Did You Ever Wonder What It Would Be Like To Be A 1950s Housewife?

For two weeks, blogger Jen Byck cooked, cleaned, dressed and treated her husband like a 1950s housewife. Read about her amazing trip back in time, and how it forever changed her marriage.


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What Era Would You Like To Travel Back To?

If you could travel back and live like women in the past, what time period would you travel to? What lessons from the past do you think we can learn?

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Jen Byck, of Toronto, Canada, did a two week experiment where she lived, worked, cleaned, dressed and treated her husband like a 1950s housewife and wrote about it in her blog, Jen But Never Jenn. She made Jello molds with processed cheese, carved rose radishes, greeted her husband at the door at the end of the day, and stopped checking the Internet. Jen wrote, "I do believe we're happier, more relaxed, more connected now than before. Throughout the 50s Housewife Experiment, it felt like we were having several mini adventures together - whether it was diving into weird jiggly food, having our I Love Lucy TV dinner night or going bowling - it was all a little different from the norm - and something I think we quite welcomed.
Personally, I think unplugging from the Internets and TV and doing more things that actually mattered - taking care of our home and my husband, seeing my friends more often, tickling my brain through the "fun writing" that is this blog - made a big difference in my own happiness."

Commitmentnow.com: Tell us about your 50s housewife experiment that you did in May, where for two weeks you lived as a 50s housewife. What motivated you to do this experiment?

Jen Byck: I had started noticing how I was living and it just seemed rather odd when I stood back and looked at it. My husband and I were happy but we were sort of coasting at home and putting most of our energies into work.

Our typical evenings would be spent on laptops, responding to e-mail, reading updates on Twitter, all with the TV blinking away in the background. Our conversations would get interrupted at the beep of an iPhone or Blackberry. Neither of us prioritized keeping the house in order or planning meals or creating quality time for one another. We were kind of zombies in a way.

Plus, I had noticed that I wasn’t seeing friends as often as I used to – we were either too busy or lazy to get together in person – instead we were all conducting our friendships over texts and Facebook. It just struck me as weird that this was my life and that I was seemingly ok with it.

So – I started thinking about what the opposite to that was: It was reconnecting with people in person. It was having pride in my home. It was taking care of myself and my husband instead of a client. It was making our personal lives the priority. The more I thought about it, the more it reminded me of what my perception was of running a household in the 1950s.

I didn’t necessarily believe the 50s way was going to be better – just that it was totally different – and that’s what got me started on the journey. I really just wanted to try it out and see what happened.

Commitmentnow.com: How did you prepare to become a 1950s housewife? Where did you get the information needed to transform the way you ate, kept house, and groomed?


Jen: I’ve been collecting the odd magazine and book from the 1950s for a while – I’ve always been interested in how other generations of women lived (I actually have books and magazines from the 1900s on – my interests aren’t just in the 50s!). I found most of these in used book stores and online shops like eBay and AbeBooks. When I decided to do the experiment, I picked up a few more.

Some of these books are the Searchlight Household Guide, The Bride’s Reference Book, Help Your Husband Get Ahead, Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book and the Good Housekeeping cookbook series from 1958. I also have a few vintage home economics textbooks that came in handy. On top of this, I have a handful of magazines – Woman’s Day, Ladies’ Home Journal, Better Homes and Gardens, Redbook, TIME – they’re all great finds!

Commitmentnow.com: What surprised you most about doing this experiment?

Jen: I was surprised that a lot of the rather sexist advice that I followed – much of which I originally was slightly horrified by – had unexpected benefits.

For example, the advice suggested that when a husband came home from work, his wife should basically drop what she’s doing and welcome him warmly. At first, this felt totally silly, but as the days went on, I started to realize that I enjoyed it. Not only did his arrival signal that it was time for me to take a little break, but I also got to see how happy he was to see me.

When you walk up to your husband and his face lights up and he’s eager to give you a kiss and a hug – you can’t deny that you get a warm feeling from it all.

