The Housewife in a Modern Marriage
What is home?
What does it mean to us?
The woman Within—the man Without—returning at night to the Home Centre—his day well-spent. . . .
The World Without—the business day—is like the home World Within.
The Man at work—
Driving the trolley, that others may ride to work.
Guiding a bank, that money may do its most for business.
Managing a store.
For his own home—and for all homes.
That is why business exists.
The woman’s work is more than
Preparing the meal—
That the family may be fed.
Washing the floors, the paint—that the home, the Centre of Industry, may be clean.
It is comforting the child—
Pouring peace and harmony upon the man—who is disturbed by the friction without.
For which civilization exists.
—Ida Bailey Allen, “Home!” in Home Partners, or Seeing the Family Through, 1924
Middle-class housewives (MCHs) had a moral vision of housework at the center of life.1 MCHs believed they could cherish and impart positive values through homemaking: caring for the young or frail, learning to share responsibilities with a partner, raising aesthetic standards, using physical resources sensibly, and nurturing spirit. Statements and depictions of these aspirations will help us understand what social improvements “good” women thought they could achieve through housewifery. Equally important, domestic success often depended on exploitation of other women, denial of physicality, and limitation of self-development—controlling “bad” impulses.
The dominant vision of twentieth-century domestic life was created during the interwar years. Though the nonworking wife continued to be the norm, the notions of husbands and wives representing complementary but separate natures and existences, which had governed nineteenth-century marriage, ceased to direct married life. “Modern” women and men had to negotiate household arrangements in a more fluid and individualized fashion than had their parents’ generation. Couples married, as Elaine Tyler May concludes in Great Expectations, seeking happiness, though “caught between traditions of the past and visions of the future. . . . [Men were] attracted to youthful and exciting ‘new women,’ but they also wanted domestic, frugal, and virtuous wives who would keep house and tend to the children.”2 Women expected their husbands to be financially competent, but they, too, demanded more from marriage than economic support.
The status of housework declined, according to Glenna Matthews, through “commodification of the home” and loss of respect “for housewifery as a skilled craft and for mother as a moral arbiter.”3 Nevertheless, women found meaning in being housewives and did not flee home life. They more frequently held jobs before marriage, and perhaps even until the birth of children, but the trend toward such work outside the home increased gradually. Only when the need for labor in World War II broke through general resistance to wives’ employment and postwar economic changes enticed educated women into clerical work (often on a part-time basis in deference to mothers’ schedules) did the trend turn sharply upward and MCHs begin to balance wage work and housework.
In the nineteenth century, housewives were, in Barbara Welter’s words, “hostages to fortune” upholding traditional values while their husbands created a competitive industrial economy. As the economy shifted from production to consumption as a central element in modernity, cultural norms of housewifery shifted. In the new economy, however, housewives’ devotion continued to justify men’s economic behavior.4 The ways women exercised their power as consumers determined the moral future of the country.
During the years 1920 to 1945, when middle-class women married at high rates and accepted the home as the center of existence, how did these relatively well-educated women, who wished to be up-to-date, conceive their role? How did they reconcile personal sophistication with traditional housewifely jobs? What values took hold in the consumer household of the 1920s to replace those of self-denial and self-sacrifice on which the nineteenth-century business and domestic economies had been built?
Most recent explanations have been guided by a feminist imperative that holds that women were seduced, duped, misled, and gently coerced into buying unnecessary products. They were not free agents in choosing housewifery, which, by its oppressive nature, could not possibly have attracted adherents. Such judgments treat women as victims and belittle their devotion to an ideology that offered positive alternatives or correctives to the male-directed world of commerce and politics.
To recover the ethos of MCHs during the 1920s and 1930s, I have relied on three sources: advice books women bought to learn about homemaking or marriage and family life; novels about courtship, marriage, and family life by popular writers; and movies about husbands and wives. All these sources gave women advice about marriage, as well as elaborate and romantic images of wifedom. The nonfiction writings are a sample taken from the Library of Congress and the Schlesinger Library of Women’s History. The novels are by four best-selling women authors who wrote regularly for women’s magazines, Fannie Hurst, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, feminist playwright Susan Glaspell, and Kathleen Norris, and by three men, Norris’s husband, Charles, a popular writer and younger brother of novelist Frank Norris; Sinclair Lewis, whose Main Street debates the virtues of small-town domesticity; and Christopher Morley, whose heroine Kitty Foyle suffers the hardships of the single working white-collar girl (WCG, in Morley’s acronym). Except for Kitty Foyle, the movie version of which is compared with the novel, the movies examined are about married couples: Marlene Dietrich and Herbert Marshall as Helen and Ned Faraday in Blonde Venus (1932); Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant as Tracy Lord and her divorced husband Dexter Haven in The Philadelphia Story (1940); William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man (1934, the original) and Another Thin Man (1939); Fredric March and Myrna Loy as Al and Millie Stephenson in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946); and Cary Grant and Myrna Loy as Jim and Muriel Blandings in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948).
Scholars continually debate the links between published writings, film images, popular imagination, and people’s behavior. Certainly, most Americans did not live like fictional heroes and heroines. Most movies and novels set their characters in well-off households, where disagreements about money rarely interfere with discussions about human toleration, forgiveness, and love, the material of relationships. Heroes and heroines are always beautiful and well dressed.
In Parallel Lives, literary critic Phyllis Rose tells how five Victorian couples negotiated their existences through the narratives they created about marriage. Her assumption that all persons “need to decide upon the story of [their] own lives, [which] becomes particularly pressing when we choose a mate, for example, or embark upon a career,” seems as true of the twentieth century as of the nineteenth. Rose’s observation that marriage is a particularly rich and culturally supported narrative that occupies women’s imaginations is true of popular novels and films of the 1920s to the 1940s. I accept Rose’s notion that we use imaginative material to “impose some narrative form in our lives,” giving them meaning and significance, though not necessarily determining behavior.5
By the 1920s, movies shared with novels the task of demonstrating appropriate attitudes. These images constitute billboards on the American mental landscape. Pervasive images offered directions on how women should act in particular situations: smile here, look tenderly now, forgive this indiscretion, and, more important, conceive of your character in this way. These signs are important for their positive vision of the housewife. Instead of the weak and easily manipulated creature we find in histories of advertising, or the educated woman duped out of professional work, or the housewife seeking to defend her service work in an economy with a producer ethic, images from popular culture reveal an American woman who saw herself in the vanguard of female self-development.
