The 1950s Housewife


Women in the 1950s

People often say to me "I love the 1950s" or "I wish I lived back then". There is no way I would want to have been a young woman then. You may be sentimental for the elegant fashion, but so much in life then would be unpalatable to a modern woman.

(1)

What I would like about living in the 1950s:

  • The fashion is elegant and glamorous. Clothes were well made, often of better quality fabric.
  • Kids played outside with each other, walked to school and didn't have sleep disorders or electronic addictions.
  • Going to the movies was cheap!
  • People walked - to work, to go out, to go shopping. Probably why they were slimmer
  • Junk food was not around. You had to cook your own meals. Also why they were slimmer (however, they did bake cakes!)
  • You didn't have to go out and work in a paid job all day, come home and do housework, drive kids around and be an attractive and charming partner

What I would NOT like about living in the 1950s:

  • You had to wear girdles to get into those wasp waisted dresses
  • Women were expected to stay at home and keep house. OK when the kids are little, but when they're all at school I would be looking for something more
  • Women were expected to keep a perfectly clean and tidy house. Nope.
  • Women were expected to look attractive while they were doing their housework. Nope.
  • (Almost) Everybody smoked
  • No sex before marriage (officially) and vilification of unwed mothers
  • Many men expected their wife to wait on them
  • Men did not help with household chores
  • Many mental health issues were not recognised
  • Diseases like polio, diptheria and whooping cough killed children
  • People died younger because medicine was not as advanced

and I could keep going, but I won't.

Women and Work

During World War 2, with men away fighting, jobs in essential services had been filled by women. After World War 2,  soldiers came home and found that women were working in  jobs that had previously been considered men's jobs.  After the war, governments wanted women to stay home again so that men could have their jobs back and there were huge advertising campaigns that tried to make staying at home look glamorous and attractive to women who had tasted independence. This was reinforced throughout the 1950s.

Here are some ads from my collection of vintage women's magazines that show what I mean:

(2)

(3)

Especially whilst wearing high heels

(4)

(5)

(6)

And just in case you thought those women were dressed like that because they were only looking at an ironing board - no:

(7)

(8)

I have not been able to find any photo or drawing of a woman doing housework from this period where she is NOT wearing high heels

Superwoman

My mother has told me of the pressure she felt to be perfect. Her house had to be spotless and neat. Her children had to be clean and presentable by the time her husband came home. She had to look attractive when her husband came home. I still remember Mum putting the dinner on to cook and then bolting upstairs to put on her makeup before Dad came home, every night. Then, a delicious and nutritious two course meal had to be served. And Mum always washed up. We had to dry the dishes as we got older. My father was not a tyrant, that's just what men were brought up to expect then, and that was the image of women the media portrayed and that they felt they had to live up to.

Here's a humorous look at the situation - it turns out to be an extended and strangely fascinating advertisement for Hoover. The soundtrack is muffled but it does improve as it goes on.

Last week I bought a book called The Book For the Home,edited by Marjorie Bruce-Milne, published in 1956. It's part 2 of a publication, and it's chapters cover home beauty and health, family care, laundering, home dressmaking and handicrafts. Chapter One is called "The Housewife and Her Job." I was surprised to read this comment:

"Her family are people, not merely objects for her ministrations of cooking and darning. No matter how well cooked the meals, how exquisitely polished the floors, these will not compensate her husband and children for the loss of a friend, receptive to their confidences, interested in their schemes, ready to laugh or to sympathise, making, above all, time to enjoy life with them. The housewife who can only cope with her routine at the expense of all leisure and restfulness, is more than halfway to slavery. Better to concentrate if possible on the things the family most values, as well as on the things she enjoys doing and does well, and let some of the less essentials go hang...and is there any reason why some chores around the house should not be shared by father and the boys as well as by the girls?" (9)

So, I say "yay" to tracky dacks, t-shirts and messy houses as my partner is cooking dinner and I am writing and enjoying a glass of wine!

 

 References:

(1) Vanity Fair; London; April 1956; p.79

(2) Australian Home Journal; Sydney; December 1, 1958; p.43

(3) Australian Woman's Mirror; Sydney; January 4, 1956; p.33

(4) Australian Home Journal; Sydney; April 1, 1957; p.31

(5) Woman's Weekly; London; February 5, 1955; p.361

(6) Australian Home Journal; Sydney; April 1, 1957; p.13

(7) Australian Home Journal; Sydney; December 1, 1958; p.9

(8) Australian Home Journal; Sydney; December 1, 1958; p.14

(9) The Book of the Home, Volume 2; Melbourne; Caxton; 1956; p.3

 


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