Beyond that, I actually learned a lot of lessons throughout and even dedicated a couple posts to it, which you can read here: http://www.jenbutneverjenn.com/2010/06/lessons-from-50s-housewife-experiment.html and here: http://www.jenbutneverjenn.com/2010/11/lessons-from-husband-obsessed-50s.html

Commitmentnow.com: Did you enjoy living like a 50s housewife? What did you dislike?

Jen: Overall, I enjoyed the experiment because it was a break from the norm, we had fun trying things out, I enjoyed blogging about it and I found the subject matter really interesting.

I loved feeling accomplished at the end of each day and being able to immediately enjoy the fruits of my labour (a clean and comfortable home, warm meals, relaxing with my husband or friends).

That said, I’m definitely cognizant of the fact that this was all rather novel for us – if I was “housewifing” for a few years would I still be so thrilled with it? It’s hard to say. And if we threw children into the mix? That would undoubtedly change things.

As for what I disliked – my world became the home and so I became a little obsessed with cleanliness. Every so often my husband would waltz in and just leave stuff lying around – like his socks or his soccer gear or a towel in the bathroom. My eyes would zoom in on these things like some kind of Terminator and I’d have to hold back the urge to go mental. In those instances, I felt more like a mother to my husband than a partner, which isn’t fun.

Another dislike was that a lot of the meals I made were filled with ingredients that I knew weren’t the healthiest and I was often tempted to cook lighter – but I wanted to keep true to what was in the cookbooks.

Commitmentnow.com: How did the way families eat back then differ from the way we eat today? What recipes did you like and which ones would you never make again?

Jen: Like today, I imagine each family eats a little differently, so there’s not really one way to have eaten in the 1950s. That said, it was the first era of abundance after lean times (World War II rationing, the Depression) and it was also the dawn of a lot of processed and convenience foods. The cookbooks I had celebrated this with some rather fat and sugar-laden recipes and elaborate presentation suggestions.

It marked the first time in my life that I ever made JELLO salad molds (with processed cheese!), carved radish roses or had bacon in more than one meal. They also used something called The Basic Seven (http://www.jenbutneverjenn.com/2010/05/meals-nutrition-of-50s.html) back then instead of the food pyramid and one of the suggestions was to eat at least one potato a day. That was definitely different from what I was used to!

Overall, I preferred a lot of the simpler foods – things like making fresh-squeezed orange juice and full breakfasts. I also really enjoy the Minted Glazed Carrots (http://www.jenbutneverjenn.com/2010/05/failure-to-launch.html) once I cut down the sugar and butter.

Peg’s Devil Food Custard Cake with Rainbow Snowballs (http://www.jenbutneverjenn.com/2010/05/50s-housewife-hosts-bridge-luncheon.html) was also pretty successful!

Probably the most repulsive thing I made was the Asparagus Meat Mold (http://www.jenbutneverjenn.com/2010/05/hes-good-sport.html). The Flaming Cabbage and the Holiday Tomato Aspic that we made for our 50s Christmas Cocktail Party (http://www.jenbutneverjenn.com/2010/12/1950s-christmas-cocktail-party.html ) were also likely a one-time events for obvious reasons once you see the pictures of them.

Commitmentnow.com: How did they keep house differently then women do today?

Jen: The task of cleaning was more rigorous than anything I’ve seen today. I compiled a list of the chores from my books to form a bit of a 1950s housewife schedule (http://www.jenbutneverjenn.com/2010/05/keeping-of-house-1950s-style.html) and there were 21 things to do before lunch. Crazy, right? It’s especially impressive (or scary, depending on your point of view!) when you consider that she didn’t have all the high efficiency appliances we have now.

A daily deep clean of one room was also suggested, which is a lot more than we probably do now. For example, it was suggested that you should clean the oven, scrub all of the appliances and polish the silver once a week. Before doing this experiment, I had probably only deep-cleaned my oven twice in the last four years. Heh.

Commitmentnow.com: In doing the work and living the life of a 1950s housewife, did you change in anyway? Were you happier? Less happy? Bitter?