By 1920, with women’s suffrage passed, completing the domestic promise of U.S. commitment to democratic ideals in World War I, writers outlined home practices appropriate to politically equal adults:
The family must be democratized in that sense in which each individual within its bond shall be sustained in seeking and in maintaining the conditions of personality. No one human being is to live solely for others’ service or to have his or her value estimated in terms of contribution to other lives, but all to seek the utmost perfection of individual life as a contribution to the common life; this is the democratic ideal.6
Women and men would not play the same roles in the modern family, but their distinct parts would achieve equal recognition, most notably as partners presumed to contribute equally to family well-being.
The woman of this period, a twentieth-century analogue of the nineteenth-century “American girl,” the adventurous, inquiring innocent who represented America’s newness and freedom from artifice, illustrated the casual sophistication and informal elegance that resulted from a hybrid of American freedom and European cultivation. She “ha[d] good taste and such special abilities as making good pies, playing sonatas, or earning money. In short, she [came] up to [a man’s] idea of a capable, attractive, modern woman.”7 Like the American girl, the New Woman pursued knowledge but voluntarily limited its benefits to her own family. She was plucky, witty, sexy, trustworthy, and domestic; though she might attract men with her vibrance, she would never cheat on “her man,” and she would devote herself to his physical as well as emotional comfort.
A woman, more than a man, had to mediate tensions between experimentation and stability—between the old norms based in separate spheres and female self-sacrifice and new norms of comradeship and self-expression. She had to be fun, to have fun, and to keep it clean. She had a responsibility to express her individuality and a duty to align it with her husband’s.
Carol Milford Kennicott, heroine of Sinclair Lewis’s best-selling 1920 novel Main Street, appears at the beginning of the era as a clarion. College-educated and a librarian in St. Paul for a year before she meets Dr. Will Kennicott, Carol is slender, imaginative, and ambitious to acquire culture. Will, by contrast, is phlegmatic, realistic, and able to ride through prairie blizzards to treat trauma cases. He offers Carol the opportunity “not to have to live in Other People’s Houses, but to make her own shrine.”8 Carol wants to build a temple to good taste, spontaneity, and authenticity, not only in her house but in Gopher Prairie, too. When the town holds out only mass-produced newness and conventional judgments, Carol flees with her son to Washington to clerk for a government agency during World War I. Will is astute enough to give her time to learn that superior culture in a large, impersonal city is not satisfying. At the end of the novel, Carol returns voluntarily to her marriage and her home in Gopher Prairie, strengthened by a wider vision of the world to uphold truthfulness in herself and in town:
“I’ve never excused my failure by sneering at my aspirations, by pretending to have gone beyond them. I do not admit that Main Street is as beautiful as it should be! I do not admit that Gopher Prairie is greater or more generous than Europe! I do not admit that dishwashing is enough to satisfy all women! I may not have fought the good fight, but I have kept the faith.”9
Carol learns to believe in the worth of her own efforts from a “generalissima of suffrage,” who points out that large causes accomplish no more than “‘looking at one thing after another in your home and church and bank, and ask[ing] why it is, and who first laid down the law that it had to be that way. . . . Easy, pleasant, lucrative home-work for wives: asking people to define their jobs. That’s the most dangerous doctrine I know!’”10
The MCH could challenge philistines in her community and home, and she could provide a model for children, friends, and husband. Much of this she managed through intelligent consumption. Despite Lewis’s criticisms of mass production, his heroine Carol distinguishes herself through consumption: inventive party favors and food, well-tailored and dainty clothes, and redecorating Will’s office to give comfort to his patients.
A housewife’s role in consumer culture was not just buying. Rather, her choices and decisions in buying expressed her household’s standard of living and defined its social connections, sustained the family’s standard of living through intelligent purchases and support of the income earner, justified consumption by transforming goods into use for healthy and moral families, and exemplified the best qualities of American life as a well-informed and articulate person. No longer trapped in the home by a theory of separate spheres, by inferior education, or by political exclusion, women of the 1920s chose dedication to homes, to husbands, to children, and to community. Not self-sacrificial like their mothers and grandmothers, these modern women sought self-fullfillment as partners and companions. Feminist demands for self-fulfillment were appropriated and applied to marriage.11 In a free union, women could choose the “self-mastery and altruism” of housewifery;12 their voluntary restraint would ennoble consumption.
Choice was essential, moreover, because the qualities of good homemaking were not innate to women; rather, they were skills to be cultivated. Dorothy Canfield’s (Fisher) The Homemaker (1924), in which the mother earns income and the father “is homemaker in spirit and in fact,” was often cited to make the point that, though women were generally the ones “occupied with the details of the work and management of the home,” both men and women were makers of homes.13
Descriptions of the MCH’s role focused on her relationships to society, to husband, to children, and to herself. When specific jobs were mentioned, they were to be done so efficiently and cleverly that the house would seem “to run by itself.” Housework had to be done well, but it could be accomplished by anyone—a hired servant, a commercial firm, a machine. Only housewives could make a “home,” which required intellect, sensitivity, and diplomacy. Man brought home the raw materials of money, but “woman work[ed] them up into products of material and immaterial value.”14
Though attitudes do not shift neatly by decades, in general the language of partnership pervaded home and family writings of the 1920s and the language of companionship the manuals of the 1930s. In the 1920s, wives could still increase family income through home-based projects; by the 1930s, the wife’s intelligent use of money raised the family’s living standard but not its income. Emphasis on marriage organized around conjugal compatibility, including sexual pleasure, characterized the 1920s; by the 1930s, more explicit instructions about beauty, cosmetics, and diet appeared. Being intellectually worthy of a husband was important, but in the 1920s a wife also aspired to action in the community and civic world outside the home; by the 1930s, the wife cultivated her intellect for private pleasures and enjoyment within the home. At the beginning of the era, democratic principles were carried from politics into family life. By the end of this era, “home [had become] a microcosm of sanity in a world that is plainly mad.”15
Defining a Living Standard
A wife organized social life according to aesthetic criteria that embodied the family’s essence. She arranged the household, organized its entertainment, and set its intellectual and spiritual standard. Her decisions directed her children toward a secure future, soothed and refreshed her husband, and enabled her to pursue self-development, preferably in activities outside the home. Home-centeredness was, however, the essence of middle-class life. The home provided a stage for presentation of oneself as a cultivated person, worthy of success and social respect. It was the idealized setting for “those ceremonies and informal hospitalities that are the cherished memories of many men and women—reading at bedtime, picnics, birthday celebrations, Sunday night suppers.”16
While working-class people began to spend money on commercial entertainment, especially the movies, middle-class families persisted in the tradition of large family suppers and dinners for friends.17 Middle-class households served three meals a day; cookbooks recommended four courses for each. As the center of social life, these meals were to be surrounded with uplifting ornaments and served with grace.
