I Spent a Week As a '50s Housewife, and Here's What My Pretty Little Head Learned
I am a very bad '50s housewife. You can tell because, at 8:55 p.m., on the coldest night of fall so far, I am frantically running through the streets of my neighborhood in a cocktail dress, a winter coat, and rain boots, trying to get to a grocery store that closes at 9 because I need to buy all of the ingredients to make a pumpkin pie right now. I am running because I thought the store closed at 10...and also because I had spent the past hour-and-a-half on Twitter, eating Tostitos, and Google image-searching "Michael Stipe hats" and had lost track of the time. Told you I was a bad '50s housewife.
Whenever I'd imagined myself in the '50s, it was always as more of a Holly Golightly type — free-wheeling, mysterious, possibly a prostitute — than a Donna Reed type. So when my editor approached me to try out a '50s lifestyle for a week, I was incredulous. I'm 32, unmarried, childless, living in sin with my boyfriend, and am obsessed with my career, fart jokes, and podcasts about murder. I'm also a bad cook, mouthy, and disorganized. In the actual '50s, I probably would have been burned at the stake, or at the very least, prescribed some very fun pills.
But my editor wasn't offering me any fun pills (as usual). So what the hell could someone like me get from living like a '50s housewife for a week? In the interest of history/sociology/a good joke, I dug into some advice texts from the '50s and decided to find out.
CLOTHING & MAKEUP
In my quest for '50s-ification, it seemed easiest to start with the surface — a line of thinking for which the '50s were renowned. The 1950s were an era when people dressed up to ride airplanes and have dinner in their own home; could the era's fashion tips lead me to a higher plane of style?
I took as my fashion guide Anne Fogarty's 1959 book, How to Be a Well-Dressed Wife. And how does one become a well-dressed wife?
Discipline is the secret of good grooming, well-cared for clothes, and an organized household. It helps you decide which style is right for you — and what does not suit.
Fogarty also thinks you shouldn't have too many accessories, you should wear a lot of tasteful perfume, and that you should throw away worn-out shoes — advice that is not hopelessly out of date at all.
So how would I dress with discipline? Well, dipping into my collection of rarely worn party dresses seemed like a good start.
As a single lady, I had a million adorable dresses that I wore regularly. After I settled down with my boyfriend for a while, I gained some weight and couldn't fit into half of my cute outfits, which depressed me so much, I decided to wear none of my cute outfits — which is how I became the lightly disheveled Garth Algar type that you see before you.
So, trying to tap into some of Fogarty's fashion discipline, I dug into my closet, slapped on some mascara and eyeliner, and came out with this:
Not terribly different, and yet...I did feel a little more disciplined and a little more together.
I put on a fancy dress and makeup first thing in the morning every day of this experiment (before I even had my coffee, as this guide for '50s brides suggests, and it instantly made me feel like I was ready for action.
And seeing me going about my day dressed up, just as winter was getting real, seemed to make people who saw me on the street happy. Strangers thought that I just had such a strong sense of myself and what I wanted to look like that I made it work, even on the coldest day of the year. And that seemed to buoy people's spirits — I was the only person who got told, "Have a nice day, beautiful!" by the (female) barista at my coffee shop. It helped me remember why I had once been so invested in buying nice dresses in the first place.
Conclusion: Dressing up did actually make me feel more focused and disciplined than when I spend three days straight wearing a Snuggie as a dress.
If there's one part of the 1950s housewife lifestyle that I can get down with, it's the cleaning. Or so I thought. It turns out that I just like cleaning when I feel like it — after a long day of intellectual rigor/boner jokes, when I find wiping down a kitchen range or scrubbing a tub particularly soothing.
According to this researched and thorough guide to 1950s cleaning schedules, 1950s housewife cleaning took about three hours every day and involved daily cleaning of the bathroom, kitchen, and living room, sweeping the floors, and doing at least one load of laundry.
