It isn’t hard to find writers who claim that the 1950s were the pinnacle of American homemaking. Just run a search on google for “1950s homemaking” or “daily life 1950s” and you’ll see what I mean. The results are the familiar stereotype; subservient wife, spotless home, happy nuclear family, wholesomeness. I find this amusing because so many eras in history are looked at with a modern eye and the “history” of the time reviewed more critically. Not everyone in 1920 was a flapper – far from it. Life before the civil war wasn’t anything like at Tara, and on and on. But perhaps the proximity of the 1950s makes it less appealing to deconstruct. We like the images that the decade epitomizes; Elvis and Marilyn, the diner and the malt shop, the hot rods and the poodle skirts. The 1950s represent Americana at its best for many people.
So what was it really like? Like most times, it depends entirely on who you were. For white men, the 1950s were very different than for African-American women. But speaking in a generalized, societal way, was 1950s homelife really as we imagine it? There are clues to that answer left in the writings of the period. Period magazine articles, books and letters give some glimpses into daily life. Television, like movies, tends to show the stereotype, not the reality, so not much fact can be taken from the fiction.
It is true that many middle-class women stayed home to care for the house and children. It is also true that the end of WWII brought more disposable income into the economy and luxuries became part of the post-war boom. There were more kids, more cars, more homeownership than before. The development of kitchen tools, such as the can opener, four slice toaster, double ovens and such, certainly changed the landscape of the kitchen. But the 1950s home was more than just Ranch houses with jello molds and matching appliances. In a fascinating article, Caroline Hellman discusses the 1950s kitchen in terms of political and social upheaval. Nixon took American domesticity to Moscow as a cold war weapon; writers used the kitchen as a setting for upheaval – think about Peyton Place and Catcher in the Rye – and architects like Frank Lloyd Wright were designing homes and developing Utopia at the same time.
Why is this relevant, you may ask? Well, I think it is relevant because we are currently in a revival of the “domestic arts” and homemaking is once again fashionable. With the 1950s held up as a model of sorts – if a somewhat benign and Stepford kind of model – I think we ought to know a little bit about the decade before we proclaim it the high point of the American homemaker. Yes, I still like “Leave it to Beaver” reruns and I wish crinolines and bullet bras would make a comeback but I like a side of perspective with my gelatin-molded spam, thank you.