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‘Someone is looking at you’ – Women’s advertising in the 1950s

We’ve got a guest post today from Alice Botham, one of our ever-busy collections volunteers at Beamish. Alice has been looking at postwar advertising in the collection, with interesting results:

My name is Alice and I have been volunteering at Beamish Museum for the last few months. Initially my role in the museum has been looking through old magazines from the 1950s and finding interesting advertisements and pictures of large objects from the period that Beamish may find it hard to come by or display. In doing this I quickly became aware of the changes and attitudes that these advertisements showed about the people they were targeted towards, in particular those towards women in the ‘Housewife’ and ‘Women’s Weekly’ magazines.

It seems as though magazine advertisers put a lot of pressure on women to be perfect housewives. Personal beauty, taking care of your home, husband and children are all repeatedly highlighted as traits women should display. It seems as though these adverts fed into a culture of display, with women mainly concentrating on the image of themselves that they gave to others. This links into the fact that communities in the 1950s were usually a lot more close-knit than they are nowadays, and so a woman’s reputation was very important.

In the post-war years a return to day-to-day life meant that a lot of women returned to their role as housewives. The end of bomb scares and the rise in technological advances meant that home improvement was high on the agenda for many families. Magazine advertising played into this with ideas of what was once only aspired to becoming achievable.

There are many adverts, like this one for a Hoover electric washing machine, telling women that the item is not only going to change their lives for the better, but is also in high demand, insinuating that most women could afford it. Whether this was true or not is another matter. Adverts like this also show us that a housewife wanted higher standards of cleanliness in her home and gives the impression that there was a lot of gossip centered on the hygiene of a woman’s house.

Hoover - no more washday drudgery!

Hoover – no more washday drudgery!

Other adverts in these magazines also highlight pressures that housewives faced. This Trex advert from 1958 shows us the importance of a woman’s cooking to her family. The image of the all male family members looking in delight at the dish would prompt women to buy the product, as well as the description of it making cooking easier and taste better. The slogan ‘Treat your family to Trex cooking’ would make it seem to the reader that her dish would go from being something normal to a special treat.

'Treat your family to Trex cooking'

‘Treat your family to Trex cooking’

There are also a lot of advertisements for painkillers, ointments and other products to keep a family healthy or cure them when they are unwell. In most of these adverts the wife of the family is the main care giver and provider of these products. In short, it was completely up to her to look after the whole family and be prepared for if they were unwell. Today we think of Lucozade as a sports drink, but in the 1950s it was used to help people recover during and after illnesses. It was even used in hospitals and could only be bought from chemists.

In this advert from 1955 we can see that the idea of the woman nursing the family has been illustrated literally, as she is dressed as a nurse and attending her father. The caption that goes with the advert stresses the necessity of Lucozade for recovery. This advert also shows us that perfect 1950s women were responsible for all of the men in their life; her husband, children and father, and she was depended on to care for them.

'Health returns with Lucozade'

‘Health returns with Lucozade’

This advertisement from 1951 for a health tonic also shows that advertisers used the still present divide between women and men to promote a product. Here the advert is wishing back to a medieval ‘golden age’, where women were women and men were men and everyone stayed in the roles that their gender restricted them to. This advert shows that opinions at the beginning of the 1950s were still very far from the ideas of freedom between the sexes that flourished in the 1960s and that we still uphold today.

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As well as housewives being able to fulfil all of the roles expected of them, 1950s women’s magazines also advertise a lot of beauty products. This is not unexpected in a women’s magazine of the time, but the slant of the adverts shows a very high level of expectation with regards to a woman’s appearance. With all of the adverts plugging their products for ease of living for housewives, it is unexpected that they would still be widely advertising corsets in 1958. The fact that they are shows that women were still expected to put looks over comfort in their daily lives.

Alstons 'Figure Hugger'

Alstons ‘Figure Hugger’

Other advertisements for cosmetics focused a lot on inclusion and exclusion in the way they talked to women. One face powder advert claims ‘Lovely women use Pomeroy’, implying that everyone who doesn’t use it is openly showing themselves in public as not being the ‘ideal lovely woman’. These adverts played into the importance of a woman’s reputation and what was needed to maintain it.

'Lovely women use Pomeroy'

‘Lovely women use Pomeroy’

For many housewives during the 1950s many of these items would be considered a luxury, for some they may have even been unattainable.

We live in a very different world now, but advertising still looms large in all our lives and it doesn’t always keep pace with changes in society – do you think advertising has changed a lot since the 1950s?

4 thoughts on “‘Someone is looking at you’ – Women’s advertising in the 1950s

  1. Chelsea

    All you have to look at is the most recent Fairy advert that shows the same mother figures through the decades stood by her tub of washing up to see that some things will never change!

    Reply
  2. Pingback: Every Little Helps | Alice B

  3. Pingback: Women’s Advertising | Alice B

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