Jen: At first, I felt stressed to be so detached from the online world – I had to fight the urge to check my usual websites every hour. However, I did find that I was able to get a lot more done, realized what a time-suck the Internet can really be and eventually came to accept that I wasn’t missing anything really important.

Beyond that, I felt quite satisfied and accomplished each day. I think it’s because all of my efforts were going toward things and people I cared for, rather than someone else’s bottom line. I felt a lot of immediate gratification each day, which sort of surprised me seeing as I’ve always viewed housekeeping as a total drag.

Commitmentnow.com: How did your relationship with your husband change during the experiment?

Jen: I felt as though we spent more quality time together – little things like getting up and going to bed at the same time, seeing each other off, greeting him when he got home, having dinner without distractions … it all added up and made us feel closer.

My second 50s housewife experiment (http://www.jenbutneverjenn.com/2010/10/return-of-50s-housewife-next-week.html) specifically dealt with our marriage and being supportive of my husband. A lot of the information was pretty hard to read with a straight face – there were some blatantly sexist assumptions about men and women in those materials.

Plus, it seemed as though there was a great deal of pressure and blame placed on the wife when it came to her husband’s health and happiness. One of the authors even suggested that a nagging wife was the single biggest relationship saboteur – more so than an adulterer or an alcoholic.

That said, many of the tips I incorporated were actually helpful and effective in improving my husband’s mood and avoiding conflict – I just wasn’t wild about the fact that it seemed as though only the woman in the relationship needed to be doing these things. The information I read seemed just as valid and applicable for how husbands could treat their wives.

Commitmentnow.com: From your research and through your experiment, how would you describe the mindset, attitude and inner life of a 50s housewife? What challenges did they face? Do you think they were happier than women today--or less content?

Jen: I want to be clear that I was living the 1950s life based on ideals – basically going by what was in books and magazines. I don’t necessarily think this reflected how every woman was living life then. After all, if our grandchildren were to pick up one of today’s magazines, would it be an accurate reflection of how you and I live our day to day? Not likely!

How housewives of the 1950s felt about their lives likely greatly depended on their own interests, desires and situations. If a woman genuinely felt a calling to be a homemaker, I imagine she might be quite happy in the 1950s.

Quality of life was on the upswing (especially compared to the recent war and Depression), her lifestyle was socially applauded, and companies were continually developing products to make her day easier. She had a lot going for her and I’m sure some women were very happy during this time.

Despite this, happiness wasn’t guaranteed. The 1950s marked the dawn of the suburbs, which meant a lot of women were moving away from their families and friends to these new neighborhoods. Some of these housewives must have been lonely.

I think boredom and a lack of mental stimulation was also an issue for some women, particularly if they didn’t have the means to take on hobbies and other personal interests – aspects of this phenomenon were explored by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique.

There were, of course, bigger issues impacting the happiness of women at the time. I very much doubt African American women or other minority groups would look back at that the 1950s as great era. Additionally, domestic violence wasn’t as condemned as it is now – so if a woman was in a relationship with a horrible man, she might have felt especially trapped and helpless – particularly if she didn’t have her own income to depend on.

Of course, if you didn’t have a genuine desire to be a homemaker but felt pressure to be one anyway, it would have been frustrating to say the least. To be clear, though, not every woman was a housewife in the 1950s; about 30% of the workforce in 1950 were women and that’s a rate that kept on creeping up throughout the decade.

Obviously, the pendulum has swung in the other direction and it’s fair to say that there’s more pressure for women to succeed in careers and bring home the bacon now than 60 or even 30 years ago. I doubt today’s homemakers feel as socially supported as her 1950s counterparts did.

As far as women’s happiness now – it’s just as hard to give a blanket statement. We all know people who love aspects of their lives but are unhappy with others. We know women who are depressed. We know women who always think the grass is greener, no matter what they decide to do with their careers or relationships.

We know that no matter what we do, someone out there has an opinion on it. It would be nice to live in a world where we could all make informed decisions about what’s best for our own lives and families without someone snarking about it.

