Traditional Marriages in North America in the 1950s Essay
The 1950s was regarded as a watershed in the history of marriage in North America - Traditional Marriages in North America in the 1950s Essay introduction. From 1947 to the early 1960s, an increasing number of Americans started asserting more independence in the realm of matrimony. As a result, the nuclear family emerged. Fewer dependents allowed the nuclear family to have greater purchasing power. In the process, marriage became a means of attaining material prosperity.
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Traditional Marriages in North America in the 1950s
The 1950s was regarded as a watershed in the history of marriage in North America. From 1947 to the early 1960s, an increasing number of Americans started asserting more independence in the realm of matrimony. They pursued their own partners, got married at will and established their own households. In the process, the clout of the extended family and the community group over the institution of marriage gradually diminished (Coontz, 2005).
This shift in the forces controlling marriage, in turn, resulted in the emergence of the nuclear family. The family system was restricted to a male breadwinner, a fulltime housewife and their children. For many Americans, particularly women, the nuclear family turned marriage into a shortcut to material prosperity. Fewer dependents allowed the nuclear family to have greater purchasing power. Businesses, meanwhile, capitalized on this newfound capability by using family-oriented advertisements to sell modern appliances and other consumer items (Coontz, 2005).
Some, however, questioned the idea of marriage as an economic “utopia,” especially for women. While the nuclear family of the 1950s was usually associated with luxury and convenience, it also required the presence of a fulltime housewife. In addition, the opulence of the nuclear family was accessible only to white middle- and upper-class families. Lastly, the husband remained the sole wage earner of the family.
The Baby Boom
From 1945 to 1960, the birth rate in the United States soared to about 20% (Stearns and Langer, 2001). This phenomenon, later known as the Baby Boom, was attributed to a number of socioeconomic factors. The easing of the Great Depression on the eve of World War II allowed the country’s fertility rates to slowly increase. Although this growth was interrupted due to national conscription, it continued upon the return of enlisted men after 1945 (Harris, 2006). The rapid expansion of the postwar economy was another factor behind the Baby Boom – the healthy economy of postwar America made people more confident about getting married and starting a family (Patterson, 1997).
Marriage: A Return to Normalcy
In the 1950s, the institution of marriage in the US was “a steamroller that crushed every alternative view” (Coontz, 2005). Simply put, most Americans who lived in the decade believed that marriage was the only culturally acceptable route to independence and adulthood. Those who failed to comply with this societal norm, no matter the reason is, were regarded as deviant. Men who opted to remain bachelors were labeled “narcissistic,” “deviant,” “infantile” or “pathological.” Women who did not find their ultimate fulfillment in homemaking, meanwhile, were believed to be suffering from serious psychological problems (Coontz, 2005).
These claims were not mere hearsay. According to a 1957 survey in the US, four out of five people believed that preferring to remain single was “sick,” “neurotic” or “immoral.” A larger number of respondents agreed that the husband should be the breadwinner and the wife should stay home. A 1961 survey on young American women, meanwhile, revealed that “almost all (of the respondents) expected to be married by age twenty-two, most hoped to have four children and all expected to quit work permanently when the first child was born” (Coontz, 2005).
Such hunger for marriage was largely due to the feeling of stability that was associated with it. People in the 1950s experienced two decades of economic turmoil and war. They therefore yearned to have a sense of permanence and order in their lives. Because of its emphasis on unity and constancy, matrimony was viewed as the answer to this need. It would be thus fair to say that the Baby Boom was not the result of parents having huge families but of many young people deciding to marry early and immediately start a larger family (Patterson, 1997).
The Prosperity of Postwar America
The Baby Boom occurred in a period that was characterized with economic expansion and rapid socioeconomic mobility. The rapidly expanding postwar labor market absorbed a generation that was a product of the low fertility period of the late 1930s. A tight labor market ensued – enterprises increased wages in order to attract the most number of workers from a small labor force. Many Americans in the immediate postwar years also underwent additional years of schooling because of massive government subsidization of adult education. As a result, many young men and women who entered marriage during the Baby Boom had more independence in marriage and family life – their relatively high educational and work credentials allowed them to provide for their families without the help of their parents and or other relatives (Harris, 2006).
The Nuclear Family
The prosperous economic climate of the 1940s and the 1950s instilled a sense of optimism among many young Americans. They were fully aware that they were relatively better off than their parents had been at their age. Unlike most young people during the time of their parents, they could afford to marry early, buy a house, start a family right away and provide their children with a good education (Patterson, 1997). They no longer had to worry about a parent objecting to a particular suitor or partner, as moving out was already an available option.