Cookbooks, etiquette books, and novels gave fashionable advice to the eager novice or the experienced housekeeper seeking innovations. Radio recipe-giver Ida Bailey Allen accompanied instructions about household finances with illustrations showing a centerpiece made of poppies and grasses and place servings for a four-course lunch.18 Novelist Kathleen Norris’s Barberry Bush (1927) forecasts Nora Ephron’s 1980s Heartburn in providing ingenious recipes for difficult occasions and troublesome men. Norris’s heroine Barbara Atherton, or “Barberry Bush” as she is nicknamed, marries the moody poet Barry du Spain instead of the richest, and nicest, young man in town, Link Mackenzie. After Barry abandons her, she gets Link. The reader is aware, almost from the beginning of the novel, that Barberry Bush even more than her sister Amy, merits a good man because of her culinary skills:
Peas, and asparagus salad, and brown muffins, and cherry tart. [Barbara] began to mix her batter easily and comfortably; she had been able to make muffins for Granny before she was twelve. . . . “Amy, if you mix up what was left of the French dressing with what was left of the Thousand Island, there’ll be enough, and it might be kind of nice and light, with asparagus.”19
When Link visits the du Spains on their run-down ranch, he is impressed by Barbara’s “fresh blue linen, with the immaculate white collar,” and by her seemingly effortless speed in preparing a lunch of omelette with “sauce barbare,” which she has invented from abandoned goods—“jars and jars of pickled tomatoes, all coated with mothwing, in the cellar, and bags of onions, and some roots of Chinese ginger, and . . . dry peppers.”20
Barbara’s plucky resourcefulness on these occasions is bound to result in a raised standard of living, which she personally achieves. Though she has borne a daughter, Kate, and will not consider divorce, when Link discovers that the priest who married her to du Spain was a fraud, she happily acquiesces to Link’s proposal of marriage and prepares to become mistress of the largest house in town. She tours the drawing room, billiard room, and library and finds
in the kitchen, Tilly Smith, [who] displayed her wide range, shining black[,] her new white gas stove, her cabinet, sink and storerooms, her ice box—a little room in itself—and the small room where the maids and men had their meals. Tilly’s daughter was to be Kate’s nurse, an arrangement that made Barbara want to laugh. It seemed ridiculous that her wild gipsy baby should have a maid to herself.21
But, of course, this baby will have a maid, and Barbara will teach her daughter the natural dignity with which to adorn her new position.
Barbara, the daughter of an academic, represents the good taste and social grace of a class that values ideals. Wives of professional men such as lawyers, physicians, academics, and accountants saw household space for entertaining as more important than clothing or elaborate food.22 Businessmen’s wives might entertain less at home and more outside it, but they needed to be able to manage some events at home. All could aspire to turn out food as dainty as that of a tearoom and as “piquant” as that of a good restaurant.23
An excellent wife could guarantee her family’s suitability on the most trying occasions. Myrna Loy as Mrs. Nick Charles provides an unusual example of the wife’s good-natured hostessing; in The Thin Man, she arranges a formal dinner party, with candelabra, place cards, and full European service, for all the suspects in a murder case. Her husband’s revelation of the killer breaks up the party, but not before her proper attitudes about good food and service are noted.
The least effective way for a wife to help improve the family’s social standing was through employment. But it was acceptable for her to run a small business out of the home. Possibilities suggested in 1922 were truck gardening, baking for a school snack shop, operating a camp on vacant ground, and speculation in real estate:
With what she saved by stopping [household leaks] she made a down payment on an inexpensive lot . . . and persuaded her family to camp out on it and wear their old clothes during the summer. Her husband and sons did one thing and another to make the place pleasant . . . and along in August a real-estate agent persuaded her to sell her equity. She made two hundred dollars on the deal, and she had the amount of her original payment back and a good deal besides. . . . Now she owns her own home and spends her spare time in her car looking around for the best investments of this kind that she can pick up.24
Social advisers tolerated employment as an outside activity through much of the 1920s, though the working wife risked focusing on her career to the detriment of her husband’s and of her own charm. The image of the New Woman imperceptibly modulated from that of educated careerist to that of well-informed partner. A working wife did not shame a middle-class man by showing up his ineffectiveness as a wage earner so much as she cheated the family of social éclat. An up-and-coming young man needed the stimulation and refreshment of a mentally active and sexually attractive young woman. If she did not marry wealth, then her accomplishments signaled her husband’s worthiness for higher position. “It may interest young wives to know,” said one adviser, “that a large number of corporations have recently begun systematically to investigate the domestic environment of their employees. If it is found that it is not happy, that they do not enjoy a restful and congenial home life, they discharge them.”25 Without the wife’s tending, the husband failed. With attentiveness, the wife designed an appropriate “setting for both of you in the eye of the world. It is your background. It represents your taste, your experience, your knowledge of how things are done.”26
By the early 1930s, the tradition of wives’ making money at home had largely passed, but, faced with the Depression, women’s use of income became more important. “It is not wealth,” admonished one popular text, “that marks the difference” between a noisy, untidy home and a comfortable, orderly one. “The difference in each is determined in part at least by the homemakers upon whose skill and ability the qualities and atmosphere of the home depend.”27
Housewives kept social order, just like excellent companions, “the kind of person old ladies hire—for a good round sum [who can be] the social secretary of the home, seeing that the children make the right friends, and that father’s interests are properly looked after through social contacts.”28 Servants provided backup, at least for special events, that enabled the wife to entertain in a calm, gracious fashion. “In the upper middle class in general, a certain amount of domestic service [was] considered essential for a well-ordered household. The approved standard of living [could] not be maintained without it.”29
Christine Frederick, who advised housewives on home efficiency during the 1910s and advertisers on the psychology of the housewife during the late 1920s, denoted the shift from management as money-saving to morale-raising in a little book titled The Ignoramus Book of Housekeeping. “A standard of living,” she said,
is a set of attitudes toward certain values, toward articles to be bought and used, services to be paid for, and conditions under which we prefer to live. It is almost impossible to draw the line between economic or money standards and ethical or more spiritual values, for our spending, or wise or foolish purchasing or managing, affects character and the lives of each one in the family.30
The wife decided whether she spent money on children’s music lessons or on domestic help, on elaborate dishes or on an insurance policy. She determined the standard of living, which was not what a family could buy, but what it did buy.
Aspiring to live at the highest social standard one’s income could support was considered courageous. Magazine writer Charlotte Adams set a 1940s vignette at a bridge table in a high-income New York suburb, where a young woman lamented not being able to afford a maid or to live in the neighborhood where
“all our friends are: . . . Of course most of them have more money than we have, and all of them have maids. . . . I’m a good soldier, and if Johnny lost his job, I’d be willing to live in a two-room shack somewhere. But that would be different because we wouldn’t be in a nice community like this with friends who all have more than we do.”