Again, I tried. I really did. At first, I even thought it was kind of fun. But then, I decided to tackle my bathroom. Some tub scrubbing here, some toilet cleaning there...and then I absentmindedly began scrubbing my shower walls, an area I rarely clean. My shower walls were filthy! FILTHY! What kind of housewife was I? What kind of human being was I? I began obsessively scrubbing them and was 45 minutes late to put my laundry in the dryer, which then set back my schedule, leaving me getting started with my actual work several hours late in the morning.
By the day's end, I was too exhausted to fold any of the laundry. In fact, it's still laying in a hamper in my room. I kept spot-cleaning the kitchen and bathroom for the rest of the week, but I found that doing any other housework and maintaining my actual job fell somewhere between masochism and impossibility.
Conclusion: No one needs their bathroom cleaned every day, unless that bathroom is in a Starbucks or something.
Fifties etiquette advice fascinates us so because it seems so straight-up bizarre, it feels like it was written to advise folks on another planet, not another decade. Tip your soup bowl? Put your cherry pits in a spoon? What were people's lives like that they could have possibly given a sh*t about this stuff? Is it because we didn't have cable yet?
That stuff's funny, sure — but what about etiquette advice that offered broader ideas about how women should conduct themselves around their men? Well, it turns out that most of it amounts to "shut your pie hole."
Again from that sage, Mrs. Dale Carnegie, here's some advice on keeping the marital peace:
Nagging is a devastating emotional disease...If [your husband] should tell you that you are a nag, don't react by violent denial – that only proves he is right.
Robert H. Loeb, author of 1959's She-Manners: A Teen Girl's Book of Etiquette, has similar advice:
Compliment him on his physical prowess, his mental acumen, his good looks, his virility.... Let him think he's king much of the time. He will love you for it, and, you know, it will make you feel extremely feminine.
Since my boyfriend would immediately see through my suddenly showering him with compliments on his virility ("My, how healthy your boner looks today!"), I decided to see if I could cut down on nagging, a habit that I had sadly adopted since we'd moved in together.
I practiced holding my tongue about the kind of dumb crap that usually bugged me. For example, when he had to move some beach chairs from a closet to put away his air conditioner, I tried to phrase my request as a question — "What are we going to do about these beach chairs, I wonder?" — rather than my usual urge to phrase it in the form of a complaint ("If you do not move these beach chairs, I am selling all of our possessions and moving to Baja without you").
I don't know if my backing off on the nagging made any difference to him, but it did make me feel like less of a dick. I noticed that the nagging didn't seem to make any difference in how he acted — it just made him feel yelled at and made me feel mean. So that was a net positive. But it certainly didn't feel "extremely feminine." What does that even mean? Like you're in a douche commercial?
Conclusion: Quitting nagging is good because nagging is rude, not because it makes anyone feel like "a king."
SEX & RELATIONSHIPS
Getting 1950s relationship advice for my life was confusing, because, by 1950s standards, my relationship — a long-term, committed, unmarried domestic partnership — basically didn't exist. So I decided to just go with "married" for this experiment — especially since the only sex advice for unmarried people in the '50s basically amounted to: "Don't have sex, and also, go get married."
So as a married '50s housewife, how was I supposed to conduct myself in our relationship? Well, for starters, according to all of the sexual advice of the day, I'm "frigid" because I can't have vaginal orgasms. Try to read this assessment of marital frigidity without bursting into laughter:
It is generally known among psychotherapists that many so-called frigid women experience orgasm, or at least highly pleasurable, near orgiastic sensations when masturbating or during dreams and even from extragenital sexual contacts … but these same women remain completely cold and unresponsive during coitus. Also, some women may be frigid with one man (usually the husband) but capable of having orgasm with another man.
Uh, yeah...frigidity. That's the problem.