Commitmentnow.com: You wrote of the experiment:

"I do believe we're happier, more relaxed, more connected now than before. Throughout the 50s Housewife Experiment, it felt like we were having several mini adventures together - whether it was diving into weird jiggly food, having our I Love Lucy TV dinner night or going bowling - it was all a little different from the norm - and something I think we quite welcomed.

Personally, I think unplugging from the Internets and TV and doing more things that actually mattered - taking care of our home and my husband, seeing my friends more often, tickling my brain through the "fun writing" that is this blog - made a big difference in my own happiness.

And when I'm happy, it tends to rub off on my husband - in part because he has less to worry about when I'm in a good mood, ha (the phrase that describes this phenomenon is "Happy wife, happy life." Learn it, live it, love it, gentlemen.)."


Tell us more. What was the up side of living like a 1950s couple?


Jen: Even though I love my work (I’m a freelance writer and marketing consultant), it was obviously nice to get that break from client demands and the computer. Even when I wasn’t work focused, I felt like I was always on my laptop before.

During the 50s Housewife Experiment I shifted the focus away from the global village and onto the tribe. I felt like there was less ‘noise’ in my life. I felt reconnected with certain priorities that I had put on the backburner and possibly had been taking for granted.

Also, I was doing my best to be frugal during this time and really was reminded that the best things in life are free. We didn’t just manage with buying only the basics, we flourished when buying only the basics.

Commitmentnow.com: What habits and routines from your 1950s experiment have you continued?

Jen: Our home is much tidier now. It’s not perfect by any means, but clutter bothers me more now, so I’m quicker to pick it up and keep on top of it. I’ve found that this helped to keep home life more relaxing. We have people over more regularly than before because of this too.

I’ve always been pretty good at managing our budget, but I’ve found that I’ve been spending less money in general – I sort of lost my appetite for window shopping (which would sometimes turn into actual shopping).

Better meal planning has meant that I’m picking up less random crap at the grocery store, so we’re saving money there too.

We eat at the dinner table probably four days out of seven now, which is a huge, huge difference from what we did before.

My husband also likes to pitch in with meals, which is a funny change considering he didn’t have to lift a finger in the kitchen during the experiment. He saw how fun and rewarding and doable cooking was and recognized how grateful he was to have a nice meal every night, so he wanted to experience the other end of things himself.

Gotta say – he has a pretty good palate and makes a better salad dressing than I do!

I think our overall communication and closeness has also improved because we kept up some 50s habits. I still do greet him when he comes home. I also try harder to stop what I’m doing and really listen to him – not just nodding and saying “Mmmhmm” – when he’s chatting about something. He’s become a lot more eager for us to do things together with friends as a couple which has been fun too.

Commitmentnow.com: I love your Ten Lessons from being a 50s house. Are you still keeping lesson 1?

1. Maybe We're a Bit Too Distracted

Pre-50s Experiment, Patrick would get home and I'd be at the computer. Always. There I'd stay until he eventually wandered in the house and found me. Then he'd start complaining about something (his transit ride home, something about work, the strange sounds emanating from our cleaning closet) and I'd barely turn my head from the computer but just make those "Uh huh. Mm. Yep" noises. Eventually Patrick would say, "Oh, wait, you're still working, aren't you?" I'd give him a relieved look that he finally noticed he was interrupting me, say I was almost done (but wouldn't actually finish until several hours later) and then he'd wander off and complain about being hungry.

It wasn't unusual for my husband and I to be sitting in the same room, amongst a mess, both wishing dinner would somehow appear, each staring into laptops, with no conversation between us for hours. We weren't in a fight - we were just hugely distracted with non-stop work, yapping with strangers on Twitter and the fleeting entertainment of websites that feature a bunch of icehole cats (better than a site of cats' assholes, I suppose). And when we did stop and eat, it was on the couch with the TV on. Both of our faces would be pointed at the blinky box or at whatever made-in-10-minutes meal was in our hands. Our main interaction during this time was when something funny happened on TV or one of us spilled something.

Our life together, ladies and gentlemen.

Ta-da.

