When considering major American cults, one must consider the 1950s housewife. She, with a just beaming smile, revived the 19th century's cult of domesticity. Her kitchen was her wonderland, zapped with all things futurama, and golly gee whiz could she make a mean Jell-O. Her mantra? Nothing says love like mini marshmallows, coconut, and raisins!
The ideal housewife was defined by how well she could perform certain tasks around 5ish, or, in other words, when the husband came home from work:
- Wear lipstick, a pretty dress, heels, and perfume (even if she just scrubbed a toilet.)
- Greet him at the door.
- Take his coat and hat.
- Fluff the pillow on his favorite armchair right before he sat down.
- Offer his favorite drink or cigar so the chap can decompress from a laborious day at work.
But most of all--
Ding! Ding! Dinner's Ready!
The meatloaf, the peas, the carrots, the Jell-O, the upside down pineapple cake symbolized the all consuming domestic bliss that was pouring all over America like canned gravy.
Husbands and wives felt entitled to the good life. Of course they did! Hitler was dead!
Now most people wouldn't think Hitler and Upside Down Pineapple Cake are in the least bit related.
But they are.
Where War and Aprons Meet:
WWII disrupted the predictable gender roles for America: men went to war, women went to work. Ladies even (gasp! slap of the cheek!) wore pants for the first time. How about that.
WWII infused womanhood with an independence, a flavor for masculinity, never known to womanhood before. She built bomber airplanes! She fixed her own sink! She oiled military rifles! Shoot, some women even played the role of Santa Clause, and played professional baseball! Working for a paycheck felt surprisingly good to many women.
But the Marines, sailors, airmen and soldiers came home starving for nostalgia; memories of their cozy homes got them through the damp foxholes, mine fields, grenade explosions--in sum, hell on earth.
Men wanted their women to be women again, or whom their women were before they had gone to war: housewives.
But not so many women were going to give their newfound independence up so easily. Great tension between the two sexes oozed into society, laying the foundation for the 1970s Women's Movement.
In fact, a code for femininity was created to ensure pre-war gender roles resumed in picket-fenced America. It's aim was to socially condition American women by way of media (Leave it to Beaver and grocery market ads), even to home ec textbooks which were, ahem, mostly written by men for women. All these efforts combined to mold Rosie the Riveter into Rosie the Cake Baker. This code is now known as the feminine mystique.
It is only fair to opine that the 1950s cult of domesticity was not 100% a patriarchal brainwashing scheme. This was a give and take situation. The new domestic pressures most likely held such powerful sway over the female psyche possibly because she wanted to be a wife in the first place. Hello? She was happy her husband came back from the war alive? Not so many were that lucky.
Post-war matrimony witnessed extreme imbalance, even co-dependency, between the mister and missus. Men won the war and felt entitled to some pampering, and women wanted to over-compensate for years and innocence lost with buttered bread, homemade cakes, cheese and crackers.
However, one can argue, and many do, that women lost their authenticity in the process.
And that is how the happy housewife became the poster child for an entire decade.
What's Cookin' Good Lookin'?
Hmm! Green olives, celery and pineapple chunks in lime Jell-O with flowers made out of radishes for garnish--MY FAVORITE!
1950s housewives survived the strict food rations from WWII. A glorious culinary renaissance in the kitchen was bound to happen. Food went where food never went before.
Some things, however, caught on such as Pigs In a Blanket.
And boy, did she ever adore the cheesy, the ludicrous, the downright awkward. They called it inventive, but the big icon word for that is: KITSCHY: adj. so tacky or lame that it has ironic appeal.
Take the Tomato Sauce Cake for example.
Throw canned tomato sauce into cake batter along with some raisins and peanuts to apologize, and voila! The tomato sauce cake that the grand kids will someday puke up.
We can't forget about canned pineapples and candied cherries on the bottom of a cake, now can we?
Food became the housewife's medium to display her creativity, her ability, her domesticity-- her womanhood. To the chagrin of feminists, it was also her trusty route to starting conversations at the dinner table.
"Is that lime Jell-O in the shape of a fish?"
"Yes, Harry! Do you like it?"
"Kids! You have the best mom in town! She just transformed olives into penguins by golly!
"Swell! Mom! Swell!"
(Of course there will be Todd, sulking in a corner because he wanted a walrus out of a meatball instead.)
Two Quintessentials To Consider:
- Processed Food: How would you like you eggs, dear? Canned. And your bacon? Canned. New technology made food last longer, gosh darn! With the Cold War and Communism scare, food needed to last through an atomic explosion (note Twinkies). Every housewife had to consider a certain aspect about a can of beans: "How long will this last after Megadeath has occurred to feed a family of six?" If it passed the test, it would be thrown into the cart, next to a plethora of cardboard Jell-O boxes. Jell-O was king. Never forget that.
- The Over-Use of Adjectives: Every recipe had a fancy, overly-enthusiastic adjective slapped at the end of its name. The most popular being "Delight" "Surprise" and "Supreme" which strangely echoed bra names at the time.
Love or Hate?
The 1950s housewife is a bi-polar topic. Some women despise her. The very image of Mrs. Leave it to Beaver insults her college degree, perfume, small business and pet Yorkie. They will avoid any domestic venture in anxious fear of being grouped with "her." On the other end, some women wistfully wish to tie apron strings and place canned apricots and prunes atop her husband's birthday cake like the good ole days.
There is a great divide. I stand somewhere in the middle. In fact, we are frenemies. What are your thoughts about 1950s housewifery?
In closing, I will say this: the meals prepared by the hands of these animated home goddesses not only fed her family, but they also entertained her family, had her love all over it.
That is an art.
email@example.com on March 02, 2020:
I grew up on SPAM and still love it. The other recipes....I not sure I'd like to try.
Courtney (author) on July 12, 2013:
Hi Pstraubie48--I hope it's okay to call you that! Your mother sounds lovely! Of course not all women in the 50s fell in the "happy housewife" stereotype, which I think is splendid. I am intrigued by the 50's housewife because of the wide range of strong emotions she normally triggers. Of course the article was focused mainly on the 50's housewife stereotype, but it is wonderful to have a reminder that there will always be exceptions. P.S, have you written any essays about your mother? Her baggy pants, and straw hat and blackberry cobblers? It would be such a lovely read. Thank you for sharing!
Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on July 12, 2013:
My Momma marched to the beat of a different drum...her own. And my Daddy and she got along quite well. You would not find her in a dress unless she was going out somewhere with the fam or with Daddy. She spend her days from dawn to dusk in old baggy pants, long sleeved shirts and a straw hat. Working outside in her many flower beds and vegetable gardens is what brought her happiness. And what made her happy made Daddy happy. Yes, she cooked but she also taught her daughters to help at mealtime and other times and she taught us to cook at a young age.
And our meals were delicious. If she ever made pigs in a blanket she made the dough from scratch. We had many cobblers from the blackberries that grew abundantly on our property and strawberry shortcake was a summer hit.
Thanks for sharing this Angels are on the way ps