Back in Time for Dinner

Crazy things we told housewives in the 1950s

The 1950s were not easy on women. As housewifery became a high-pressure occupation, lots of people wanted to give advice.

In the 1950s housewifery became a high-pressure occupation, and lots of people wanted to give advice.

Housewifery was a high pressure job in the 1950s. ((Photo by George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)

In the 1950s, life got a lot easier for most Canadians, with one exception: the housewife.

For them, life was as dreary as ever, and even more complicated. The strong gender roles of the 1940s persisted — and in some ways, were deeper than ever as women were forced out of the factories and back into the home.

On top of that, more was expected of women as homemakers and mothers. Women in the 1940s had to make nutritious meals, do their part for the war effort at home, and keep their children alive.  In the 1950s, it went so much deeper. Meals had to be nutritious, attractive and exciting. Houses had to be spotless. Women had to be attractive at all times. It wasn't enough to just keep kids alive anymore; you had to look after their emotional well being, too. Standards were imposed by domestic manuals, women's magazines and a burgeoning advertising industry, and enforced by friends, neighbours and husbands.

In the 1950s episode of Back in Time for DinnerCampus mom Tristan pulls no punches when she calls it "a terrible decade for women."

The world was filled with advice for women, some of it well meaning, some of it mean spirited, some of it meant to sell things, and some of it just bizarre.

Distract your toddler with a nesting ashtray

'Bringing up small fry:' suggestions for tired moms. 5:41

By the early 1950s, the baby boom was well underway. Tiny children were everywhere, under foot and constantly getting into mischief. But CBC's domestic expert has a solution: keep your toddler from wandering into the fireplace by distracting them with a nesting ashtray. It worked for her, and it'll work for you. Plus, it's the 1950s, so you definitely have an ashtray nearby.

Pizza is an exotic new food (and comes on a biscuit)

Young women prepare a dish of their choice in auditions for the Homemaker's Club. 8:52

In 2018, pizza is the go-to food when you're feeling lazy and can't figure out what to eat. In the 1950s, though, it was a the height of exotic cuisine.

In a screen-test for the Vancouver Homemakers Club, Mrs. Brady introduces us to this hot new food trend making its way to Canada, from Italy, via the United States. She describes it as consisting of a "biscuit," tangy tomato sauce with oregano, and "nippy" cheese. There's no mention of garlic. Garlic is still foreign to British-influenced Canadian palates, so the Italian-style food of the 1950s would be much blander than what we're used to today.

If your child is having problems, it's all your fault

The theories of Sigmund Freud led to a new style of more permissive parenting. (AFP/Getty Images)

A pop psychology boom means that the theories of Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna experience a new level of prominence. Chief among them is the idea that the young mind is a blank slate. Who your child will become is determined in the first five years of their life. Children aren't born bad. If they're bad, it's because you failed as a mother If your child isn't developing at the right pace, or doesn't smile, or burns down the neighbour's garage, that's all on you.

But also, don't discipline your children

In the 1950s, children were at the centre of the household like never before. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

As a result of the rising popularity of the Freuds' theories, there was a sudden, radical change in how children were disciplined. Almost overnight, parenting went from being guided by a philosophy of "spare the rod, spoil the child" to a much more permissive model. The idea was that harsh discipline could emotionally scar a child, permanently. Overly rigorous toilet training, harsh scoldings, or too much general regulation could all do permanent damage to your child's psyche. One of the major voices advocating a change in how children were raised was Dr. Benjamin Spock, who's book Baby and Child Care was released in 1946, who said seemingly radical ideas like this one:

"Respect children because they're human beings and they deserve respect, and they'll grow up to be better people."

Where the old style of parenting was dictatorial, the new approach was democratic. Children were junior partners in the household and were to be consulted, and parents were expected to drop everything to attend to their children's needs.

There were rules to dressing, even when you're sleeping

Women of the 1950s were expected to look flawless at all times. (Orlando /Three Lions/Getty Images)

In The Art of Being a Well-Dressed Wife — originally published in 1959 and reissued in 2011 — Saks Fifth Avenue Designer lays out one guiding principle for women: "Remember it's your husband for whom you're dressing."

And that applies 24/7.

"Think pretty when making your nightwear selections, and please, no safety pins or missing buttons. Fastidiousness is essential when it comes to sleepwear.

For morning you need a warm, ­tailored dressing gown, slim in cut and ankle-length. This length is best because short dressing gowns can expose the unattractive sight of a rumpled nightie or pyjama ­bottoms — or bare white legs — ­protruding underneath."

Make it all look effortless

Not only did the women of the 1950s have to make exciting meals, ensure their children are well behaved without disciplining them excessively, keep their home smelling lemon fresh and always look appealing for their husbands, they had to make it all look easy. But of course, it wasn't.

To help keep up the illusion that this all came naturally, some women turned to barbiturates—a class of drugs previously associated with soldiers in World War II, now being prescribed as  "mother's little helper." Medical columnists in magazines like Cosmopolitain and Ladies Home Journal told women that sedative drugs like Milltown and Valium were the cure for what ailed them. Stressed? Anxious? "Frigid?" This class of tranquilizers could fix it all.


Watch one modern Canadian family live through six different decades on Back in Time for Dinner, Thursdays at 8pm (8:30 NT.)