Friday, 2 September 2011

Modern and vintage housewives: who had it better?

As anyone who knows me will attest I simply adore everything about the 1940’s and 50’s. From the music, clothes, movies and furniture its often been commented on that I should have been born in another time.
But while my dress may be vintage I like so many women juggle motherhood with a full time job and often find myself completing household tasks late at night in order to fit everything in. So was it easier to be a mother in the good old days? Perhaps less choice actually meant less stress. Have we been conned into thinking we are “having it all” when in fact in fact we are just “doing it all? But hang on I may want to look like June Cleaver but would I be quite so thrilled with using a twin tub?
Mothers working whist running a home isn’t a modern phenomena, working class women throughout time have labored to help support the family and during both the first and second world wars females were mobilized to work in factories and industry as part of the national effort.
If magazines and self help manuals from the time are anything to go by mothers in newly post war Britain were expected to be domestic drudges with the patience of saints and the appearance of Katherine Hepburn. Although there were more modern appliances than ever before, many were out of reach of the average cash strapped housewife. Just staying clean, warm and fed took a herculean effort. Getting up at 5am to clean out the remains of a coal fire and laying a new one. Using the kitchen sink and a mangle to wash everything including bedding, Lugging in coal from the garden and filling and emptying zinc baths. And after a week of this sort of hard labor even my trusty old stress reliever “going to the shops” was hard graft. Rationing lasted until long after the war and photos of the time show bored looking women queuing in all weather outside shops and having to hump home the bags. And if you expected thanks or support you were more likely to be offered helpful tips on how to do more and told to stop being a moaning Minnie as this gem from the Beginner Housewife 1956 illustrates “ Teach yourself to be ambidextrous. If you can wield a duster, a polishing cloth, a brush, a butter-creaming spoon, and various other tools with either hand… you will find your work much less tiring.”
My second favorite household chore is ironing. My first being hitting my head on the top bunk bed until I faint. ~Erma Bombeck
So that’s the ticket-don’t ask hubby to lift a finger, just become the reincarnation of the Indian God Kali (he of eight arms) and talking of him indoors if you were following the Beginners Housewife guide to the letter he would have no idea how difficult it was to keep the household going as he would see little evidence of it “At weekends confine yourself to dusting and perhaps a little surreptitious use of the mop or carpet sweeper. Your husband will register deep indignation and resentment if he sees you doing anything more vigorous. Had it been possible, he would have installed you in a beautiful house and surrounded you with a large staff of servants
So far so grim so is there anything from the post war mother to truly inspire other than their hair do’s? well actually, yes lots.
Women were tough then and I mean really tough and would never have dreamt of airing their woes in the same way we do today where its become almost the norm to moan about your lot in life to every Tom Dick and Harry (Katie Prices career would have been quite limited I imagine unless she could offer some bon mots about how to make a tin of spam feed five) and they also seemed to revel in a form of female camaraderie possibly only found amongst modern day ladies after one too many appletinis. Anecdotes of women popping into each other houses to lend a hand and share the burden make my rather complicated and expensive after school clubs look a bit sad really and boy were those women resourceful. Flicking through a copy of the 1949 book 101 Things for the housewife to do I’m bowled over by the ingenuity and ability these mums had, Guides on how to make everything from a divan bed to reseating cane chairs are trotted out in much the same manner as modern day mag’s show us how to achieve glossy hair and lose 5 pounds in a week. What’s also striking is how running a home is consistently referred to as a job in a way we no longer do. When women today call themselves homemakers or a full time housewife its often with a slight sense of shame as if we should all be channeling Sam Cam and effortlessly balance being high powered wives, uber mothers and career gals without a hair out of place. It may well be this dismissive tone towards housework, which contributes to working mums today feeling so shattered. The choices women have today have been hard won and the genie is well and truly out of the bottle. More and more women hold down full or part time jobs whilst also looking after young families yet it would seem those vital networks which were the life blood of the post war mum no longer really exist and yet we have never needed them more.
Channelling some of the "We can do it" ethos of the past-Power tool in hand

Whilst its easy to laugh at some of the downright misogynist views the media of the time put forward about a mothers role the more I read and talk to people who were alive at the time it seems women in the forties and fifties had exactly the same worries, hopes and dreams as we do today. They wanted the best for their kids, were concerned about money and felt guilty that they didn’t have enough time to be all things to all people. On balance though I think I’m happier to be a mum now, the joy of the dishwasher is not to be belittled and being able to not only tell my husband when I’ve performed a domestic task and receive fulsome praise (even if it is just wiping the sink down with a domestos wipe and chucking some toilet duck down the loo) but also put my feet up while he does his share of the housework is not to be sniffed at.

Bandwagon magazine 1948
101 Things for the housewife to do 1949
The Beginner Housewife 1956


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