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Reconstructing Suzy Homemaker

Discussion in 'The Home Front Woman' started by MrsH, Jul 1, 2012.

  1. MrsH

    MrsH New in Town

    Hello Ladies,
    I'm MrsH, and I'm new here. Landed at this wonderful forum quite by accident. I've been trying to create a portrait of Suzy Homemaker, or, I suppose, a mid-century housewife. My Google foo has been weak and I've been unable to locate much, especially since I no longer have anyone I could ask directly. I'm hoping you all could help me.

    What I am looking for is, well, everything. A few assumptions, our lady is suburban middle-class America. Her family lives in a house, not an apartment.
    Economic issues:
    Does she have access to the bank account at all?
    If not, how are things such as grocery shopping handled, on the weekend when her husband can go with her, or does he give her the cash after she makes up a list and gets an estimate of how much it would cost? Or is everything handled on credit which her husband settles at the end of the month?
    Her appearance:
    Assumption here of 1950s, perhaps late 1940s.
    Proper foundation garments? What I've been able to find suggests a girdle. But what about her bra, would it likely be the bullet style or something different? And what about her knickers, what we know as "granny panties" or something else? Most likely she'd have a number of full slips, princess seamed, or something else? Would the slip's s silhouette match that of her dress/skirt (aka, if she has a full circle skirt, would the slip be full circle as well)?
    Can I get more information on what a house dress is?
    And what about a hostess dress?
    Capris/jeans/trousers - when are these appropriate?
    Skirts would be full or near full circle, pencil or A line, falling to just below the knee, correct?
    What about more formal events?
    Necklines, collars and sleeves - need some help here for dresses and blouses.
    Hats, what type, for what occasion?
    Shoes, again, what type, any rules on color/etc?
    Hair styles and makeup, totally lost on this one!
    Daily Routine:
    Assuming no kids, what would she do with herself all day? Obviously, there's cooking, and cleaning. She would probably wake early enough to ensure her husband has a breakfast of his choosing before heading to work, and ensure that dinner is on the table shortly after he comes home for the night, the rest I'm lost on.

    Google search terms; links to pictures, articles, or other threads; as well as direct information would be very much appreciated (or even an, "I don't know" :))

    Thank You all!
     
  2. Here's a previous thread with some similar discussion.

    Keep in mind that the "Suzy Homemaker" image was largely a creation of advertising -- real housewives tended to be considerably less glamorous than the people seen on TV or in magazine ads. I recommend Stephanie Koontz's book "The Way We Never Were" as an excellent discussion of how mid-century families really lived.

    As for access to money, joint bank accounts were common in the thirties, let alone the fifties. Most households worked on a budget, and it was generally the wife who was in charge of administering it -- she might allow her husband a certain amount each week for walking-around money, but in general she controlled the family pursestrings. He would turn his check over to her on payday and she'd run things from there on.

    A housedress is a cheap, simple, often homemade cotton calico dress with buttons or a zipper up the front for easy donning. It was usually worn with low-heeled oxford-style leather shoes and either cotton stockings or ankle socks. Hair would often be up in a headrag, tied over curlers. The typical woman wouldn't go into town dressed like this, but she'd have no problem going out in the yard to hang up the washing so attired.

    A girdle would generally be worn if only to hold up the stockings, but many women found the back support helpful while doing housework. If the woman had had several children the abdominal support was also welcomed. The bra would generally be simple cotton with structured but not exaggerated cups and elastic inserts along the band. Slips would usually be worn to keep perspiration away from the dress -- a simple cotton slip for everyday and something fancier in nylon or rayon for dressy occasions. Cotton briefs or wide-legged tap pants would be worn over the girdle, not under it.

    There was plenty of work to do during the day -- washing, ironing, dishes, vacuuming, getting groceries, food preparation, figuring the budget, paying bills, etc. It was not uncommon for a woman without kids to have a part-time job of some kind, especially if the couple was young and just starting out.
     
    vitanola likes this.
  3. angeljenny

    angeljenny A-List Customer

    The 50s housewife role is fascinating to me! Maybe read some books or magazines from the era. I have a few magazines and they have articles on charm, how to be loved, as well as bits on husbands. I quite like the rose tinted stereotype view but it is interesting to see what ladies of that era were reading - the articles must have been on subjects that appealed to them otherwise the magazines wouldn't have kept printing them.

    Books like Rose Buckner's Book of Homemaking and Fascinating Womanhood are also interesting reads.

    There is also this - http://www.amazon.co.uk/1950s-House...9894/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1341163135&sr=8-1 due out in September.
     
  4. MrsH

    MrsH New in Town

    LizzieMaine, Thank you very much. This is precisely the kind of information I have been looking for.
     
