The 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s are often considered three of the most controversial, radical, and progressive decades in American history. Many politically, socially, and economically vital events took place during these eras that forever transformed America and its citizens. However, while domestic and global catastrophes such as the Great Depression and World War II enabled certain minorities, such as women, to achieve limited social progresses (temporarily increasing their number in the work force and higher wages), it also provided an opportunity for the society to reinforce traditional perceptions of women. One medium in which this notion is clearly exhibited is in newspaper advertisements. After systematically analyzing several newspaper advertisements from the nationally distributed newspaper, the Saturday Evening Post, from three different decades, separated from one another by exactly ten years starting with 1925, the pitch and language used in these advertisements seemed to support the idea that despite the historical events that occurred during these time periods, mainstream advertisements consistently reinforced America s conservative belief that a proper woman s place was still in the home taking care of her children and performing domestic tasks.
The 1920s, also known as the Roaring Twenties, produced an era of prosperity and well being as the result of the second industrial revolution in manufacturing. Yet, contrary to this popular depiction, America s increased wealth during this time was not equally distributed among its people:
Amid prosperity and progress, there were large pockets of the country that lagged behind. Advances in real income and improvements in the standard of living for workers and farmers were uneven at best. During the 1920s one-quarter of all American workers were employed in agriculture, yet the farm sector failed to share in the general prosperity (Faragher 429).
Consequently, the perception of wealth being equally distributed is one of the many misconceptions of the 1920s. Another important misconception of this time period is the emergence of the New Women, also known as flappers, and how their presence challenged not only society s traditional expectations of women, but also the standards that defined their womanhood.
Flappers were one of the many sub-groups that existed at the time composed of mainly middle-class women whose financial security enabled them to participate in activities, such as booze-drinking, cigarette-smoking, wearing knee-length dresses, and flirtatious behaviors that were traditionally categorize as taboos to women. However, despite this commonly shared belief that the development of flappers symbolized a sudden and radical shift in mainstream America s perception of women or a loosening of restrictions, it did not. In fact their appearance had a very minimal affect on the society as a whole. For the most part, the American society still promoted and reinforced the conservative stereotypes of women as housewives and domestic servants. This idea is clearly displayed in many of the 1925 newspaper advertisements from the Saturday Evening Post.
Both the March 21st, 1925 Red Star Oil Stove and the Inlaid Flooring advertisements (Ad #1 & 2) exemplify the American society s conservative promotion of the proper woman. They illustrate the two common spheres that women in the 1920s were expected to fill and maintain: child-rearing and cooking. While the Red Star Oil Stove advertisement expressed society s expectations of a married woman to take care of her children by making sure they are properly groomed and educated (the advertisement show that she is reading to her son), the Inlaid Flooring advertisement promoted the idea that women should not reject their domestic lives but seek comfort and joy out of it (the apparent smile on the woman s face as she proudly carryies a cake she had baked):
By the end of the decade, the magazines [and newspaper advertisements] were articulating what historian William Chafe calls an elaborate ideology in favor of home and marriage . [Moreover] Women s magazines advised her [women] not to reject femininity but to enjoy it, to approach domesticity with a positive outlook (Woloch 409, 411).
Thus, these advertisements directly linked a woman s femininity to her ability to perform appropriately in both of these vital spheres.
Newspaper advertisements further reinforced the domestication of women in 1925 by specifically targeting females to buy home-related products that would in one way or another ease their daily tasks. To advance this idea, advertisers used catchy pitches such as thoroughness of cleaning and saves her the arm-aching pressure in advertisements for products like Eureka Vacuum Cleaner and Sunbeam Iron (Ad #4 & 5). Moreover, these advertisements also tried to appeal to women and subconsciously promote the society s belief that domestic tasks such as vacuuming and ironing clothes are activities specifically reserve for women by depicting women, not men, performing these sexist choirs (Ad #3, 4, & 5).
By 1935, America s greatest economic disaster, now referred to as the Great Depression, had lingered for more than six years. Everyone in the nation felt the economic consequences of this catastrophe. Women were one of the groups most affected by the depression. While the Great Depression provided minor social and political progress for women, such as increasing the number of women in the work force, their achievements were limited. Although the devastating economic phenomenon enabled women to join the American labor market in increasing numbers, sexual stereotyping routinely forced women into low-paying and low status jobs (Faragher 457).
More importantly, the Great Depression hindered women in two other important ways bringing their attempt to redefine their role in society to a complete halt and providing a context for the ideological support that a woman s place is at home (Woloch 331).
By 1935 over one-quarter of the labor force was without jobs. Men, who were considered the primary breadwinners for their families and the sole supporter, occupied many of these jobs. But as the Great Depression emerged, it devastated many male egos, forcing them to question their manhood and their ability to provide for their families. In order to increase their morale, society promoted the idea that jobs should be reserved for male breadwinners and that women should not compete with men for the remaining scarce jobs. Newspaper advertisements from 1935 reflected these concerns and supported the argument that a woman s domain should be limited to her home.