Adams sympathized and said the young wife could choose between “peace of mind” by giving up the struggle to live well or the unease of pushing to achieve a high standard of living. Perhaps the wife should encourage moving to a less wealthy neighborhood. On the other hand, “sometimes keeping up with the well known Joneses is just the spur that Johnny needs to get to be a partner of the firm!”31 Though she must consult with her husband about what the family could and should do, an astute wife carefully evaluated her husband’s capacities and adjusted their social standard accordingly.
Women and men could purchase a house, furnish it, fill it with appliances and goods, but still not make a home. “A house,” as Emily Newall Blair wrote, “may be made into a home, but it may also exist and house a family and not become a home.” What makes a home is the care that gives a dwelling “Comfort, Peace, Beauty.”32
Wealth was inadequate without a talented wife’s superintendence. Radical journalist–writer Fannie Hurst depicted a variety of well-to-do households in her 1923 novel Lummox in which the title character, the word-lessly sympathetic servant Bertha, expresses values of sexuality, care for parents and children, and artistic responsiveness better than most of her mistresses. As a book uplifting domestic workers and exposing unfair employers, Lummox preceded Hurst’s organizational support for labor regulations and unions to protect domestic workers. As a gallery of profiles of housewives, however, Lummox carried a different message: aesthetic yearnings, sexual honesty, and kindness comport with good housework.33 Without these qualities, a family fluctuated in social standing and kept only such friends as it could buy.
No matter what income the husband earned, possessions attained their high worth only when infused with the wife’s spirit.
The home without a woman in it . . . is cold, unfeeling. Clocks go unwound. . . . Rugs and draperies have a cold and clammy feeling to their touch. Flowers wither. Books stand primly on their shelves, their characters silent and morose, not garrulous and friendly as are the characters in those books which home women leave about wherever dropped while they run to look at the gingerbread in the oven.34
True homemakers created aesthetically pleasing settings, while maintaining intellectual life and baking special food.
To manage such a household, women had to control money. Home advisers analyzing Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street could have predicted trouble in the marriage between the young schoolteacher Carol Milford and the older physician Will Kennicott. Unwilling to accept his wife as a partner in the business of the household, Dr. Kennicott doled out household money in proportion to the charm of his wife’s requests; he had a distinctly patriarchal aspect, feeling “generous” and “liberal” when he gave her cash. His wife finally rebelled because she “hate[d] it—this smirking and hoping for money—and then . . . spending it on double-boilers and socks for you.”35 Instead, he and other husbands were told to “place the work of wife and mother on the same financial footing as that of any other labor, and allot so much weekly or monthly on that account.”36
Wives had to be financially independent for two reasons: to plan family expenditures most effectively and to be self-respecting marital companions. The harshness of modern business required that the husband pay full attention to his career and left his wife responsible for decisions about housing, furnishing, food, and child care. Her management in these areas was as important as her husband’s business success in determining the family’s social position and considerably more influential in its day-to-day well-being.
Both in her purchases and her use of them, a woman could diminish or increase the household’s standards, not through “niggardliness” but by demanding good quality from merchants. In ordering meat, for instance, unwary housewives might telephone the butcher an order and trust him to treat them well. This was a mistake because, in the words of one manual, by their “very indifference, they throw before him temptations such as few men can resist in this money-seeking age.” Instead, housewives should cultivate the butcher through visits until he felt more interest and acted like a good friend, “willing to tell you facts about his wares that would be much to your advantage to know.”37
If the housewife of the early 1920s used her moral sense to keep merchants up to standards, her counterpart of the early 1930s used her aesthetic sense to buy the most “uplifting” goods. Wives were assured that “we are judged no longer by the quantity or value of our possessions, but by what those possessions show us to be. . . . Harmony of colors and simple forms agreeably assembled, even at the minimum of cost, have a far stronger message than a mere show of extravagance.”38
The items the wife purchased depended on the household’s particular character, which she divined and served. She purchased equipment that met her household’s needs. For instance, “If a woman bakes a cake about twice a month, she is foolish to invest in an electric beater. But if she serves mashed potatoes frequently, likes finely sieved apple sauce and cranberry jelly, she is foolish to use up her energy in beating, mixing, and mashing. Let the machine do it.”39 Advice books emphasized each family’s uniqueness and the housewife’s choices; nevertheless, descriptions such as the above established standards for various tasks and not standards for forgoing one item or choosing another. Not to purchase meant to deny a possibility of improvement or development of a particular skill that might please or improve one’s husband, children, and friends. Through creative use of money and buying, housewives elevated husbands and children to more creative, playful, self-expressive people; they taught self-development through consumption.
Finally, the housewife studied and nurtured the growth of individuality and self-expression; the home encouraged the growth of unique spirits, as opposed to the uniformity of big business. Social science language described “the general goal of homemaking . . . as the optimum development of the individual members of the family.”40 Efficiency expert Lillian Gilbreth may have been using examples from her own family of twelve children when she advised that
each member of the home must not only be able to express himself, but urged to do so, and given not only the opportunity but the rewards of expression. Home, “a place to rehearse,” “a place to show off,” “a place to cooperate”—each phrase raises a need and a satisfaction! Mary, who is eating so slowly and daintily that the boys are impatient and laugh at her, is practicing for the dinner party to which she is going Saturday night. Tom, who gave his current event shyly and briefly in school and is dissatisfied with the result, is reciting it at great length and at the top of his lungs to make up for his previous mediocre performance and to revel in the friendly family audience. And Jackie, who is carrying off plates before the family is really finished and rushing for extra spoons which no one needs, is actually only trying to show that he loves every one.41
Mothers and fathers had the job of recognizing distinctive characteristics and encouraging them among children and between themselves. Whatever purchases eased or ornamented such labor were justified by love.
These helpful ideas and useful items could be discovered only through constant self-education and study. Some portion of every day’s schedule had to be devoted to reading and to assessing new products that might increase the family’s share of well-being. “A homemaking woman, no less than any other, has to keep abreast of her profession. You’d hate to trust a doctor, wouldn’t you, who never read a medical journal or book?” queried one writer. There are, she continued,
books and articles in magazines on nutrition which you must read. . . . [and] on the nurture, care and upbringing of children. How to clothe and feed them; how to distinguish their characteristics, tendencies, inclinations, physical defects or perfections. These you can not afford to neglect, for the upbringing of your children is your most sacred responsibility.42
Women’s magazines were the housewife’s source of up-to-date information and hence not frivolous.
Husbands learned more indirectly, and usually from wives, about their part in family life. By the late 1930s, one book warned wives that
making each other happy is your business. . . . Your husband, being the right sort, can and should be expected to do his part of the readjusting necessary. Nevertheless, the fact remains that most of the burden of turning four walls and some furniture into something more than a glorified boardinghouse rests entirely on your shoulders.43
Transforming the commercial—the mass-produced for general consumption—into enhancement for individual humans was wives’ work.