  5. Stanley Doble

    Stanley Doble Call Me a Cab

    You need to read some biographies or novels written by women in the fifties. Don't believe all the pop culture rubbish. Or sappy women's magazines.
     
  6. MrsH

    MrsH New in Town

    Thank you, Stanley. Honestly, pop culture is all I really have to go on at the moment, except for the small amount of additional info LizzieMaine was able to point me to on the internet. Haven't been able to make it to a bookstore or library just yet. What I'm not interested in is the feminist perspective or the arguments over whether women were oppressed at this time (I know some, if not most felt they were).
     
  7. Yes, Lizzie is right. Contrary to some stereotypes, the average American woman of the 50s was not kept in chains in the basement when she wasn't slaving away in the kitchen.
     
  8. I think the "typical fifties housewife" is one of the most abused figures in popular culture -- and she's equally abused by both sides. The feminists portray her as a drugged-up doormat who needed to be liberated, and the anti-feminists hold her up as some kind of Oedipal fantasy whose whole life revolved around finding the right brand of floor wax. The key to understanding her and her life is to realize both sides in the argument have an agenda that has nothing to do with the honest reality of the way she lived and looked at the world, and to take everything that comes from such sources with a whole barrel full of salt.

    As far as magazines of the era go as a window on her life, there were some sappy ones out there, but I'd mention the Ladies Home Journal as definitely not sappy. Its editors took women seriously, and the articles in the magazine tended to deal with serious topics in a sober, thoughtful manner. From the late thirties thru the early sixties, the LHJ was an exceptionally-worthwhile publication, and anyone wanting to understand the mid-twentieth-century middle-class woman and her values would benefit from studying it.
     
  9. Stanley Doble

    Stanley Doble Call Me a Cab

    I hesitate to say this. Having read a lot of books and magazines from the fifties, and having lived through them, there was a feeling at the time that the American woman was too strong and had too much power, and American men were turning into wussies. Furthermore, that the younger generation being raised in these households, and by female school teachers, were going to end up even worse.

    If you look at what they grew up into ( the hippie generation,women's lib, the boomer generation) maybe they had a point.
     
    Last edited: Jul 2, 2012
  10. ThePowderKeg

    ThePowderKeg One of the Regulars

    Newspapers from the era you're looking at will also give you a less romanticized view of the every day housewife's life: local department store ads will provide a more realistic sense of what she wore than magazine articles. Articles on local events may give you a sense of the types of activities she may have involved herself in - Ladies Auxiliary, political campaigns, church fundraisers and the like.

    Did your woman drive? And did she have access to a car? Transportation--or lack of--would have had a huge impact on what she was able to do during the day. My grandmothers each had their own cars in the 1950s and that was RARE.
     
  11. Good point. It was common in much of suburbia for the husband to commute by train to the city for work, leaving the family car in the hands of the wife for the day, so two-car families weren't as common or as essential as they are today.

    Families who lived in town as opposed to the suburbs were much less car-dependent than modern people -- neighborhood grocery stores and such were still common in the fifties, and most of what town-dwellers needed was within walking distance.
     
  12. Stanley Doble

    Stanley Doble Call Me a Cab

    Maybe it was rare for women to drive in cities but in small town and rural areas it was routine. Among my older relatives some had a driver's license, some didn't. Entirely their choice, or inclination. One had a driving license but never learned to drive. She got it in the thirties, at the police station, by paying a small fee (I think it was 25 c) no test. She only used it for ID.

    Another always drove the car because her husband never learned how. She had a series of Studebakers, I remember a Starlight coupe in the early fifties and a 2 tone 1956 Hawk coupe. From the thirties through the early fifties Studebaker was the style leader. Later she had a Chrysler hardtop. She was quite a stylish dresser too, and there were rumors of a rather "sporty" past.

    On the other hand, having a second car was considered extravagant until the seventies.
     
    Last edited: Jul 3, 2012
  13. Stanley Doble

    Stanley Doble Call Me a Cab

    As to the question of whether women had bank accounts. In most families I knew the women handled the money or at least, had shall we say a very strong influence on how it was spent. It would be a very brave, or very foolish man indeed who made a large purchase without consulting his wife. I knew a few such fools, they seemed to run in the family. It wasn't long before the wives took control and made sure it didn't happen again.
     
  14. Stanley Doble

    Stanley Doble Call Me a Cab

    Re: grocery shopping. Many things were delivered then like fresh milk, bread and baked goods, dry cleaning and laundry.There were drivers who covered a regular route. Houses built in the fifties often had a little trap door beside the side door, this was for the milk man to deliver the milk. Otherwise it was left on the step beside the door.

