bits and pieces of what was in the media at that time, and women who carried on, seemingly oblivious to social pressures, as housewives / career women / artists / mothers / labourers / philanthropists / community leaders as they felt that was what they needed to do for themselves and their families. We all know this, right? No? Maybe?

As it happens, I'm in the process of interviewing women who were wives in the 1950s who are willing to share their own life stories (and if you or a member of your family is such a woman, feel free to email me for deets!). Because while it's fun to flip through magazines from that era, to take the 1950s advice to heart for a few weeks, and to theorize about what life was like for women then and what they must have been thinking at the time, isn't it just so much better to talk to them about it? No two women are alike, but it's so far been fun to see what they had in common and how those things differ from the "modern women" I normally interact with.

But here's something that is a universal truth and it's compliments of today's random retro find! I found this ad for a toilet sanitizer called "VANISH" in the September 1958 issue of Ladies' Home Journal:

Let's set the record straight: Nobody in the history of the world has ever twirled and danced from the joy of cleaning a toilet (or because of a tampon, for that matter). Nobody. Never. Ever. Just mark that one down as The Craziest Nonsense You've Seen Today.


Anonymous,  6:50 pm, October 04, 2011  

I've always thought you should turn your 50s housewife experiment into a book. Perhaps these interviews are for something like that? Inquiring minds want to know! :D

Meg,  11:14 pm, October 04, 2011  

Agreed - no one ever was that happy about cleaning a toilet.

mrsbingley 11:58 pm, October 04, 2011  

Jen, I interviewed Southern Alberta women about their lives between 1939-1959 for my grad thesis. Let me know if you want to take a look at it, it's online!

Keri {One Mama's Daily Drama} 12:16 pm, October 05, 2011  

I read an incredible book that did just that - interviewed women about their lives in the 50s. They talked about work, home, children, education, sex, and more. It is called "The Fifties: A Women's Oral History" by Brett Harvey.

Jen 9:45 pm, October 05, 2011  

Anon - :)

Meg - Truth.

Mrsbingley - Yes! I would *love* to read it (and I'm sure others who read this blog would like to see it too). Please share the link!

Keri - Oooh! I must read it! Thanks for the tip!

mrsbingley 9:30 pm, October 06, 2011  

My M.A. thesis is called "From overalls to aprons? The paid and unpaid labour of southern Alberta women, 1939-1959."

You can download a PDF copy here:


Michele,  2:47 pm, October 27, 2011  

I was born in '62, so my mom was definitely around in the '50s tending house. While she wasn't a full-time housewife (she and one of my dad's cousins helped integrate NY Telephone's business office), she remembers that period well. I remember her telling me about how for the first few years of marriage she used to iron the sheets, as well as my father's underwear, until she realized how time consuming all that was. And she also remembers being extremely economical and stretching meals like the dickens; my parents didn't have a lot of money and when I came along, five years after marriage, I was sick all the time. There was no extra money, and my mom stopped working outside the home for 5 years before she couldn't take it anymore.
My mom grew up in Baltimore, and her summer job was cleaning houses for white women who were housewives. Most of them played bridge, went shopping, and raised their kids while my mom cleaned up. She wasn't allowed to eat off their dishes; in each house she had her own dishes and tableware, because these women didn't want her eating off their plates. She was rather jealous of their relatively charmed lives.

When she became a housewife, she remembers using one of those heavy vacuum cleaners (I remember it, too). She cleaned windows with ammonia and newspaper, kept the apartment spic and span, and read Better Homes and Gardens like it was the Bible. Even after going back to work, she ran what was essentially a 50's household.

Reading your posts (which I found through The History Chicks!) brought back a lot of memories of my childhood, and a lot of the better lessons I learned about how to run a household.

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Need words? I'm a Toronto-based freelance writer who injects great ones into blogs, websites, magazines, ads and more. So many services, one lovely Jen (with one 'n').

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