The housewife’s work should also be fun, and she could make it so by dramatizing it, for instance,” in planning and serving meals.”
An exotic decorative touch here and there will transfer the most commonplace menu into a festive one, besides giving you the thrill of having expressed your personality. Make an occasion of everyday dinners by using colorful pottery, candlelight, unusual centerpieces (fruit or figurines will be just as effective as flowers), or by decorating your platters of food. We guarantee this a sure cure for any irritation you may have felt in the past about having to cook.44
Women’s refinement of mundane objects was immeasurably valuable, popular writers intimated. If the emotional and aesthetic qualities of family service could be purchased, they would yield a fortune. In Fannie Hurst’s 1933 Imitation of Life, widow Bea Pullman earns a living for her infant daughter and paralyzed father by wholesaling maple syrup to Atlantic City hotels, restaurants, and hospitals. Unable to care for her family and to maintain her selling, she luckily finds a widowed black woman, Delilah, who also needs to earn a living and support her tiny daughter. When Bea gets the idea of opening a diner decorated like a Pullman car and serving Delilah’s hot waffles and rich coffee, the enterprise booms into a national chain of restaurants, all staffed by middle-aged, heavy black women cooks trained by Delilah, and all offering a homelike atmosphere.
When Pullman plans the first new diner, adding New York to the Atlantic City original, she sees that
the major need was to succeed in duplicating the genius of the certain quality which had got itself born into the first B. Pullman: Delilah’s savory coffee, Delilah’s hot waffles, Delilah’s Hearts [maple candy], Delilah’s smile, Golden Maple Syrup, candlelight at dusk, thin china dishes, odors, the little pampering something that came so readily from Delilah.
Though Bea Pullman’s decorating—homelike curtains and her own Delft blue-and-white plates, in the first diner—is mentioned, the spirit is Delilah’s. For marketing the concept, however, Pullman garners the credit to herself, as she muses: “Some people have talent for writing poetry or building towers or singing arias. Mine must be to surround people for a few moments out of a tired day, with a little unsubtle but cozy happiness of body and perhaps of mind.” Pullman draws inspiration from her housewife’s vision, impossible to achieve personally after her husband’s death. In the business world, Pullman can be rewarded for her talent, her “ability to provide people with a few moments of creature enjoyment,”45 though her contribution is planning the atmosphere in which Delilah does the physical and emotional work.
A central characteristic of the wife’s refinement was her good-natured self-control; she never nagged or responded crossly. Men might speak unthinkingly and sharply because they were hard-pressed. But husbands did not set the tone of the household; wives did. For the wife, good humor was a job requirement. “No one can afford to let a hasty temper, a sullen mood, and tense feelings ruin the life. The woman who is thus afflicted should not become a wife until she has become master of her disposition, and can speak and act calmly under annoying circumstances.”46
Myrna Loy embodied Sinclair Lewis’s advice for Carol Kennicott—to adopt a stance of “unembittered humor” to meet life’s uglinesses. In The Thin Man (1934) and its sequels and in the Academy Award–winning The Best Years of Our Lives, Loy, as Nora Charles and as Millie Stephenson, confronts drunken husbands with aplomb and wit. As Nora Charles, whose inheritance frees her husband from the need to pursue his detective work, Myrna Loy keeps their New York hotel room supplied with Scotch and matches her husband drink for drink. When warned about his former girl friends and faced with his former chums—crooks he has sent up—Nora says with dry aplomb, “I love you because you know such lovely people.” In Another Thin Man, the former crooks round up babies and bring them in to celebrate Nickie Charles’s first birthday; Nora is amused and charming through this chaos. Whenever husband Nick faces danger, however, she stops the repartee, hugs him, and lets tears well up in her eyes; her witty exterior is for his pleasure and not a defense against sentiment.
In The Best Years of Our Lives, banker Al Stephenson returns home from World War II and escapes the uncertainties of his first night home by going on a nightclub crawl with his wife Millie, who drinks with him, and his daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright), who stays sober to drive. Both Al and fellow former soldier Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) are carried home drunk, and the wife and daughter get them to bed and tuck them in. As Nora Charles, Myrna Loy also fixes a bed for the hungover William Powell—“Get out and let me straighten that bed; you’re worse than an infant”—and in both versions the point is the same: men who are hurt, angry, confused, or celebratory are like children and must be guarded and cared for.
Caring for men and being their clever and entertaining companions occupied so much energy that child rearing became secondary. Historian Nancy Cott has remarked that “the extraordinarily large proportion of women maturing in the 1920s who remained childless, point[s] to the high tension surrounding modern motherhood. . . . People were marrying younger and more uniformly and wives were testifying to more sexual satisfaction, but fewer of them were producing children.”47 Indeed, as one writer warned,
Too common today are people like Mary and Jim, who, in their eagerness to do all that books and lectures recommend for little Peter, get so involved in his welfare that they lost all their sense of fun. They are today thoroughly dull people, no longer interesting socially. Jim has failed to rise in his business, for he mislaid the spark of enthusiasm which made him an asset to his employer.48
A refined household had children but was not child-centered. Wives had to manage resources so that children had caretakers and devote their improving impulses to men.
Indeed, the wife who was so little interested in problems of consumption that she had too many children to sustain the family’s living standard was a burden and not a partner. In Seed: A Novel of the American Family (1930), Charles G. Norris follows a California family through two generations from 1890 to 1930. Captain Dan Carter, who founds a ranch that prospers in the California agricultural boom, has spread his seed liberally, having nine children with his wife Matty and one with his brother’s wife, a treachery that leads his brother to murder him. His youngest son, Bart Carter, an aspiring writer and the novel’s protagonist, marries a first cousin, Peggy, and finds that her prodigious fertility, which quickly results in five births, traps him in a dull commercial publishing job. (Children no longer have the value they did when they could work a developing ranch.)
Desperate to free himself for writing, Bart begs his wife to use birth control, but Peggy, a devout Roman Catholic, refuses, and also discourages his novel-writing, which takes time from her and the children and brings in no income. When Bart has an affair with a supportive and successful editor, his wife packs up the children and leaves. For ten years, he enjoys success, with his novels popular and turned into screenplays. At the end, he returns to his family and argues with his dying brother, a priest, about whether Peggy should have agreed to use birth control. Norris evenhandedly presents both sides of the abortion argument. But the novel’s shape leads us to think Peggy should have put her husband before her loyalty to the Catholic church; then they could have shared his success instead of enduring a painful and potentially irreversible separation. Bart loves “his Muggins,” but her childlike adoration should have focused on him and not on priests. She is too old-fashioned for her husband’s good.
