Housework and the Happy Homemaker

art collage of appropriated vintage images. Collage by Sally Edelstein

Is housework the final feminist frontier? This collage about the Happy Homemaker and Housework  is part of a collection called Media Made Women which chronicles popular culture’s vision of women from the repressed but optimistic post war years of the cold war, through the disillusioned but liberating years of Vietnam, Watergate, and the turmoil of the Women’s Movement, when debates about women’s proper place was the prevailing subtext of American mass media. The art work is a smorgasbord of mid-century gender stereotypes. “White Wash” collage by Sally Edelstein

Happy Homemaker

Housewife Happy Vintage housewives advertising

To believe all the colorful mid-century advertisements no one was the beneficiary of the cold war culture of casual, carefree living more so than the housewife of the 1950’s and ‘60s.

All manner of unparalleled ease from cleaning products to appliances promised the happy homemaker a life transformed, a life so carefree you could do as you please. So undemanding it was a world of child’s play; so easy it turned routine into fun.

There was a fashionable young buoyant air about the mid-century housewife. Beguilingly feminine and Riviera radiant in her cascading stay fresh bouffant dress of Havana-vivid hues nipped to a tiny waist, she went about her household tasks smiling as if she hadn’t a care in this trouble-free world.

And why not?

It was to be a life of self polishing ease, of no rubbing, no scrubbing, no waxing, no buffing, with twice the shine in half the time; a wash and wear world of no stretching, no stooping, no bending, and absolutely…no complaining.

Dirt A Rama

Detail "White Wash" collage by Sally Edelstein composed of appropriated vintage images

Detail “White Wash” collage by Sally Edelstein

Despite the promises of effortless ease, it was simultaneously a constant state of war, a contest of nerve and will between the lady of the house versus dirt and disorder.

With the same zeal that cold warriors chased communists, housewives were convinced that there were hidden microbes and germs lurking in every corner. Glasses could no longer just be clean they had to be close up clean, everything had to shine like new, more sanitized and spotless than ever thought possible.

Grime Chasers

collage of appropriated vintage images Detail "White Wash" by Sally Edelstein

A universe populated with white tornadoes and white knights galloping into your kitchen with the promise that Ajax was stronger than dirt and as powerful as a Nike Ajax missile to detonate dirt forever. Detail “White Wash” by Sally Edelstein

All across the country while peace-loving American husbands lay awake at night, their nerves taught worrying about attacks from ICBM’s and UFO’s, the American  housewife lost sleep fretting over an invasion already in progress, one that threatened every man woman and child.

The millions of dangerous invisible impurities that lurked undetected in every American town, threatening to turn all that lay behind the white picket fence of the suburban home a terrifying tattle tale gray.

All Out War

Just as the fighting in Vietnam escalated so did the never-ending battle over dirt and disorder, both with no end in sight.

You could never let up, not for an hour, nor a day, or a moment.

Not if you wanted a home you could be proud of, a home where the air seemed sunshine fresh and the sinks were sun shine bright; a house so fresh, so clean you’ll wonder how you could have ever been satisfied before.

Detail "White Wash" collage by Sally Edelstein appropriated vintage images

Detail “White Wash” collage by Sally Edelstein

So even in this easy-does-it, fully automatic long-lasting beauty at the touch of a finger world filled with magical detergents and miracle fibers, mid-century women were still slaves to their homes, their days filled with never-ending repetitive tasks.

A New Frontier Fantasy

Detail "White Wash" collage by Sally Edelstein Appropriated vintage images

Detail “White Wash” collage by Sally Edelstein

A breath of fresh air swept in with the new frontier when President Kennedy challenged all Americans, “to excel to stand up and stand out.”

Though the atmosphere of the 1960’s was one of infinite challenges, women were still chained to their Electrolux vacuum cleaner chasing dirt, debating the well-worn topic of ring around the collar and exchanging the latest busy day Jello recipes while men joined the Peace Corps and saved the world.

