Ladies Home Prison : 70-Year-Old Magazine Portrays Housewives' Lives as Dreary and Isolated Drudgery

IN CLEANING OUT our garage recently I found a Ladies Home Journal for September 1920. I have no idea when I acquired it, or why. I thumbed through it. If anything would make an instant feminist out of a man that old magazine would do it.

Almost every page reflects the benign imprisonment that was the American woman's lot in 1920. Although the 19th Amendement, giving women the vote, was ratified the month before, the magazine does not mention this new political power. Woman's place was definitely in the home.

The cover is an oil painting of a young woman flanked by two attentive young men at the seashore. Her skin is pink porcelain; her eyes are blue. Her sheer white dress is daringly decolette. Her blond hair peeks out from under a big hat and she carries a pink parasol.

Inside the cover a full-page ad shows a young woman very much like her in a work dress and dust cap smiling into a mirror she has just polished with Bon Ami.

Most of the ads promote some house cleaning machine or cleaning agent that is supposed to make housework easier, so the woman will have more time (ital). There are a dozen ads for vacuum sweepers. One, the Apex Electric Suction Cleaner, shows a young woman sitting at a sewing machine while her mother holds an Apex sweeper. The dialogue is typical:

"Mother, think how we all profit from your Apex Cleaner. When I'm at school I worry about you and your old brooms and dust cloths. You'll have this place so orderly that the neighbors will wonder how you do it and yet have so much time to spare. You've already got Dad guessing how it is that you seem so well and carefree, while the house is cleaner than ever."

One wonders if that young woman on the cover had time to go to the seashore because of her Apex.

Two pages later the Crysatal Electric Washer & Wringer is extolled not only for "the marvelous way it washes even the most delicate garments," but also because its "sound design and rugged construction" appeals to "the man of the house."

Fels-Naptha soap is hailed as "a dirt-loosener of the highest order." "You can sit down and iron at the Simplex," says an ad for the Simplex Ironer. (Does curtains, aprons, lingerie, shirts, child's dresses, tablecloths, napkins, center pieces, doilies, dresser scarfs, sheets and bedspreads.)

A poinant full-page ad shows a woman standing wistfully by a chair in which her husband is engrossed in his newspaper. "A brief 'Yes' or 'No' and he's back in his paper; thoughts a thousand miles away--apparently he has forgotten you are there. What is the matter?"

The matter, the copy goes on to suggest, is that she's so busy housecleaning and cooking that she doesn't have time to get out in the world and find out what's happening. The solution, it suggests, is Libby's canned meats.

A poem, written in the folksy style of Edgar A. Guest, is called "Thou Shalt Not Kill," and accuses a wife of killing her husband with fried foods.

An ad for an oven heating regulator shows a modish woman drawing on her gloves to go out (ital) while the regulator watches the pot for her. "You can be gone all afternoon without giving a thought to your cooking."

In an article, "How I Tamed My Housekeeping Job," the author seems to have solved her problem mainly by hiring a 15-year-old schoolgirl to serve and do the dishes and light housework for $2 a week and board.

Another article was by a young housewife who enjoyed mending so much that she hit upon the idea of opening a mending shop, and taking in mending, mostly for men, poor dears, who would otherwise be quite helpless. She was of course recommending this entrepreneurial escape to other young women.

An ad for Johnson's Prepared Wax shows a woman in an apron in five poses-- waxing a table top, the arms of a chair, a bannister, a hardwood floor, and down on her knees waxing the linoleum. However, a man is shown waxing the hood of his car and a wooden cabinet.

A vacuum cleaner ad boasts that "man works from sun to sun, but woman's work at NOON is done--if, in her daily cleaning tasks as caretaker of the home, she does not rely upon her own frail strength but depends on the inexhaustible power and energy of the OHIO-TUAC Electric Vacuum Cleaner."

This magazine, which is gravid with isolation and drudgery, was for decades the bible of the American housewife.

My mother was a housewife in 1920; she always aspired to the arts, but she never escaped. In her old age she painted by the numbers.

I wonder what she would be like if she were 30 today.

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