CBCradio

  |
Bookmark and Share

Season Five.
"The Happy Homemaker: How Advertising Invented The Housewife (Part One)"

Airs Saturday April 23rd and Thursday April 28th, 2011.

This week, The Age of Persuasion looks at how Madison Avenue invented... the housewife. Over 100 years ago, the advertising industry realized they had thousands of household products to sell. All they needed was a customer. So they invented the Happy Homemaker, and for the next 25 years, encouraged women to be stay-at-home moms. That strategy created the biggest business in the world: Housekeeping.

The rest is advertising history.

Listen to this episode as streaming audio (runs 26:30)


Subscribe to the podcasts by RSS or by iTunes.

Listen to Part Two

All of the TV commercials and print elements we referred to in the episode, as well as some bonus materials, are below. Enjoy.

On October 4th, 1957, Russia launched the first man-made object into space.

It was called Sputnik:



On that very day, another historic first was launched.

It was called "Leave It To Beaver."



The show was created by two admen who had met while working at the J. Walter Thompson Advertising agency.

They left advertising to pursue a writing career in Hollywood, and eventually created a show based on a fictional family named the Cleavers. The series revolved around the antics of Theodore "Beaver" Cleaver, his brother Wally, father Ward and mother June.

Cleaver Family.jpg

Ward's job was never clearly stated, but June's certainly was. She was a stay-at-home Mom.

She was a housewife who did laundry, packed the lunches, shopped, took care of the house, always had dinner waiting for Ward when he came home, and she did it all while impeccably dressed in pearls and heels.

June Cleaver was the wife every man wished for, and the mother every kid wanted.

More importantly, she was the Mom every Mom wanted to be.

But the Happy Homemaker wasn't invented by Hollywood, it was created by Madison Avenue.

As people moved from the country to the city for work opportunities after the Civil War, families began to rely on manufactured goods for the first time. A boom in household appliances and goods followed, and manufacturers noticed that the woman of the family was emerging as the predominant shopper.

So North American businesses began producing thousands of household products. All they needed was a customer.

So Madison Avenue invented the Happy Homemaker.

The imagery of the Happy Homemaker was carefully chosen, showing women in domestic housekeeping roles with big smiles and frilly aprons, using the most up-to-date appliances and products to keep a spotless home.

It would become the dominant female image from the 1920s through to the 1950s.

That image of the Happy Homemaker had one major goal:

To encourage women to stay at home and consume household goods.

At the turn of the 20th century, Happy Homemaker imagery and articles began appearing in magazines like Ladies Home Journal magazine:

Ladies Home Journal cover.jpg>

In the 1930s, radio took over as the prime selling medium, and the Happy Homemaker archetype was continued on soap operas, where storylines repeatedly affirmed the importance of homemaking tasks. One the most popular soap operas at that time was called "Painted Dreams." Here is a photo of the cast:

painted dreams cast.jpg

When President Truman announced the end of World War ll, the United States emerged not just as a victor, but as a global superpower. That new status led to a huge period of growth and prosperity.



Madison Avenue went into overdrive, and began creating advertising for thousands of household appliances and goods for a public that was hungry to consume, after having denied themselves so much during the war.

In the early 1950s, suburbia was born, and the first suburb was built in Long Island. It was designed by William J. Levitt, and it was called Levittown:



Kitchens were now designed around appliances, instead of the other way around. Men commuted into the city to work, wives were left to look after the kids and take care of the home.

Next, television exploded onto the scene. Shows like Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show and Leave It To Beaver reinforced the stereotypes of confident Dads, perky Moms and well-scrubbed children. And commercials still dialed up the pressure on housewives:



There was no transit systems yet in suburbia, hence the popularity of the station wagon among homemakers:



By this time, the Happy Homemaker was well established and embedded in North American culture. You could see it reflected everywhere - in books, magazines, radio, television and especially in the movies:



The huge, frosted cake was one of the dominant images of advertising in the 1950s, becoming one of the predominant symbols of the Happy Homemaker. It also meant a housewife was happily toiling away in the kitchen:



Meanwhile, Hollywood kept the housewife stereotype in action:



In 1953, Alfred Kinsey published the infamous "Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female" report, stating that housewives were highly sexual beings, shattering the prevailing view of wives and mothers. A movie on Kinsey was made not long ago:



As a result of Kinsey, sexuality in advertising soared. Fashions suddenly featured strapless dresses, plunging necklines and bare midrifts.

Bra and girdle ads became bolder.

Maidenform launched a famous campaign of print advertisements that showed women clad only in girdles. They raised eyebrows and further moved the line in the sand when it came to being scantily-clad in advertising.

maidenform ad 1949.jpg

All in all, it was an attitude that was quite a few neighbourhoods away from June Cleaver.

And it was about to usher in the sexual freedom of the 60s.

It's remarkable to think that in Madison Avenue's pursuit to create a lucrative market, it developed highly influential imagery and reinforced stereotypes that would eventually contribute to limiting women's choices in life.

But it would also light the fuse for women's liberation.

And when the Happy Homemaker ran smack into the feminism of the 1970s, the sparks would create the next archetype.

And for that story, join us next week for Part Two.

  •