From Shoulder Pads to Crinolines and Cinched Waists

World War II, and the enormous expansion of transportation and manufacturing necessary for the United States to “tool up,” brought the country out of the “Great Depression.” But what to do once peace arrived and there wasn’t as great a demand for ships, planes, bullets, tanks? Looking back through the pages of Life Magazine and various histories of the era, I’d say three equally enormous changes occurred between 1945 and 1960. Under President Eisenhower the United States’ coast-to-coast superhighway system was built along with the cars to speed across it. What later came to be called the “military-industrial complex” ramped up pre-war spending on armaments to meet new threats: the Korean War and the Cold War with Russia. And finally American household and teen consumerism blossomed into a hugely lucrative bouquet.

Now that we’ve experienced a second (or is it a third) economic plunge, we’re not so dismissive of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents whose saving ways were formed by the Great Depression. My mother carried to her grave (she died in 2003 at almost 95) habits formed by the lean years of the 1930s: saving string and rubber bands, old sheets, her daughters’ cast-off, pointy-toed flats, and never throwing away food that couldn’t be coaxed into yet another casserole. I used to scoff at her: I who grew up in relative affluence, tutored first by Life Magazine’s post-war emphasis on business that catered to leisure (count the number of liquor and cigarette ads in Life after the war), speed (ditto the two-page spreads for family cars and even family air travel), and home-making made easy. Father was always in the driver’s seat after the war; men were always in charge of business; and women in the homes were cosseted and pampered as if they were the new American queens. Item: Electrolux ad in Life, Nov. 10, 1952: three drawings of a permed, lip-sticked, nail-polished dame, each with a slogan: “Touch no dirt!” then “Breathe no dirt!” then “See no dirt!” No surprise: Electrolux is a vacuum cleaner. But we don’t see the product. We see the pristine, housewife. The new American post-war home was a castle commanded by a queen who didn’t have to lift a finger.

Glamor in the living room: a console TV picturing Lucille Ball’s wide-eyed insousiance, and outside the “box” a couple lighting up Lucky Strikes. Glamor in the bedroom: drawings of various negligees on curvaceous female bodies, with an emphasis on “nylon.” Nylon, a synthetic fabric, created during the war as a substitute for silk in parachutes. One of my favorite post-war Life ads hangs a parachute on the left side of a bedroom, and a lovely wife in flowing negligee on the right. The message couldn’t be clearer: Look what “The War” has won for us!

Minnesotans of the World War II generation have told me that when they married their honeys after the war, they moved into what are now “close-in” suburbs: in Saint Paul, north to Falcon Heights. In Minneapolis, south to Richfield or Bloomington. These communities existed before World War II, but they burgeoned afterwards, with track housing and manicured lawns. Their denizens? The families of “Leave It to Beaver.” In the mid-1950s, my parents also moved our family of four out of the city, across the Cooper River Bridge in Charleston, South Carolina, to Mount Pleasant where they built a bungalow. Track housing wouldn’t t hit Charleston until later. Though we were in what would become a suburb, our small house sat on a huge, acre lot, studded with enormous magnolias. Yet in almost every other respect, we played out the post-war suburban dream–as much as was possible given my parents’ cultural snobbery and quirkiness. We had two baths–unheard of in apartment dwelling; we had a breakfast nook. No car port, but a new family car, a bright green Dodge which my father drove away every morning and brought back every night. My mother who’d worked for ten years as a librarian in Pittsburgh before her children were born stayed at home now: she sewed bedspreads; she ironed my father’s underwear (I know, it sounds daft!). She volunteered as a Girl Scout leader and, with us girls, spent weeks at Girl Scout camp in the Carolina mountains. She became a crafts instructor.

Eventually with the determined efficiency that marked everything she did, my mother broke out of this caccoon and got a job, like the dissatisfied wives Betty Friedan wrote about in The Feminine Mystique (1963). Though my mother suffered none of the emotional angst that Friedan describes, her need to shed blissful suburban fakery and take part again in the real world of American work was as real as Friedan’s subjects. These were middle-class, largely white American woman, often with college degrees who were side-lined by an ethos of home-making perfectionism and cosseting child-rearing. Forget the notion that whole families worked together to make a life. After the war, Father “worked,” and Mother made a home for him and their children. Add to this the fact that most such families had only one car, women didn’t drive, and the suburbs were far from downtown and existed only as miles and miles of nothing but track housing, supermarkets, and an occasional beauty parlor–and you begin to picture the intellectual and cultural desert these American wives were supposed to inhabit and adore.

My mother got a part-time job in the Mount Pleasant school library. Wearing my cast-off pointy toed flats, she walked to work. Years later, surgery had to correct the hammer toes created by her saving mentality. But she was busy, productive, and once again had her own money. She kept working when the family moved to the other side of Charleston, across the Ashley River. My father was fed up with the long drive from the suburbs and she was happy to graduate to work in the Charleston County Library, still walking across town after my father dropped her off. She didn’t retire until she was 70, her heart in excellent condition from all that walking, and her brain as buzzing with information as ever. I consider it an American success story.

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