The 50s housewife was a smart, smart lady and she would have none of that. She greeted her partner when he arrived and aimed to have dinner timed so they could both enjoy it shortly thereafter.

Eating at the table (with cutlery!) was an instant change. We suddenly were sitting across from each other twice a day, enjoying a meal that both of us contributed to (he with the $, me with the cooking) and with nothing but the other for entertainment and communication. And for the first time in a long time, I'm ashamed to admit, I listened to what Patrick was saying about his job, his day, his - sigh - fantasy baseball league. While that last one required many silent prayers to Ron MacLean, the Patron Saint of Keeping a Straight Face, it was actually really nice - for both of us - to have time devoted to the others' thoughts. Even though not every meal was a culinary delight, I got to see his appreciation for it all the same, which goes a long way when you've worked on it for a while.

* Greeting each other when we get home - keeping it!

* Eating our dinners at the table without distractions - keeping it!

* Reducing TV time - keeping it!

* Setting greater limits on how much work gets done while we're together - keeping it!

Thank you! We definitely have kept it up, and we’re happier for it. There are, of course, times when we’re really busy or lazy and we slip into old habits, but we’re pretty quick to notice it and get back in the direction we want to be (same goes for housekeeping – the place is generally much cleaner now!). We allow ourselves to be lazier with things on the weekend – having meals at the TV and lounging around – and that works just fine for us.

Commitmentnow.com: Are you different because of this experience? If so, how? What changed within you due to your 'trip back in time'?

Jen: I was so, so surprised by how I benefited by following some rather un-PC advice from the 1950s that it’s made me question my perception of a few things. In doing so, I think I’ve become more open-minded, less quick to label things, and more willing to see the grey aspects of history, relationships and communication.

Commitmentnow.com:  If you were giving a seminar on lessons from 1950s housewives, what tips and advice from that era would you share with women today?

Jen: My advice wouldn’t strictly be for women but for anyone who may want to change aspects of their lives. I think some common modern complaints from both men and women revolve around work-life balance, money, intimacy and stress.

Some tips I learned from my 1950s materials include:

•    The successful 50s housewife had to be on top of her family budget like a CFO. She would update her ledger with the money spent and money remaining at the end of each day. If money is an issue for you, stop avoiding it and make facing it a daily activity. Keep track of how you’re spending your money.

Analyze it and see where you can trim back. If you have little self-control when it comes to credit cards, switch to an all-cash budget and only take out what you can afford to spend.

•    Keep on top of clutter and you’ll discover the immediate benefits.

A clean home instantly creates a calming vibe, plus, it’s often cheaper and easier to have company over rather than always going out to restaurants or bars – so have a home that you’re proud to have guests in.

Grab a laundry basket and start going room to room, grabbing the things that don’t belong in that room and putting them in the laundry basket. Then put away the things that do belong in the room. Keep going until the laundry basket is empty and the rooms are tidy.

It might take a while the first time you do this, however, if make this a daily routine, you’ll be amazed by how great your home will always look. Crank up the Johnny Cash tunes, grab that laundry basket and give yourself 15 minutes to do this every morning or evening – it’s worth it!

•    Be smarter about meal planning and leftovers.

Take some time and think about what you want to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner for at least three days ahead of time.

Talk to the butcher about the best cuts of meat for you needs and have them prep it. Consider cooking more than one meal at a time (for example, if you’re having white potatoes today and mashed sweet potato tomorrow, you can actually boil them all together today and pop the sweet potatoes in the fridge to be mashed tomorrow, saving yourself time the next day). While putting your dinner leftovers away, pack or prep the next day’s lunch.

•    Eat at the dinner table with the TV off and the cell phones put away. You’ll enjoy your meal more and get some quiet quality time with your partner or family.

•    Show your appreciation and respect for your partner every single day. Say a proper goodbye when they / you leave for the day. Greet them warmly when they / you come home. Give compliments. Say thank you. Listen to them with interest. Try to gauge his or her mood and respond to it appropriately. Try to hold back a little more on the amount you nag, complain or lose your temper. Try to think of ways you can help them or add more happiness to their day.