Housewives & Their Role Beyond the Home
The women of the 1950s were oriented around the home. Separate gender roles were formed with men acting as the primary ‘breadwinners’ of the family, while women were the ‘caretakers’ of the home, the children, and the husband himself. The lifestyle of the 1950s American housewife – one devoted to and centered on the home – has been portrayed as mundane and borderline suffocating by many historians. However, the 1950s was a time of great social and economic change, and the experiences of the American housewives would play a large part in shaping not only what it meant to be a “woman” during this time period, but also what it meant to be a consumer. The housewife was regarded as the primary consumer in 1950s America, a time period where advertisements were rampant and new products flooded society. Women’s magazines of this time period give insight into the minds of the women of the 1950s. While the life of the housewife would have a degree of discontent, which would pave the way to the feminist movement of the 1960s, the role of the 1950s housewife extended beyond the home in particular ways which are to be considered when studying the social and economic aspects of this time period.
The most popular women’s magazine of the 1950s, the Woman’s Home Companion published articles geared towards American women in regards to maintaining the home, latest fashion trends, and, eventually, concepts of social reform. Circulation of this magazine reached its peak at 4,343,000 copies being sold nationwide.
A screenshot from a popular advertisement program entitled “A Word to the Wives.” In the program, one housewife has a new kitchen and is able to carry out housework highly efficiently, while the other wishes she could buy one but is, instead, stuck with an old model. The woman with the kitchen tells her that she should have the “freedom to go shopping” whenever she pleases, saying that she should not have to “lay everything out by hand” for her husband and son. The other women protests, saying it’s her duty to “make things easy for them,” but the woman with her new kitchen tells her that she goes through too much. The two devise a scheme to trick the woman’s husband into buying her a new kitchen model. This is done by sending the housewife away for a weekend, while the husband is left to try to operate the household by himself. Ultimately, the husband displays ineptitude at carrying out housework, and buys his wife the kitchen after experiencing the struggles which she previously had to go through. This advertisement showed consumerism culture of the 1950s and also clearly defined the separate roles of males and females in society – in this case, empowering the role of the housewife via the husband’s ineptitude. The importance of maintaining the house, the struggles of the average housewife, and the need for updating to the newest forms of products were also exemplified.
An advertisement for Schlitz Beer, circa 1950. This displayed society’s view of women – the “weak housewife” who foolishly burns dinner and is in tears about it, and her professionally-attired husband having to offer her emotional support by telling her that she did not burn the beer. This advertisement offers insight into the mainstream male perspective of the women of the 1950s, which is interesting to note, considering that females were the prime consumers of the time period.
A screenshot of a documentary in the 1950s, depicting an “ideal nuclear family.” The housewife carries out her duty of clearing the table after dinner while the other family members look on. When the husband offers to help her, she politely declines, once again displaying societal values expected of women. She also mentions going to an art class meeting afterwards, because “a woman needs some form of expression.”
A typical shopping district of Winter Park, Florida. Consumers travel to this area in order to view and buy products. Most of the advertisements and shops have women as their target audience, reflecting 1950s marketing thought patterns.
Women were the main consumers during the 1950s, with “seventy-five percent of all consumer advertising budgets spent to appeal to women.” This put a large degree of economic power in their hands. Though this power was usually centered on the home, the economic progressions of this era were largely in part due to the consummation of products by women, who were the main shoppers. Shopping itself gained a notion of femininity during the 1950s.
An example of a clothes store geared towards women. Most stores along shopping districts use advertising directed to a feminine audience, similar to how those of the 1950s operated. Shops selling female fashions and house products are also commonly seen in most American shopping areas when compared to those catering to a more masculine audience.
The influx of new products made housekeeping easier for the American housewife. New stoves and laundry machines made previously grueling housework significantly easier, giving women across America more free time. With this free time came more opportunities to read women’s magazines, which increasingly dealt not only with housekeeping issues, but also with social issues.
Women were the primary consumers in America during the 1950s, as they were the ones most exposed to various new products via the media at large – in particular, through women’s magazines. The 1950s was a period of time where consummation was central to society, and, therefore, this placed a degree of power in women’s hands. However, society’s expectations of them were odds with this, as they were told to be submissive and to only aim at being “the perfect wives.” With the invention of goods which made housework easier and less time consuming, women had more free time, and social issues became more of a concern. As discontent with a “household” existence grew among the women of the 1950s, and as women’s magazines increasingly catered to societal issues, women were able to tear through many of the social bindings which would lead way to the feminist movements of the 1960s. Gender roles, particularly in regards to those concerning consumption, constructed in the 1950s can still be observed in society, albeit at a lesser degree.
 Crowell-Collier Publishing Company, “Woman’s Home Companion: April 1950 Issue,” Springfield, Ohio.
 Telamerica, Inc., “A Word to the Wives,” American Gas Association, National Association of Home Builders, and The Woman’s Home Companion. Prelinger Archives, New York City. http://archive.org/details/Wordtoth1955. Accessed April 7 2013.
 Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company, “Schlitz Advertisement circa 1950,” Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
 Knickerbocker Productions, “Our Changing Family Life,” Prelinger Archives, New York City.
 Jamie Kelshall, Winter Park. Photograph. April 2013.
 Friedan, Feminine Mystique, 202.
 Better Living Magazine, Shopping Supermarket Housewives, May 1955 issue.
 Jamie Kelshall, Advertisement. Photograph. April 2013.
 Sally Edelstein, Vintage Ads (L) GE Stove 1959 (R) Electric Company. http://envisioningtheamericandream.wordpress.com/2013/03/07/the-real-housewives-of-the-cold-war/. Accessed April 2013.