In the process, the nuclear family was spawned. Its limited number of members assured not only greater independence and privacy, but increased spending ability as well. The second quality transformed the nuclear family into a profitable market for many businesses during the aforementioned decades. The nuclear family eventually constituted a significant portion of the demographics of “the first real mass consumer economy in history” (Coontz, 2005).
Consumerism: The Mantra of the Nuclear Family
Prior to 1950, the discretionary income (money left over after the basic bills were paid) of most American families could afford only a few luxuries. Many American families during this period contented themselves with an occasional restaurant meal, a couple of drinks after work and or a weekly trip to the movies, amusement park or beach. The biggest extravagance they could avail for themselves was an annual vacation that was usually spent at the house of relatives. Modern appliances such as washing machines, clothes dryers and frost-free refrigerators remained a novelty for most households. Only upper-class families could afford houses that had separate bedrooms for all the children (Coontz, 2005).
But the economic boom of the 1950s turned these living and spending conditions into things of the past. Since the late 1940s, millions of new houses were constructed with conveniences and comforts that were once available only in the abodes of the wealthy. Separate bedrooms, for instance, shifted from being an upper-class luxury to a common fixture in most American homes. Such developments, of course, would not be possible if consumers did not have the means of availing them. The 1950s saw the doubling of the number of Americans with discretionary income (Coontz, 2005).
By the mid-1950s, almost 60% of Americans were earning “middle-class” income levels – a sharp increase from 31% in the “Roaring Twenties.” In the succeeding years, this upsurge in earnings was translated to measurable gains in the American family’s living standards and conveniences. In 1960, nearly two-thirds of all American families owned their own homes. About 87% had television sets, while an estimated 75% owned cars (Coontz, 2005).
Mass Media: Consumer Goods = Family Happiness.
Apart from higher income, mass media was another key factor behind the consumerist attitude of the American nuclear family in the 1950s. Realizing the immense spending power of the nuclear family, businesses during this decade focused on creating family products such as modern appliances, furniture and consumer items. These products were marketed through advertisements that equated consumer goods with family happiness. In the process, the belief that consumer aspirations were a necessary component of the postwar family emerged (Coontz, 2005).
The typical family-oriented advertisement in the 1950s was based on “the romanticized dream of a private family (that was) happily ensconced in its own nest” (Coontz, 2005). The former often featured a white middle-class woman happily doing house chores in high heels and shirtwaist dresses. The effectiveness of the product being endorsed is then emphasized by showing how it helped the woman accomplish her tasks in half the time. The advertisement usually ends with the woman having more time to bond with her husband and children, courtesy of the product which freed her from the tediousness of housework (Coontz, 2005).
A good example of this advertising cliché is an hour-long film put out by General Electric in 1956 regarding the wonders of electricity:
Mom discovers that her new clothes dryer gives her the chance to bond with her daughter and pick up some of the “groovy” slang of the teen pop culture. Mom then shows her daughter how to use the family’s new freezer and self-timing oven to make a meal that will impress the cute roommate that her older son has brought home from college. The visitor likes his oven-baked ham, frozen orange juice and electrically whipped dessert so much that he skips the dreary lecture he’d planned to attend and takes the ecstatic daughter dancing. (p. 231)
Simply put, the postwar family can experience togetherness and or achievement only in a setting that was filled with modern facilities and other new consumer products. Such a shallow and materialistic attitude towards family unity was not restricted to advertisements. The 1952 sitcom The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, for instance, usually showed Ozzie and Harriet “(hugging) each other in front of their Hotpoint appliances” (Coontz, 2005). The 1957 sitcom Leave it to Beaver, meanwhile, featured Beaver and his father getting in some “father-son” time by washing the car together (Coontz, 2005).
Marriage: The Ticket to Better Times
Given the strong popular association between consumerism and the nuclear family, it is no longer surprising if many Americans in the 1950s, especially women, saw marriage as a shortcut to the good life. Indeed, mass media in this decade constantly bombarded women with the ideal vision of the home and family. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, popular magazines such as Life and Better Homes and Gardens featured large, elegant houses with well-kept gardens and spacious rooms crammed with chic furniture. Wives and mothers were often portrayed as stylishly dressed young white women who effortlessly do household chores with the help of modern appliances (May, 1989).
In the process, marriage became the essence of modern life. Many women got the impression that getting married meant instant access to avant-garde amenities such as airy houses, the refrigerator, the washing machine and pasteurized milk (Coontz, 2005). In television, meanwhile, marriage was depicted as the only venue in which a woman excelled and her opinion mattered. In sitcoms such as I Love Lucy (1951) and The Honeymooners (1955), the housewife was portrayed as an intelligent and hardworking individual who always saved the family from the detrimental effects of the father’s harebrained ideas (May, 1989).