White Wash

Detail "White Wash" collage by Sally Edelstein

Detail “White Wash” collage by Sally Edelstein

While others were out marching for civil rights in the 1960s fighting to break the color barriers, hermetically sealed housewives were cheerfully living in a colorfast world obsessed with getting their wash and wear laundry not just white, but whiter than white, a white to unequal others. We shall overcome dirt.

A Spotless Space Age

Detail "White Wash" collage by Sally Edelstein Appropriated vintage images

Detail “White Wash” collage by Sally Edelstein

The Space age was in full swing but housewives were left back on earth to clean it.
And if we did make it to the moon Lestoil assured us it would be women who would clean it up.

Waxy Yellow Build Up

Detail "White Wash" collage by Sally Edelstein appropriated vintage images

Using collage as a means of examining social fictions,  “White Wash” is composed of hundreds of images appropriated from vintage advertising, periodicals, newspapers, vintage school books, old illustrations, comic books, pulp fiction and all sorts of ephemera, dissociating them from their original use to better evaluate its original meaning. Detail “White Wash” collage by Sally Edelstein

With their gleaming new formula Ipana smiles, happy homemakers asked nothing more of others than to refrain from scuffing up the shine on her freshly mopped Glo coated floor.

In a world rampant with wars rioting and male entitlement these happy homemakers may have been smiling but more likely they were numb from Miltown or Valium.

Like underground nuclear testing,women’s anger was to be buried underground beneath the surface, but the fall out would soon appear. Before the decade was out, women would become as agitated as their miracle 2 agitator washers.

The Feminine Mistake

Detail "White Wash" collage by Sally Edelstein

Detail “White Wash” collage by Sally Edelstein

As discrepancies began to appear the New Frontier would pave the way for feminism as housewives were questioning just how happy and carefree they really were.

In beauty parlors across the nation while captive under their pink missile shaped hairdryers these women of containment shared their secrets, quietly discussing the problem that had no name.


vintage illustration woman

Fifty years later, women still do the lion share of household cleaning despite working outside the home. When it comes to housework, even modern, egalitarian marriages bear a striking similarity to these vintage images.

Housework is the final feminist frontier!

© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.




  1. I can hear FDR saying, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself. Unless it’s the household dirt.”

    For men, the battle was with the yard and the grass. No matter what you did to that lawn, the grass just kept growing. The husband knew that he would not have the respect of his wife and kids and the neighbors too if he didn’t have a well-manicured lawn.

    These battles are summed up in a great song.written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin:

    Liked by 1 person

  2. People were much happier than now.


  3. My daughter, who will turn thirty-six this year, is married to a progressive man who is one year older. Before I go further, I want to say that I really do like him, and he is not lazy. Housework is the one area of contention that arises almost daily between the two. A portion of the disagreements are related to who likes to do what. The rest of the housework battles form out of the question of: why? “Why should I clean that? “It’s fine the way it is.” Many times my daughter relents and does the work herself. What I’m getting at is this, my son-in-law does not see the need or feel the obligation to do housework on a regular basis (and I’m not talking about crazy clean and tidy). Everything else in their lives is driven by equity. Bottom line, your blog’s point, “Housework is the final feminist frontier!” really does hit home 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Susan

    You reminded me of a woman I knew in college. She was engaged to a Kennedy-era man who was active in civil rights and other good causes, but they disagreed about what her role should be. He once asked, “You mean, after we’re married, if I went on a peace march, you wouldn’t come with me?” “No, dear,” she told him, “But I would pack you a very nice lunch.” Incredibly, she was the one who told this story — to the astonishment of the other women in our dormitory. This was in the early 1960s — proof that some women were just as blindly resistant to change as many men. Personally, I don’t think that doing the laundry, taking out the garbage, mowing the lawn, or seeking justice are chromosome-linked activities.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A very interesting and well-argued post. Your collages are captivating too.

    Liked by 1 person

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