Exemplifying Consumption’s Benefits
The American woman was the world’s wonder: educated, a voting citizen, intelligent and independent, good fun, sexy and attractive, but also domestic, homeloving, and monogamous. Her spirituality was not, as should be clear by now, developed and expressed through religion but through aesthetic ambition, spunk, beauty, and devotion to family. These qualities inspired men like Sinclair Lewis’s Dr. Will Kennicott, who tells his wife Carol,
“One time I said that you were my soul. And that still goes. You’re all the things I see in a sunset when I’m driving in from the country, all the things that I like but can’t make poetry of. . . . I go around twenty-four hours a day in mud and blizzard, trying my damnedest to heal everybody, rich or poor. . . . And I can stand the cold and the bumpy roads and the lonely rides at night. All I need is to have you here at home to welcome me.”49
Being a man’s “soul” meant not getting bogged down in household chores. Women’s devotion to home required the consumption of helpful products, as well as access to servants, and these were the rewards women reaped for choosing to be home partners: the tributes of grateful men.
Household equipment was justified from the beginning by its ability to lighten the housewife’s load. To demonstrate its effectiveness, though, wives had to appear fresh, cheerful, and attractive, even in the midst of housework. “Tidiness” and “daintiness” were the watchwords of the early 1920s, qualities with which any wife could transform housework, even scrubbing floors and doing laundry. Doing work in old clothes demoralized the wife and depressed her husband. If she bathed every morning, wore clean, becoming clothes and comfortable shoes, if she was not one of the “kimono-and-ragged-shoes army,” and combed her hair simply, her work would appear pleasant. Such a wife and mother was “pretty all the time” because she found “‘clean methods of doing dirty work.’”50
Housework was no longer drudgery. Machines performed like magical servants to elevate women’s status and to give leisure, a social good justified in one book by paraphrasing Plato: “Tell me how the people of a nation organize their leisure time and I will tell you the destiny of that nation.”51 Women had proper tools available, and they needed only to manage them properly to create leisure time for themselves, time for “reading, an afternoon for club or bridge, tennis or embroidery, . . . time each day for study, rest or play.”52
Toward the end of the 1930s, emphasis on fitness and a slender figure justified the wife’s doing more of the physical labor of housework. In a piece titled “The Serious Business of Cleaning,” illustrated by a drawing of a stylish young woman in shorts and a bandana wielding a wet mop, the author offers the upbeat advice that housework is “as good and better exercise than golf. It increases the appetite and slims the figure.” It was only a matter of attitude.53
Self-sacrifice vanished from advice literature, except as a negative attitude inflicted by old-fashioned women who did not understand the need for a cheerful, energetic, playful household. Even efficiency expert Lillian M. Gilbreth instructed wives to plan housework so as to pursue their own interests and to remember that “it is really selfish to be too unselfish in the matter of giving up to others” in the family.54
Feminist playwright and novelist Susan Glaspell teaches this distinction with the story of “Blossom” Atwood Holt in Ambrose Holt and Family (1931). Poet Lincoln Holt has married Blossom, daughter of the town’s wealthy manufacturer, and become manager of his father-in-law’s cement business. Blossom manages social life for the gregarious Lincoln and cares for their large house with a maid and a nanny, who supervises their two sons. Blossom establishes her superiority when she welcomes the return of her father-in-law, a charming wanderer and seeker after life who abandoned his wife and young son years earlier. Through her intervention, Ambrose Holt, the father, is returned to his family’s bosom in death. After refusing insulin and voluntarily giving up his life to diabetes, he is laid out in the Holt house and his burial service conducted there.
Reconciliation frees the son from anger at his father and fear of the restlessness that led to desertion; through Blossom’s action, Lincoln will be able to open himself to life and to become a great, instead of simply gifted, poet. Though their daily routine “would slip back, and often seem a good deal as it had before [Ambrose Holt came], there had been life. . . . There lived in Lincoln something that was Blossom and lived in Blossom something that was Lincoln, because they had known together what neither could have known alone.” Blossom concludes:
She could be more patient now. She understood more so she need ask less. It was all right. One took what was there, and went ahead. It was all a journey, a pretty good journey. “Death is swallowed up in victory,” the rector had said. “Make it victory,” she said to something in herself. “Make it victory.”55
From the beginning, the reader knows that Blossom has extraordinary sensitivity that will enable her to achieve a moral triumph. She manages a perfect house, partially because her sympathy is greater than her servants’. Only Millie and Blossom are allowed into Lincoln Holt’s hideaway study, Blossom “to make sure Millie, who cleaned it, had not put books where papers should be, or changed ash tray and pens.”56 Blossom also hides in this room, and Millie, who never rings the bell to disturb its inhabitant, tells callers that her mistress is out. Except for cleaning, Millie honors the sanctum.
The governess, Miss Jewett, also lacks the independent empathy necessary to raise two very different boys: a strong, inquiring older son and a sickly, complaining younger one. As she gains maturity, Blossom realizes that “I must be with them more myself” to keep the sickly one from becoming a crybaby and the strong one from being oppressed by self-sacrifice.
Glaspell works variations on the old theme throughout the book. At the conclusion, Blossom gives up her desire to be called by a proper adult name—Harriette—instead of her infant nickname. Her new-found recognition that her wish is relatively unimportant echoes Glaspell’s statement at the book’s beginning: “Blossom did not like the idea of sacrifice, though she could not have said why, or rather, would not have permitted herself to know why. One should not know that it was sacrifice; one should know only that it was love and natural to do so.”57 Blossom’s “sacrifice” is not to daily housework but to organizing her life around her husband and sons, giving them courage to live in a world bent on making money and destroying the natural environment. Her attractive moral character is rewarded with material comfort and servants.
