The Golden Age of the Housewife – How Our Modern View of the 1950’s Homemaker Compares to Reality

If you’re a housewife like me or enjoy taking care of your home, you may have looked online for ways to up your game or make improvements to your daily routine and homemaking skills. You don’t get far on searches of that kind without coming across the concept of the ideal 50’s housewife. In post-war Britain, women were encouraged to remain at home to free up much needed jobs for the returning war veterans, and with wage increases a few years later, as industry began to recover and exports like car manufacturing increased; even poorer working class families could manage more easily on a single wage. The notion of the ideal housewife then crept into the national consciousness as television and print advertisers realised that women had a large amount of the spending power in home based products and played on women’s desire to be respected in their home spheres.

In the modern age the common perception of women of the time is that they had a big preoccupation with cleanliness and routine, slovenliness and untidiness was wholly unacceptable, that they dressed well, and took great care of their looks and on the flip side that they were very repressed, probably deeply unhappy and unfulfilled, that their work was drudgery and that they were tied to the kitchen sink. But how true is this perception of them? What was life like in reality? And what can we learn from the way that they did things?

A day in the life of a 50’s housewife

The internet is full of “perfect housewife” and “1950’s housewife cleaning schedule’s” most of which are actually based on this one http://www.jenbutneverjenn.com/2010/05/keeping-of-house-1950s-style.html by a lady called Jen who did a lot of research for her 1950’s housewife experiment and found this suggested schedule from items printed at the time:

  1. Throw back the covers
  2. Open up the blinds and windows
  3. Freshen up
  4. Make and serve breakfast
  5. Clean up breakfast
  6. Complete a 10-minute exercise regime
  7. Shower, do hair and make-up, get dressed
  8. Gather a basket for tidying. As the rooms of the home are tackled, pick up items that aren’t where they belong and place them in a basket. Redistribute them where they should be as you enter a new room
  9. Straighten up the living and dining room, including picking up potential clutter, light dusting, fluffing / straightening pillows, and watering plants or flowers
  10. Make the beds
  11. Tidy the bedroom, including light dusting
  12. Hang up any clothes that may be about or ensure dirty ones are in the hamper
  13. Do a light tidy of the bathroom including removing and replacing used towels, refilling toilet paper and soap (if needed) and cleaning the sink and basin area including soap dishes
  14. Review the menu for the current day and the next and compare it to what’s currently available in the home. Make note of anything that needs to be prepared ahead of time or marketing (shopping) that needs to get done
  15. Begin long-advance preparations for dinner (such as making dessert)
  16. Wipe down kitchen work surfaces and inside the fridge
  17. Dispose of garbage
  18. Rinse dish cloths and hang to dry
  19. Sweep or mop the kitchen floor
  20. Handle errands that might take you out of the home (such as marketing, volunteering, going to the post office, getting an item fixed, etc), bookkeeping, correspondence, or indulge in a hobby
  21. If returning from the grocery store, wash vegetables, wrap them and put them away. Place rest of groceries or purchases in their proper place
  22. Have a quick lunch <- Yoinks?
  23. Start advance food conditioning like crisping vegetables or thawing frozen foods
  24. Handle weekly chore for the day (more on that below!)
  25. Set the table for dinner
  26. Arrange the living room for evening enjoyment (such as “the Mister’s” newspaper, book, and cigarettes)
  27. Do a quick sweep of the floors and ensure entrance ways are clear
  28. Prepare a special dish for dinner
  29. Freshen up before the husband returns from work. Consider changing into something more festive if the day dress is plain
  30. Set out a tray with equipment for making cocktails, should “the Mister” want to serve drinks before dinner
  31. Greet husband “gayly”
  32. Serve dinner
  33. Clear table and wash dishes
  34. Pour boiling water down the sink to ensure pipes are flushed
  35. If necessary, pack the husband’s lunch for the next day. Set aside a lunch tray in the refrigerator for yourself if having leftovers
  36. Set table for breakfast
  37. Ensure breakfast foods are available and do any make-ahead preparations for it
  38. Shoot yourself in the head Enjoy an evening of relaxation

If that isn’t enough, each day there is a once-a-week chore to tackle, which is basically a deep clean of a particular room. It’s not your typical “wipe the tub” cleaning. Nope. It’s stuff like:

  • Use metal polish on bathroom fixtures
  • Clean and disinfect all kitchen appliances
  • Scald and disinfect bread boxes and garbage pails and bins
  • Replace flowers with fresh bouquets

In addition, laundry should be done at least twice a week (including bedding) and floors should be mopped / vacuumed on a similar schedule.

There is also a recommendation in there to try to squeeze a 10 – 30 minute nap in the afternoon (if not because you’re actually tired but to “look more refreshed” for he-who-wants-to-be-greeted-with-prettiness when he gets home).’

So how realistic is that schedule? Did women really achieve 21 things before lunch and clean their ovens every week? Well I decided to do some research of my own to find out!

