The Happy Homemaker
by Maxine Carter-Lome
The term “Happy Homemaker” is a 1950s throwback to a time when housewives took their role and job as wife and mother seriously and, at least publicly, with a smile on their face. In May of 1955, Housekeeping Monthly published an article entitled “The Good Wife’s Guide,” detailing all the ways that a wife should act and how best she can be a partner to her husband and a mother to her children. The article included such advice as:
- Have dinner ready. Plan ahead, even the night before, to have a delicious meal ready, on time for his return. This is a way of letting him know that you have been thinking about him and are concerned about his needs;
- Prepare yourself. Take 15 minutes to rest so you’ll be refreshed when he arrives. Touch up your makeup, put a ribbon in your hair and be fresh-looking. He has just been with a lot of work-weary people;
- Make the evening his. Never complain if he comes home late or goes out to dinner, or other places of entertainment without you. Instead, try to understand his world of strain and pressure and his very real need to be at home and relax;
- Clear away the clutter. Make one last trip through the main part of the house just before your husband arrives. Gather up school books, toys, paper, etc. and then run a dust cloth over the tables; and
- Prepare the children. Take a few minutes to wash the children’s hands and faces (if they are small), comb their hair and, if necessary, change their clothes.
We can laugh about this kind of advice now in the midst of a new era for modern women but at the time, the “Happy Homemaker” was the model of modern domesticity and the ideal to which married women aspired. Anything less felt like a failure to millions of particularly young wives and mothers who could never quite seem to make it all work as easily and effortlessly as presented and reinforced on TV, in the movies, ads and articles in magazines and newspapers, TV commercials, consumer packaging, catalogs, department store displays … virtually everywhere she looked!
Far from happy and ideal, the woman of her day was judged and judged herself against what she saw and how she lived, becoming a conspicuous consumer of everything from clothes and accessories to household appliances, personal beauty products, furniture, and certain food brands in an effort to emulate and achieve domestic perfection.
Helping her navigate her role as wife and mother was “Madison Avenue.” The advertising industry literally invented the ideal of the Happy Homemaker as a way to sell the hundreds of new household products and product categories exploding onto the market in the first half of the 20th century. The husband may have made the money but it was the wife who was the household manager and in control, directly or indirectly, of how that money was spent. This was where she derived her power in the relationship; something Madison Avenue knew and exploited in their imagery, packaging, and messaging to create demand for their products. We are reminded of some of this stylized, iconic marketing in DonaldBrian Johnson’s “Washday Collectibles”.
Also in this issue, we look back on the history of the Sears catalog. Once the dominant name in mail order and retail, the Sears catalog – the “Consumer’s Bible” as it was known in the industry – grew to 1400 pages at its peak and sold everything from watches and jewelry to clothing, toys and dolls, sewing machines, bicycles, sporting goods, automobiles, and even ready-to-assemble kit houses and the furniture and furnishings to decorate it from top to bottom. Now with its future in question, we look back on these catalogs with nostalgia and collect them for the stories they tell about the consumer goods movement over the last 130 years in America, and the fashions, products, brands and technologies of their day. While they are fun to collect and to look through for a walk down Memory Lane, only the older, rarer catalogs command any real value, although that may change if/when Sears finally closes its doors.
S&H Green Stamps is another product of its day. Housewives throughout the country collected stamps, diligently glued them into books, and scoured the redemption catalogs to purchase items ranging from jewelry and kitchenware to toys, beddings, exercise equipment, and boats. Collecting S&H Green Stamps was a national craze particularly in the 1960s and 70s. At its peak, the company produced three times more stamps than the U.S. Post Office! Judy Gonyeau takes a look back on the stamp movement and the collectible items that keep this consumer gimmick alive.
Although most women of the Happy Homemaker generation were stay-at-home wives and mothers, the more industrious found ways to make money without leaving the house or crossing over into their husband’s domain. The house parties! Companies such as Avon, Sara Coventry, and Tupperware created socially acceptable ways for women to earn “pin” money by hosting parties in their own home for their friends, family, and neighbors, and then their friends, family, and neighbors. Jessica Kosinski shares more on this topic.
Whether you collect cookbooks, like the focus of this month’s “Great Collections” column, or any number of the items, gimmicks, and promotional advertising that define the homemaker era, this is a collectibles segment of the market that can never fail to make you happy.