Popular, sophisticated writer Christopher Morley puts a similar sentiment into the mind of his honest, upwardly mobile, working-class Irish heroine in Kitty Foyle (1939). Having failed to defeat Philadelphia’s Main Line aristocracy for the soul of Wynnewood Strafford, her charming and weak first love, Kitty muses about whether to give up her successful career as assistant to a cosmetics magnate to marry an astute physician, Marcus Eisen. She is reluctant partially because the self-contained Mark seems to need so little help from her. He does not understand that “a woman loves most where she gives most. She loves you for letting her give. A person wants to give everything.” The recognition that Mark’s Jewishness, his “being so racial,” is a hardship that needs pluck to get through life convinces Kitty, finally, that he needs her support and that she can love him.58
In no movie is women’s loving men with hardships to overcome more lyrically expressed than in The Best Years of Our Lives, which won a special Academy Award for Harold Russell, a former serviceman who had lost both forearms in World War II. Returning to his tree-shaded neighborhood and his high school sweetheart Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell), Russell’s character Homer Parrish puts her off and pretends not to love her so that she will not marry him out of pity. They are reconciled when he finally tests Wilma by letting her put him to bed, which requires removing his prosthetic arms and hook “hands.” As with the other men in this movie, maimed by anger and the nightmares of war, Homer is tucked into bed by the woman who loves him. All three men are saved by a woman’s respectful, attentive, loving care. Not self-sacrifice but a self-conscious giving defines womanly goodness.59
Women were no longer to act like self-sacrificing mothers, and they were not to look maternal. Despite Depression constraints, manuals of the 1930s urged wives to create enjoyments for themselves and to luxuriate in physical care. Advertisers and domestic manuals advised women that
the first step in good grooming is cleanliness. The trouble with clean-liness is that most of us associate it with the hard, scrubbed, shiny kind, with hair screwed back into a knot. We have neglected to think of it as a luxuriant cleanliness. Use bath salts or bath liquid that have glamour and make you forget dishpans, and dust cloths, and diapers. Make yourself feel like a lady of leisure in your bath, and you’ll take more of them. . . . [Followed by creams and oils, they will] keep you looking years younger than you really are.60
Wives could aspire to the radiance and beauty of movie stars. Makeup used to lift women’s morale, and not to entice men, was acceptable.
Cosmetics were no more artificial than clothes.
Long ago we grew into the habit of clothing our hands with gloves, our feet with shoes, our heads with hats; yet we went along for years with unclothed faces. Then some of our more adventurous sisters learned how our feminine ancestors solved the problem of protecting their faces from cold or sun, and gradually make-up edged its way into our habits. Make-up wants its rightful place after years of neglect.61
Makeup no longer signaled moral looseness or physical filth. Rouge was applied only over a “scrupulously clean” face, topping a meticulous body. New brides had to learn about deodorants, depilatories, soaps, skin oils, and astringents.
Cosmetics implied physical attraction, which implied sex. By the 1920s, sex was going through a metamorphosis from a dirty unmentionable, an unpleasant necessity, to a physical elixir and the foundation of marriage. For women, sex was often associated with the joys of motherhood, though this was not to be its goal. Intercourse itself should please, regardless of the complicated consequences of pregnancy. “Marriage advice books now made sex the centerpiece of marriage.”62
In its new status, sex even outside marriage no longer ended in punishments that had been the staple for Victorian popular writing. Bertha, the silent heroine of Fannie Hurst’s Lummox, is essentially raped by her first employer’s son, a foppish aspiring poet named Rollo Farley. But in her arid life, the scene remains vivid. Though she initially protested, when Farley touched her, “She began to cry inwardly. There was a little heart in her throat that beat up against her silence. It was terrible to be dumb. She could have shrieked, ‘I am all locked! You hear! Prairies are flowing in me and oceans and I am under them. Locked!’”63 Farley takes her sexual longings and transmutes them into his only successful poem. He also takes Bertha’s virginity and costs her the job because Mrs. Farley turns her out when her pregnancy is discovered.
Bertha, however, is betrayed by a man and not by her own sexual desire. Adopted by a wealthy couple, Bertha’s son grows to be a handsome and sensitive pianist, endowed with the genius that brought his mother to his conception. At the novel’s end, Bertha has become surrogate mother and housekeeper for a widowed, jolly, loving baker.
Kitty Foyle represents a different class of woman and a different dilemma. A white-collar girl (WCG), she finds passionate happiness with the rich, attractive, morally weak Wyn Strafford. After romantic scenes in speakeasies, a Pocono resort, and a New Jersey beach hotel, Wyn arrives in New York on Halloween, and Kitty, happy with her first raise and a new room of her own, forgets to take “precautions.” When she discovers she is pregnant and begins to fantasize about her life with Wyn—who “liked me practically naked”—she reads the announcement of his engagement to an appropriate Main Line debutante and decides to abort. Again, Wyn’s weakness, his not being “big enough to have a bastard,” and not sexual indulgence, causes Kitty’s abortion. The cleaned-up movie version, in which Wyn’s parents annul his secret marriage to Kitty (stunningly played by Ginger Rogers), is more painful. Kitty bears the baby, legitimate because of a secret and soon-to-be annulled marriage, and then loses him to an infant illness.
Sex, women heard, was necessary and pleasurable, and its consequences were predictable in an era of birth control. Sexual satisfaction was premised on the notion of companionate marriage. The idea that sexuality, even without children, justified marriage, joined men and women in durable social bonds. For women, this required one more psycho-emotional balancing act. They had to be sexually reticent before marriage and then be sexually responsive in marriage. Wives had to keep husbands sexually interested. The stability of the American family rested on their success. Appearance and personality kept husbands attracted and alive. As the academic experts Ernest and Gladys Groves told their readers, “The wife . . . will always add a bit of illusiveness [sic] to her comradeship with her husband—not enough to annoy him, just enough to prevent her becoming a dull companion, lest their life together lose its zest when each thinks he knows all there is to know of the other.”64
Myrna Loy embodied the stunning and likable woman who attracted men without making any effort to do so and who would never think of cheating on her husband. In Another Thin Man, she dances with a debonair Frenchman only because she thinks he has a clue to the murder her husband is investigating. William Powell, as Nick, watches with the amusement of the perfectly confident husband and then, when a ruckus puts out the lights, slugs the Frenchman and takes over as his wife’s dance partner to surprise her when the lights go on. She is grateful, saying, “Why Mr. Charles, I do believe you care.”
In Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), a hackneyed film about all the ways a well-to-do city slicker can be cheated when building a Connecticut commuter house, much of the dramatic tension comes from Jim Blandings’s (Cary Grant) suspicion that Muriel Blandings (Myrna Loy) is being pursued by his “lawyer and best friend,” Bill Cole (Melvyn Douglas). When Muriel and Bill are snowed in at the newly finished Connecticut house, with Jim trapped in New York and his daughters marooned at school, we know the film is heading toward a hysterical confrontation between Grant, Loy, and Douglas. In the end, Mr. Blandings has a dream house and a perfect wife and no reason for suspicion.
Marlene Dietrich’s Blonde Venus (1932) provides a different version of how to reconcile vamping and virtue. In this film made for the American market, Dietrich plays housewife Helen Faraday. She is a German chorine, who met and married American scientist Ned Faraday while he was studying in Germany. When Faraday discovers that he has contracted radiation poisoning from his experiments, Helen resumes a show business career to earn money for him to return to Germany for treatment. She attracts rich Nick Townsend (Cary Grant) and gives him sexual favors in return for money to save her husband.