Advertisements such as Campbell Vegetable Soup (Ad. #6) and Grunow Refrigerator (Ad. #7) exemplified the rhetoric of the 1930s. The messages of these advertisements are very simple and direct women belong at home. While the Campbell Soup advertisement appeared to show how conservative the society really was, as illustrated by the conservativeness of the woman s attire and calmness of her behavior, the Grunow Refrigerator advertisement specifically called out women to use good motherly instincts in choosing the right refrigerator because one of their most important concerns in life should be the protection of their children. Thus, a proper woman would choose a Grunow Refrigerator because it is a super-safe refrigerator.
Not only did advertisements in 1935 reveal America s stronger than ever support of conservative ideas concerning the role of women as mothers and care-takers, it also reinforced their other function as domestic servants. Bon Ami Powder (Ad. #8) and Scot Towel (Ad. #9) typified this trend. Both these advertisements depict women as happy housewives who genuinely carrying out their domestic activities, such as cleaning the bathroom and kitchen, but the Bon Ami Powder advertisement went beyond this. The woman portrayed in this polishing and cleaning advertisement bares great resemblance to a hired help or servant. The lack of a small hat is the only noticeable item that would separate the two from one another. Thus, women during this decade (and the decades before the 1930s) were not considered just as mothers but also permanent live-in domestic servants.
Many Americans consider the 1940s as one of the most important and influential decades in American history for just about every American including woman. The 1940s was not only a highly politically charged time but also a socially and economically altering period. America s eventual involvement in World War II in 1941 (which began in 1939) brought an end to the depression. However, when the United States abolished its neutrality stance and allied with the Allies to fight against the Alliance, it was completely unprepared to participate in a war of such magnitude. To show that it was dedicated to preparing itself for war, the United States government spent over fifty-three billion dollars (The Homefront). Thus it was apparent that the America had greatly shifted the focus of its production, from cars to tanks and munitions. Thus, the combination of the massive government spending along with mobilization efforts of everyone who could in one form or another contribute to the war resulted in numerous jobs and high wages, two of the vital features dearly missed during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Women too were drawn into the work force in record numbers to help fill some of the jobs traditionally occupied by men before the war, such as car company workers (Ad. #15). In fact over six million married and unmarried women joined the labor force during World War II: The eruption of hostilities abroad generated an unprecedented demand for new workers to replace men gone to fight the war increasing the size of the female labor force by 57 percent (Chafe 11). Although the second global war gave many women an opportunity to get out of the house and into the work force, this newly acquired freedom was explicitly checked and monitored. Women were often reminded that their freedom was temporary and that once the war was over, they were expected to give up their jobs and return home to resume their role as housewives and domestic servants. This notion was repeatedly expressed in many staged and televised interviews. Another societal concern that was a direct result of the tremendous rise of women in the labor force was the fear that by women leaving the home and working in jobs ordinarily reserved for men, they would be somehow de-feminize them.
This fear of women participating in the labor force resulted in de-feminization was countered by newspaper advertisements that reminded them of their femininity. These underlying themes are blatantly illustrated in many 1945 advertisements. The sexualization of women as a means of reinforcing femininity is very noticeable in advertisements for products such as Scotch Tape, Fomfit bras, and Mojud Hosiery (Ad. #10, 11, & 12). Unlike the traditional conservative portrayal of women in advertisements in the 1920s and 1930s, newspaper advertisements in the 1940s, pitching an array of consumer products, commonly pictured young, attractive, sexily dressed women in very provocative poses and postures.
Furthermore, while the mass media of newspaper advertisements attempted to reinforce women s femininity in provocative ads, it also tried to remind society that women are also sexy sexual creatures and objects of male s desires. Nowhere was this notion better characterized than in product advertisements for Jergens Lotion and Coca-Cola (Ad. #13 & 14). The Jergens Lotion ad attempted to promote the attractiveness of women in general and how desirable they are, especially when they have silky-soft hands, as demonstrated by the lower illustration in the advertisement. While the Jergens Lotion ad tried to reinforce women being sexually appealing, the Coca-Cola ad seemed to advance the idea that women were men s focus of desires. This is very apparent after examining the facial expressions of all the men in the ad, particularly the facial expressions and postural stance of the sailor.
It is apparent that advertisements from just about any mass media source can tell us many things about a particular society, from its taste to its sentiments. Newspaper advertisements from the Saturday Evening Post provided an invaluable tool for examining the conservative expectations of women in the society. The newspaper advertisements showed that despite popular beliefs, the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s were not tremendously revolutionary periods that transformed society s perception of women. In fact, it is quite arguable to proclaim that these eras further reinforced America s view of women as housewives and domestic servants.