My devotion to the project was not intense enough to undergo the counseling that doctors of the era recommended for women who couldn't have vaginal orgasms, so I moved on to the era's other sex advice. Dr. William Josephus Robinson (actually a kinda progressive contraceptive advocate) had this to say about doing the wifely duty:
Just as the vampire sucks the blood of its victims in their sleep while they are alive, so does the woman vampire suck the life and exhaust the vitality of her male partner...It is to be borne in mind that it is particularly older girls — girls between thirty and fifty — who are apt to be unreasonable in their demands when they get married; but no age is exempt.
Okay, so don't come on too strong. Got it.
But also, don't come on not strong at all! Again from Dr. Robinson:
Now, if you are one of those frigid or sexually anesthetic women, don’t be in a hurry to inform your husband about it. To the man it makes no difference in the pleasurableness of the act whether you are frigid or not unless he knows that you are frigid. And he won’t know unless you tell him.
So if you like sex a lot, keep it to yourself; if you don't like sex at all, also keep that to yourself. What the hell was I supposed to do with that? I had already let it slip a few years ago to my boyfriend that I liked sex — like, on the night we met — so that cat was pretty much out of the bag. What the hell was I actually supposed to do to make love, '50s style?
Well, Dr. Robinson had one final piece of advice:
Every woman should wear the best quality underwear that she can afford. And the color should be preferably pink. And lace and ruffles, I am sorry to say, add to the attractiveness of underwear, and are liked by the average man.
Well, I did have some ruffly pink panties. Also, despite what people tell you, oral sex did exist in the '50s, so don't worry — we ended up doing just fine.
Conclusion: Do you think this is what it's like to be a Duggar today?
So all of this is how I ended up running around the last night of my experiment, furiously busting ass through my grocery store, trying to figure out what the hell "Dream Whip" was.
To be completely honest, I didn't cook for most of the days of this experiment. In our home, my boyfriend does the cooking, and after a long, exhausting day of working, neither of us wanted to suffer through what I'd do to food that was, honestly, gross and slop-like to begin with:
I also didn't cook much because I spent most of my '50s week alone. I worked all day, and then attended to my '50s chores in the evening — a time when my boyfriend had all his regular life obligations to attend to, and my friends did not find "Hey, want to come to my house and try some of my world-famous 1950s mayonnaise garbage?" to be an enticing culinary come-on.
As I stayed home for the third night in the row, trying to clean grease off our kitchen hood, I thought, "This is probably what the actual '50s were like."
And so, on the last night of my experiment, I became determined to cook the least offensive and easiest-seeming '50s recipe I had found: this Jell-O and Dream Whip–based pumpkin pie.
I stirred the mix and thought about my mother. She'd been born in 1950, and thus was coming of age right as the world was turning from Mad Men Season 1 into Mad Men Season 5 — and she hated the '50s. "Women were just supposed to kiss everyone's ass," she'd tell me, disdainfully, when I was a kid.
And yet, I could always tell that she carried the lessons of the '50s inside her, and felt worthless in part for not living up to them. Marriage and family had straight-up failed my mom as life pursuits — she had thrown herself into them, and they hadn't made her happy in the least. But she still constantly advised me about the importance of getting married and having children, even though I had never expressed a whit of interest in either. She didn't think that there were different women, who wanted and were good at different things — she thought the problem was her.
Going through all these '50s motions, I sometimes felt like nothing had really changed — instead of being expected to have dinner waiting for our man, we're supposed to somehow lean in, helicopter parent, and go to Pilates nine times a week, which isn't exactly a huge leap forward. But at least now women get to be who they actually are. The standards of a "perfect woman" are still unrelentingly brutal, and we still beat ourselves up for falling short of them, but by God, at least we have some choice in the matter now. At least we're not born with our future of pink ruffle panties and making a man feel "like a king" laid out in front of us.
By the time my boyfriend came home two hours later, the pies were ready.
Conclusion: My boyfriend told me the pie tasted good. And in the moment, I was happy that it had taken four years of dating to find out that I was good at making pie.