When her husband returns to Germany and she moves with their son into Townsend’s mansion, Helen remains torn between her fascination with Townsend and her loyalty to Faraday as husband and father of her son. Dietrich has opportunities to perform sexy nightclub routines, singing, for instance, “I’m beginning to feel like an African queen; I want to be bad.” But this is a facade. She is doing this work only because she loves her son and has temporarily lost the stability provided by her husband. In the end, Helen, Ned, and Johnny are reunited. In the reconciliation scene, Helen bathes the boy before bed, and then the parents repeat his favorite story about how the young American scientist found the beautiful princess bathing in a country pool and won her hand. Dietrich gives up being a nightclub star in return for being the princess of one home, and her affair is forgiven.
A girl’s learning to play the part of a homemaker with a bit of siren in her began during adolescent dating, according to Beth L. Bailey’s From Front Porch to Back Seat.65 By the 1920s, youth culture clearly approved of necking and petting as enjoyable and natural activities. In addition, as one boy said, “‘When a boy takes a girl out and spends $1.20 on her (like I did the other night) he expects a little petting in return.’”66 Though sometimes stated so crudely, petting was not exactly a payoff for a boy’s dating expenses but rather an expected fillip to the evening, and one increasingly believed to be regulated by the female.
Girls controlled sex on the basis of character. A “lady” knew how to have fun and yet to convey the limits of familiarity. She should never have to say no. “The convention of women’s responsibility absorbed this seeming contradiction. If the man took sexual advantage (which, in very early days, might mean only hand-holding but might extend to rape) or even tried to do so, the woman must have not really been a lady. She must have, somehow, invited or encouraged him.”67 (When the married man, Dana Andrews, kisses young Peggy Stephenson in The Best Years of Our Lives, he immediately recognizes her virtue, saying, “That shouldn’t have happened.”)
In 1940, in The Philadelphia Story, Katharine Hepburn’s Tracy Lord illustrates a young woman’s difficult search for the mean between the extremes of frigidity and moral looseness. Described by her former husband Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) as a goddess unable to accept human frailty, Hepburn rails against her father’s philandering and her uncle’s drinking. She was not touched sexually by her marriage, it is implied, but is one of that widespread “class of married maidens,” “perennial spinsters no matter how many [their] marriages,” as her father observes.
On the eve of her marriage to ambitious, successful businessman and politician George Kittredge (John Howard), Hepburn is attracted to young Macauley Connor (Jimmy Stewart), a bashful and talented writer covering the society wedding for a gossip magazine. Annoyed at her husband-to-be, Hepburn dances and drinks until dawn on the eve of her wedding. She and the now-smitten Stewart kiss and swim, and then Stewart gallantly deposits his almost unconscious queen in her room, observed by Cary Grant and Lord’s younger sister. When Hepburn staggers into the garden on her wedding morning and learns that she was drunk and affectionate, she assumes that she has had sexual intercourse and tells the bridegroom Kittredge that he must not marry a woman of “easy virtue.”
Connor, a man of honor, corrects the mistake—he would never take advantage of a drunken “lady”—and Kittredge tries to persuade Lord to marry him, with the warning that he expects her “to behave herself, naturally.” Former husband Haven immediately echoes his own desire that she “behave herself naturally.” With her future balanced on the meaning of a comma, Lord dismisses Kittredge and, in the rapid turnaround of farce, remarries Dexter Haven, promising this time to be “yawr,” like an “easy to handle” sailboat.
With movie stars providing models, women learned how to be sexy without being “loose.” By the time she married, a woman knew that she had to be sexy, for her own satisfaction and her husband’s. She was responsible for her husbands fidelity as well as her own. A woman shouldn’t think,
“Now I am safely married, I don’t need to fuss so much over my appearance” [and become not] quite so fastidious about her hair in the morning. Or perhaps her negligee or house frock is soiled or mussy looking. Remember you are still competing with women who are putting lots of time and thought on their looks and clothes, and men always have a wandering eye for feminine charm. Remember, too, that they are by nature polygamous; they simply can’t help it. You have to hold your man against the girls at the office, and the women he meets socially.68
Wives had to tend the romance on which marriages were based. “Carry on a love affair with your husband just as you did during your courtship,” one adviser wrote. “Forget about the dishes and cleaning up if the moon is high, the air flower-scented, and the night glamorous. Knives and forks can wait, but sentiment is of the moment.”69
In the ideal world, the wife could leave the knives and forks for the domestic to wash when she came in first thing in the morning. Otherwise, the wife had to give over being a housekeeper to be a lover. She planned her emotional and physical self-presentation to entice and reassure her husband, just as she planned and served balanced meals. Her greatest trick was juggling her own needs and her family’s desires to create the exquisite picture of an independent and domestic and pretty female: the ideal woman of the second quarter of the American century.
Such women—who held together marriages, men’s souls, and social standards—deserved all they could be given—and certainly the assistance of less sparkling women. In novels, movies, and advice books, women got images of the MCH as a woman with personal resources but also a woman whose manifold tasks “deserved” help. Carol Kennicott has Scandinavian maids like Bea Sorensen; Kitty Foyle’s widowed father hires Myrtle to keep his house and help raise his daughter. Myrtle gives Kitty spontaneous love, since “colored people don’t have to stop and think in order to be wise; they just know about things naturally, it oozes out of them.”70 Marlene Dietrich also finds friendly, responsible black women to watch over her son Johnny while she is performing. Black Gussie (Louise Beavers) not only serves the Blandings family but saves its house when an advertising slogan which Mr. Blandings realizes is catchy and can salvage his major ad account, pops out of her mouth.
On the morning he is to lose his job because he has not invented a slogan for a ham substitute called WHAM, Gussie says, as she calls the family to breakfast, “If it ain’t WHAM, it ain’t ham.” Jim Blandings knows it’s a great slogan and tells Muriel Blandings to give Gussie a $10 raise. Gussie is then pictured in the ad campaign to represent good cooking, just as Delilah symbolized Bea Pullman’s restaurants in Imitation of Life. This is the dominant fictional narrative for black women’s lives, assistants to white women and caretakers of white family life.
Only the immediate postwar film The Best Years of Our Lives pointed to an era without servants. When Al Stephenson’s daughter washes dishes on his first night home from military service, he asks: “Is this the maid’s night out?” With some amusement, the wife and daughter point out to him that the maid took a “night out” three years ago and has not come back. Life goes on comfortably, however, because daughter Peggy took a course in “domestic science.”
For MCHs of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, the ideal vision of wifely womanliness translated into arduous and important tasks that could not be completed without assistance, even by the wife trained in home economics. The complementary story of the enduring and self-effacing loyalty of women of color, spinsters, and working-class women led MCHs to expect to find help from these sources.