The mid-century American Housewife was the most envied woman in the world…smart…yet easy-going with never-you-mind freedom; that was the new Mrs. America!
“To be an American woman today,” Life Magazine gushed in a late 1956 special edition dedicated to the American woman, ” is to be cast in an exciting challenging and difficult role- exciting because the sky seems to be the limit in education work and freedom.”
And with the dawning of a whole new decade, the year 1960 was not only a new year but a whole new decade, filled with unlimited possibilities and promises of new freedoms, for everyone including m’ lady of the house.
Head of the Household 1960
Along with Life Magazine and the electric bill, the 1960 Census forms arrived in our mail early that March morning.
Mom eagerly opened the hefty envelope from Uncle Sam and got right to work.
Although it would be another year until Americans would be asked not what our country could do for us, but what we could do for our country, anticipating that spirit, we were asked- for the very first time- to extend ourselves and fill out our own 1960 census form without the assistance of a Census worker .
Nonetheless, Uncle Sam still dispatched an army of 170,000 Census Bureau workers toting identical 14 pound cardboard satchels to go door to door to collect the data from those non do-it-yourselfers.
While Mom sat at the Formica kitchen table twisting a #2 pencil steadily around and round in her fingers as she attacked the questionnaire, Dad was busy doing a double crossword puzzle. Dawdling at the breakfast table scribbling in words, he brushed some English Muffin crumbs off the page and drank a third cup of instant coffee.
“Well, here’s one I’m sure of,” he said smiling broadly. “Head of a Household, 7 letters.”
Confidently he filled in the letters in his square neat handwriting HUSBAND.
Mom gave a fairly satiric grin and poured herself more coffee.
After writing in my fathers name as “the head of the household” on the first line of the Census form, Mom proudly filled in “homemaker” in the blank for wife’s occupation- it was the new modern term for housewife.
One of the questions on the form concerned whether any member of the household other than Dad worked: “Did this person work anytime last week?” the government asked.
You were instructed to include “part-time work such as helping without pay in a family business or on a family farm.
However Uncle Sam stated very clearly- “Do not count housework.”
As if Mom would ever consider that work.
Like most housewives, Mom’s life was seemingly carefree. In the easy-does-it-beauty-without-buffing-self-polishing-wash-and-wear-fast acting-no-bending-no-stretching-no scrubbing-no-rubbing-magically-carefree-push-button world that was the American housewife’s world, she felt like a Queen.
“Well that’s that.” Mom said when she had finished filling out the Census. She spoke in the happy energetic tone of one who has found her mission in life and expects to enjoy it to the full.
She genuinely gloried in her role as the perfect wife and mother. After all, “What kind of woman am I if I don’t feel this fulfillment?”she and her friends would ask themselves.
Mrs. Housewife, they was told again and again in the plethora of articles and ads that appeared in the media, your judgment and taste have helped make the American standard of living the highest in the world!
Why just this very week Newsweek Magazine ran a special scientific report investigating the changing lives of educated women. “Who could ask for anything more?” Newsweek asked in this March 7. 1960 article. “The educated American woman has her brains, her good looks, her car, her freedom…freedom to choose a dress straight from Paris ( original or copy) or to attend a class in ceramics or calculus; freedom to determine the timing of her next baby or who shall be the next President of the U.S.”
Dad always boasted that Mom was the ideal wife- she could balance a checkbook, get out of a restaurant without losing her gloves, wear a pair of stockings twice without developing a run and prevent the Chinese laundry from smashing his shirt buttons and spraying on too much starch.
Although Dad kept nudging her to enter the annual Mrs. America contest sponsored by the American Gas Association, Mom demurred.
The contest was a nationwide search for America’s outstanding homemaker. She was selected on the basis of her ability as a homemaker and her personal attractiveness.
“If your husband boasts about your cooking,” the ad explained, “if your bright new curtains were stitched by hand- and you’re a good homemaker, this contest is for you.”
“ You can be the next Mrs. America!” Dad read out loud looking straight at Mom.
Along with the honor, the grand prize for the best homemaker would include a new Freedom Gas Kitchen and an exciting all expense pleasure trip for Mrs America and her husband to the fabulous Belgian Congo!
Reading further, the ad continued in its description for the ideal American Mrs.
“What is the typical American Woman like? We polled top homemakers of the country to find the answer. Is it you? If you love a party, hate doing the dishes and find ironing a bore, you are according to our American Mrs. Quiz, as normal as “blueberry pie.”
Mom grabbed the magazine from Dad and continued reading:
“How does she spend her day?
Most of her day is devoted to her house and family. She has several children and does almost all her own housework alone though she sometimes hires help to give a hand with heavier chores.
The way youngsters love to eat, it’s no wonder that the American Mrs puts cooking at the top of the list of favorite homework. Second best on this list- this surprised us- is cleaning. Sometimes she works outside the home but it’s usually on a limited part-time basis.
Mostly she chooses a profession like church organist, beauty counselor or voice teacher to give creative expression to some special talent.
And when Mrs. America’s mister said ‘till death do us part,” he meant it!
Not one separation in all except in the line of military duties.”
Of course if Mom were to read further in that Newsweek article about the young wife with a brain who seemed to have it all, she would read about the boredom and stagnation that was creeping into the lives of thousands of young wives. “She is dissatisfied with a lot that women of other lands can only dream of,” the magazine reported. “Her discontent is deep, pervasive and impervious to the superficial remedies which are offered at every hand.”
Copyright (©) 2013 Sally Edelstein All Rights Reserved
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