There used to be kitchen store in Old Sacramento called the Solar Syndicate, and besides the vintage-looking stoves, novelty timers shaped like cheese wedges, and copper fish wall hangings, they sold a few books, some of which were the Collector’s Press “Retro” series. I only had a chance to buy two of them: Retro Breakfast, which I’ll review on another day, and today’s offering, Kristin Tillotson’s Retro Housewife: A Salute To the Suburban Superwoman.
Women have been housewives since the beginning of time, but when people today think of a “retro housewife,” June Cleaver usually comes to mind, or maybe The Donna Reed Show. These women wear big skirts and pearls, do housework in stilettos, have dinner on the table the minute their husbands walk in from a day in the rat race, and are models of domestic tranquility. Nothing rattles them. Nothing can even mess up their hair. Unwavering serenity and clouds of hairspray have that effect.
This is the angle from which Retro Housewife approaches actual housewife culture. In other words, it knows it’s pretty fake and idealized. albeit amiable and rosy. Tillotson’s own mother was a housewife, and her daughter likes wearing her old apron. To her, the the 1950s housewife is the north star of optimism, cheer, comfort, and ingenuity.
The way the housewife has been viewed in the last sixty years has fluctuated, as women’s lib pushed the idea that women staying home was oppressive and shameful. My mom can speak to this, as when I was growing up she endured feminists sneering at her that all she did was sit on a sofa in a muumuu and curlers watching soaps. Anyone who has met my mom knows that’s complete baloney, and it’s one of the reasons I refuse to call myself a feminist, but anyway…
Tillotson isn’t alone in her loving view of the housewife, as there’s a widespread desire for simpler times and more involvement with the family. A 2018 Pew Research study says that one in five American parents, dads included, stay home with the kids. There is also a proliferation of household cleaners such as Mrs. Meyer’s that require more elbow grease than newer formulas (I’m a Comet fan myself). The idea is that people want to recapture a time when not only was there less stress, but housework was all that was needed to maintain a trim figure.
Retro Housewife is divided into five chapters, which are more like sections: “An Attentive Wife,” “Mother Knows Best,” “The Way To the Heart,” “A Home That Sparkles,” and “That Feminine Touch.” Each section is kicked off by a page of solid information, and followed by relevent factoids, illustrated with period artwork and advertising.
Tillotson had a lot to choose from, as the housewife during the 1950s was heavily catered to by advertisers, knowing that she was the one who held the purse strings. Pleasing the husband was a big job, after all, and Mrs. Housewife needed all the help she could get. Advice came from all corners, including magazines like Good Housekeeping, Women’s Day, and Family Circle, and gurus like Adelle Davis, who published Let’s Eat Right And Keep Fit in 1953. Some of the advice the housewife got was sound and some of it was bogus, but either way, she was considered big business.
Housewives had ways of adding to the purse without upsetting the delicate balance of domestic tranquility. Only twenty percent of American housewives worked outside the home, and more than a few of them earned extra money via home-based business ventures such as Avon and Tupperware. However, many women still needed their husband’s signature to obtain a credit card or sign a mortgage, as it was often assumed that women didn’t have money coming in.
The 1950s were a fun time to be a parent. Disneyland opened in 1955, Barbie was first on store shelves that same year, and Dr. Seuss resumed writing children’s books after a hiatus during World War Two. Moms were encouraged to nudge their rowdy offspring into learning to play the piano, and could purchase foldable furniture for the playroom. If Mom didn’t feel like cooking, there were TV dinners and Koolaid at the local supermarket.
However, things weren’t always rosy. Polio was a major, major fear during the fifties. It wasn’t restricted to any one economic class–any child could be struck at any time, and everything was suspect, from neighborhood sandboxes to bedrooms. Between 1950 and 1959, almost 12,000 children died from polio. Fortunately, Jonas Salk’s vaccine was approved by the FDA in 1955, and the disease as we know it has been eradicated in the United States. Unfortunately, though, polio has been replaced by the much rarer AFM, but that’s another matter.
Tillotson writes that in the nineteen-fifties, just as it is today, the kitchen was the heart of the home. It was both a status symbol and capitalism’s answer to communism, as evidenced by the informal “Kitchen Debate” between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev in 1959.
Cold War frostiness notwithstanding, American kitchens were revolutionized in the fifties. Housewives enjoyed labor-saving devices such as dishwashers and self-cleaning ovens, but fridges saw the biggest change. Prior to the fifties, fridge freezers were often a little shelf or cubby in the upper corner of the fridge, which meant limited storage of frozen items and constant temperature changes, requiring the fridge to be periodically defrosted. With the advent of double-door refrigerators in 1947, freezers came into their own and the frozen food market took off like a rocket. Besides TV dinners, families could stock frozen fruit, pizza, fish sticks, Birdseye veggies, and Popsicles, just to name a few.
Of course, the rest of the house needs attention too, and Retro Housewife gives us a quick tour of some of the now-indispensable cleaning aids introduced during the fifties. New detergent brands, Dreft, Tide, Dash and Cheer hit shelves as automatic washing machines became commonplace, getting whites whiter and colors brighter. Vacuum cleaners were refined and updated, with Electrolux introducing its disposable paper bag model.
What good is a sparkling house without a sparkling mistress, and Tillotson winds up by briefly discussing beauty rituals of the fifties, and innovation was happening there too. One of the big changes to makeup application was the introduction of the mascara wand in 1958, which would eventually eclipse mascara in cake form. Some of the first long-wearing lipsticks were invented during this time, such as the Lady Esther brand which sold for a dollar apiece, or about twenty-five dollars in 2019 money. Miss Clairol also made a splash in 1950, with the debut of the one-step Hair Color Bath.
My only, very slight criticism of Retro Housewife is that none of the information is sourced and therefore should be taken with a grain of salt. However, most of it is verifiable, and this is not meant to be a serious history anyway.
Tillotson acknoweledges that the perfect fifties housewife didn’t really exist except in pop culture, but Retro Housewife is a loving tribute to a generation of industrious, strong women who made a haven for their families within the household. For the children and husbands who loved these women, the housewife was perfect because she meant home. Maybe that’s why more parents today want to stay home with their children; we’re longing for the stability the stay-at-home parent means in an uncertain, often harsh world. There’s definitely something to be said for that.
Another Origins post is coming up Thursday. Thanks for reading, all…
Tillotson, Kristin. Retro Housewife: A Salute To the Suburban Superwoman. Portland, Oregon: Collector’s Press. 2004.