As both my grandmothers were young housewives and mothers in the 1950’s, I basically went about pestering all my aunts for information about what they could remember about their mother’s lives and routines. Here is what they said:

Laundry:

Grandma Sylvia:

“Mum had set days for doing things. Monday was wash day. She had a twin tub and I can remember prior to this she also had a mangle. She used to boil whites in a big pan on the gas stove and then use the mangle to take out the excess water. Before she had a twin tub I think she had a spin dryer so the hand washing could be spun. Don’t forget they didn’t have so much washing, a vest and pair of pants [underwear] lasted a week. You put fresh ones on when you had a bath which was once a week! … Collars were detachable from shirts so a shirt would last a week and just the collar washed.” – Aunt Diane

Grandma Lily:

“Mondays and Thursdays were always washing days. Tuesday and Friday ironing days. Beds were changed weekly, top sheet becoming bottom sheet etc. Blankets washed in summer.” – Aunt Carol

“Monday was always wash day. When I was the same age as Rowan [8] and Lara [6] that meant hauling out the wash tub from under the worktop into the middle of the kitchen floor, opening the lid, folding out the attached mangle, filling the tub with water, switching it on to heat and adding the Persil. In went the clothes, which were agitated by a rotating wheel device set inside the tub for the required amount of time. Then the clothes, bed linen etc. were hauled out of the hot soapy water, pushed through the mangle to wring them out then transferred to a separate spin dryer and transferred to the washing line. … If it rained then the washing was put onto a slatted airer, fixed to the kitchen ceiling , raised and lowered with a rope. Frankly wash day was hot, hard work. I think [your] Granny also used the left over hot soapy water to mop out her kitchen floor and clean the outside toilet … the indoor bathroom toilet came much later. … Tuesday was ironing day which probably took up all of [your] Gran’s day while we were at school.” – Aunt Susan.

Cleaning and Daily Routine:

Grandma Sylvia:

“She had a routine for household jobs too, like set days for changing beds, polishing, hoovering, ironing, cleaning the bathroom etc. usually just once a week … She would go down to the local shops every day to buy food for our dinner that day. Days before fridges. Her daily routine was, she would get up and get dressed straight away … After breakfast which Dad made before he went to work. He would light the fire and make a huge pan of porridge which was heated up when we got up. Dad would be gone around 7 and he brought Mum a cup of tea every morning before he went to work. Us kids would get a cuppa and a biscuit on a weekend only. Mum got up around 8. After breakfast she would go shopping for our dinner then come home and make it. [The main meal was served in the middle of the day] Her chores were done usually in between going to the shop and making lunch. Afternoons she tended to do some knitting, darning/sewing, decorating etc. She did all our decorating! Routine was a major thing back in the 50’s.” “She polished and hoovered once a week but it would be different days for different rooms, not all in one go… She did air the beds and open the windows every morning”. – Aunt Diane

Grandma Lily:

“She very much had a routine. She would go downstairs at about 6am to light the 2 coal fires downstairs and then start the breakfast for everyone. … Mum would then clear up breakfast. Monday’s and Thursdays were always washing days. Tuesday and Friday ironing days. Beds were changed weekly … Between wash days she had cleaning days, polishing wood furniture, scrubbing front step, polishing lino, cleaning outside drains , sweeping paths etc. all happened on particular days. Once a month wallpaper was wiped down, particularly in the hall where people rubbed up against it. Think we had a window cleaner for the outside windows, but inside windows were cleaned monthly. She’d clean the car once a month. Between all that, she used to make our school dresses, knit school jumpers, do gardening etc.” – Aunt Carol.

“Wednesdays and Thursdays I think were set aside for cleaning, bedrooms and bathroom one day, downstairs the next with washing down of paintwork on the doors, staircase, and so on as well.” – Aunt Susan.

Groceries and Meal Preparation:

Grandma Silvia:

“She also had set meals on set days, i.e. Sunday – Roast, Monday – cold meat left over from Sunday with mash and peas and pickles, Tues, I can’t remember, wed – meat (pork or lamb chop maybe) pot[atoe]s and veg (mushy peas that had been soaked overnight with a cube of something). Thurs (worst for me) neck of lamb stew, meat was so fatty, Friday – Fish fingers, chips and peas. Saturday we’d have smoked haddock. She went to town every Sat morning and went to the market and fish market. She would get tripe for Dad! … She would go down to the local shop to buy food for our dinner that day.” – Aunt Diane.

Grandma Lily:

“We 3 children had had our hot school dinner, so we were given a sandwich tea in front of the t.v in the back room. Mum and Dad would have a cooked meal in the front room… There used to be a Co-op on Holbrook Lane, and she’d take her order there each week, and just carry home in a shopping bag immediate needs. The rest was delivered by van. They used to do fresh fish there as well. There was a butcher on the opposite corner. Remember we didn’t have a fridge, so daily fresh food was bought. There was a veg shop, and what you’d call a deli today, in the shops opposite the house. Milk was delivered each morning and bottles were stood in a bucket of cold water with a wet cloth on the top in the cupboard at the bottom of the stairs… I can remember coming home from school and being sent over the road for a 2 lb bag of spuds for tea. We always had a Sunday roast and whilst the oven was on a fruit cake, a sponge cake and an apple pie were baked to last all week. Sunday tea was always salmon sandwiches, cucumber soaked in vinegar, tinned fruit and condensed milk, maybe jelly and blancmange if we were flush that week.” – Aunt Carol.