The idea of marriage as an economic “utopia” for women is not without serious consequences. For one, gender roles in American society and marriage became overspecialized, resulting in corrosive effects on a woman’s self-esteem (Coontz, 2005). In addition, the myopic ideal of the 1950s marriage widened the gap between the rich and the poor. Women from the lower classes were supposed to feel inferior simply because they cannot live up to the romanticized image of the 1950s family.
The “Glamour Girl,” the “Humanist” and the Housewife
If not dismissed as mentally ill, the single woman in 1950s America was stereotyped as a “glamour girl.” The “glamour girl” referred to a woman who exerted sexual control over men (Coontz, 2005). She is usually presented in beverage and cigarette advertisements as attractive, independent and carefree (May, 1989). It was very obvious that the “glamour girl” symbolized the erroneous belief that being single was synonymous to promiscuousity.
The “humanist,” meanwhile, pertained to married women who developed a special expertise in “humanistic” fields such as the arts or community volunteer work. Their proficiency allowed them to assume part-time jobs outside the home without neglecting their primary role as wives and mothers (Coontz, 2005). This ideal, however, was inconsistently supported. While “humanists” were commended for balancing work and familial obligations, they were likewise criticized for pursuing careers at the expense of their families (May, 1989).
The housewife is the ideal woman – she derived her happiness from taking care of her home and family. For the housewife, a woman’s ultimate fulfillment lay in being able to raise happy and healthy children, decorating her home to her own taste and relaxing with her family in front of the television every evening. A woman should likewise find contentment in other family activities such as working together to improve the family home, taking vacations together and enjoying the outdoor “patio” and backyard barbecue (May, 1989). She supposedly has no need to work outside the home, as her husband is already providing for the family.
The “Perfect” Family
The intense media hype that was given to the nuclear family of the 1950s turned the latter into a “model” that all American families were supposed to follow. But its affluent nature turned it into a norm that only the white middle- and upper-class families could comply with. Lower-class and black families, on the other hand, had no other choice but to content themselves with merely aspiring for the luxuries and conveniences of the aforementioned family system. This inability to conform to the lives of the “normal” families that were shown on television ultimately generates self-pity and hatred of one’s own family (Coonz, 2005).
Assata Shakur, a respondent in Stephanie Coontz’s book Marriage, A History (2005), recalled having the aforementioned sentiments as a young black girl in the 1950s:
“Why didn’t my mother have freshly baked cookies ready when I came home from school? Why didn’t we live in a house with a back yard and a front yard instead of an old apartment? I remember looking at my mother as she cleaned the house in her raggedy housecoat with her hair in curlers. ‘How disgusting,’ I would think. Why didn’t she clean the house in high heels and shirtwaist dresses like they did on television?” (p. 232)
Shakur’s reactions were no longer surprising, given the romanticized relationship between consumer goods and family happiness. This inordinate attribution of a phenomenon to an inanimate object is known as commodity fetishism. In commodity fetishism, a relation between persons becomes a relation between things (Steele, 1992). In the context of the American marriage in the 1950s, it is the consumer goods instead of the members of the family that is held responsible for family happiness.
In the 1950s, an increasing number of Americans started asserting more independence in the aspect of matrimony. This sovereignty was not something which happened by accident – better economic opportunities in the postwar era enabled many young people to raise families on their own without the assistance of the extended clan. In the process, the nuclear family was born. Due to its limited number of dependents, the nuclear family became more open to a wider array of goods and services.
The greater spending power of the nuclear family, however, turned the latter into a showcase of consumerism. In the process, marriage became a means of attaining material prosperity. But the former was far from the economic “utopia” that mass media claimed it was. Because the affluence of the 1950s marriage would not last long if there was no fulltime housewife who would cook the splendid gourmet meals, dust the elegant furniture and operate the sophisticated electronic appliances.
Coontz, S. (2005). Marriage, A History. New York: Viking.
Harris, Fred R. The Baby Bust: Who Will Do the Work? Who Will Pay the Taxes? New York:
Rowman & Littlefield.
May, L. (Ed.). (1989). Recasting America: Culture and Politics in the Age of Cold War.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Patterson, J.T. (1997). Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974 (10th ed.).
New York: Oxford University Press US.
Stearns, P.N., & Langer, W.L.L. (2001). The Encyclopedia of World History: Ancient, Medieval and Modern, Chronologically Arranged (6th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Steele, D.R. (1992). From Marx to Mises: Post-Capitalist Society and the Challenge of Economic Calculation. Chicago: Open Court Publishing