    It was still possible to place orders over the phone to the grocery store and drug store and have things delivered but this was going out. You could also visit a department store, clothing store etc, buy what you wanted, and have it delivered.

    As cars became more common and housing more spread out people dropped the delivery idea and did their shopping at the mall or down town.

    In the fifties the most common way of doing the shopping was to go down town once a week and do the shopping, and depend on the bread man and milk man for fresh bread, pastries, milk, butter and cream. If you ran out of something you could send one of the kids to the corner store.
     
    Last edited: Jul 3, 2012
  15. Stanley Doble

    Stanley Doble Call Me a Cab

    There is another thing I just thought of and that is the frozen food locker.

    Before home freezers became available in the fifties, every town had its frozen food locker. This was a building with a giant refrigeration system in which the public could rent lockers for the storage of frozen food. You could buy a side of beef and store it, or take your fresh garden produce and freeze it, or buy frozen foods cheap in bulk when they were in season.

    Whenever you wanted (during business hours) you could go in and get your frozen foods, usually take out what you were going to use for the next 2 or 3 days, take it home and put it in the refrigerator.

    I don't know how many people took advantage of this service but there must have been a lot. Every town and city had them, and every one had room for hundreds of food lockers.

    This all ended in the sixties, by that time everyone had their home deep freeze. A lot of the buildings may still be around, converted to other uses.
     
    Last edited: Jul 3, 2012
  16. Stanley Doble

    Stanley Doble Call Me a Cab

    Mrs H I think your impression of "Suzy Homemaker" or the typical American housewife is a caricature and bears as much resemblance to reality as Bugs Bunny does to an actual rabbit.

    Now that is blunt talk. I do not say it to be offensive, I want to make the point that if you want a real understanding of the period and its people you will need to do a lot of research and discard a lot of preconceived ideas.
     
  17. MrsH

    MrsH New in Town

    Wow Stanley,
    If your first post was a bit condescending, and the intervening were founts of exceptional information, then this post shows that you really need to learn to read for understanding. I mentioned early on that I was basing off of pop culture, because that is all I had.
    I am young enough that to speak directly to a woman who lived through this period (and wasn't a young child), I would have to speak with my grandmothers. Sadly, none of my grandparents are with us any longer, the last one we lost roughly a month ago. Of my husband's grandparents, there is one left, and she is not in a condition to converse at length on this subject.
    I do want as much accurate information on day to day life as is possible to get. I don't need the modern day commentary on whether it was right or wrong.
    Stanley, forgive me, you give the impression of being a male bent to be trying to protect me from oppression. If this is not the case, if you'd be willing, I would like to get your direct perspective, in the form of an interview....
     
  18. Angus Forbes

    Angus Forbes One of the Regulars

    Although there were plenty of chores to keep women busy, and lots of work involved, there was also a social aspect -- stay-at-home moms had some time to visit each other for coffee or lunch, or to read or go to the library, and so forth. Younger, more affluent women played some golf or tennis, perhaps at a country club. There were various church functions and charities to be staffed. Bigger cities had working public transportation systems which helped those without access to the family car or a second car.
     
  19. Stanley Doble

    Stanley Doble Call Me a Cab

    Actually I am a man trying to protect you from bad information. I got the impression you had an inaccurate, superficial view of the period and tried to correct it.

    On reflection, I suppose I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder. The prevailing view of women in the past as weak, stupid and powerless is an insult to the women of that time. I don't like having my mother, aunts, great aunts and grandmothers insulted.

    I apologize if I offended you. I find writing on the internet, it is difficult to be clear about something. So I tend to go overboard in directness or frankness at times. This is not a knock to you. I understand you are seriously trying to understand something which it is difficult to get information on. And that the information you do get, is incomplete, slanted and politically correct.

    This is why I suggested going to the library or second hand book stores and looking for books written by or about women at the time. This is the only way to get a halfway accurate view of any period. I know I have been shocked and surprised, on going back to original sources, to find the past was not at all like it has been presented.
     
  20. This social aspect also worked to the advantage of families with children -- it was very easy to find a place to park your kids for the afternoon while you went to the store or whatever. In most neighborhoods everyone knew everyone else, and it was nothing to leave your kids with the neighbors for an hour or two --- they'd leave their kids with you just as freely, knowing it all worked out even in the end. Same with supervising kids playing in the street -- even if they were out of your sight, you knew they were in someone else's sight, and that someone wouldn't hesitate to discipline them if they needed it, just as you'd feel free to put the neighbor's kid in their place if they got out of line. The whole atmosphere in a typical neighborhood was far more collective than individualized.
     

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