“Grocery shopping also had to be fitted in frequently as there was a pantry and store cupboards but no fridge until a later date. I do remember that Mum had her grocery book. She filled in her order on a new page each week. Walked up to the Co-op which was on Holbrook Lane opposite the park. She would hand this book over to the assistant but I’m not sure whether she paid then or the following week after the order had been delivered. I think the order must have gone in on a Tuesday or Wednesday for a Friday delivery in a small van and was mainly for staple items. Gran would shop separately for fresh meat and vegetables and carry them home herself. Milk came to the doorstep in pint bottles and when I was the same age as your little girls the milk cart was horse drawn.” – Aunt Susan.

Rest and Relaxation:

Grandma Sylvia:

“Before kids came along they would go to another couples house or they would come to Mum and Dads and play cards or go to the cinema. Things were simpler. There were no gyms or other distractions and Mums didn’t meet or go round each other’s houses. [In the evenings] Mum loved listening to The Archers and Dad would fall asleep! One of my memories is whenever I hear the theme tune to The Archers because when it came on at the start of the programme it was bedtime for us… [On Saturdays in town] She would let us go on the roundabout and then she would have a cup of tea and a cake at Lyons Cafe … That was her one treat…” – Aunt Diane.

Grandma Lily:

“They would chat and listen to the radio. Mum would knit or dress make. After we three were in bed, dad liked his classical music records…” – Aunt- Carol

Personal Care:

Grandma Sylvia:

“I can’t remember her ever going to the hairdressers when I was growing up … I remember her putting rollers in her hair and wearing a hairnet in bed… If she was going out she wore powder (in a compact) and red lipstick. No eye make up and never nail varnish.” – Aunt Diane.

Grandma Lily:

“She called herself a soap and water girl. That and a bit of face cream was all. She was still wearing her 1940’s hairstyle until the 1970’s when Sue and me treated her to a very posh hairstylist in the centre of Coventry, and she got the short style you would have known… No weekly hairdo” – Aunt Carol.

I can remember my Granny saying “All you need to be beautiful is a clean face and a smile.”

So from what I found, whilst a 1950’s housewife certainly cleaned thoroughly and worked extremely hard for her family, it probably wasn’t the all out marathon described as ideal in the magazines of the time, and they certainly weren’t all done up like Stepford wives every morning. So why the idealisation?

The 1950’s was the last time that being a housewife was looked at as a worthy vocation and viewed positively as a valuable contribution to society, nostalgia for that respect and regard for the hard work entailed in keeping a home has probably made us a little rose-tinted in our perceptions of how things were. However I don’t think things were as awful for them as many people today would say. Both my grandmothers were satisfied in their roles I believe, in fact both my Grandma Lily and an elderly neighbour of the same age said that they had been ‘lucky enough’ to stay at home and not have to work. We mustn’t forget that some married women did indeed work in the 50’s, the wives of the lower working class men would go out and clean or do laundry for wealthier women to top up their husbands wages and these women were very much pitied by their slightly better off counterparts as they still had to do all the work at home as well. As you can see from the examples I gave each family did things slightly differently depending on their personal preferences and routines, and certainly not every woman was up at the crack of dawn. While women’s rights and equality has come a long way I don’t believe my grandmothers were unhappy or unfulfilled in their lives, and the simplicity of having a clearly defined, admired role in society without the pressure to go out to work like today and the lack of constant bombardment from social media and advertisers to make you dissatisfied in your life appeals to many women today. They did however give the modern housewife a lot to live up to and admire.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this personal perspective on 1950’s housewives as much as I’ve enjoyed researching and writing about it. Please do like, and comment below with your thoughts.

3 thoughts on “The Golden Age of the Housewife – How Our Modern View of the 1950’s Homemaker Compares to Reality

  1. A fascinating piece of work Kate!! So proud of you for having the patience to put this together!! I’m so glad your Aunties remembered so much for you to be able to do this!! I found it difficult to remember the details Aunty Diane did but reading them brought it all back!! Your Grandma Sylvia was still continuing these things into the 60’s and 70’s and inspired me as a child to want to be a housewife when I grew up!! Xxx

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  2. Also, our grandmother’s did not do many outside the home activities. Church, working with scouting, going to extension homemaking meetings were the usual social lives.

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  3. I remember my Grandma saying that she didn’t want to do laundry on Monday like everyone else so I think she did it Tuesday. It’s evident from your writing that invention of automatic washers and dryers was huge in freeing up time!

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