Homemaking in the 1940s is a fascinating topic. The strength and creativity exhibited by the homemakers of that era inspires me and makes me want to learn more about how they coped during a difficult time period.
Throughout history homemakers have often faced challenges related to world events. This was true during The Great Depression when so many lost their savings, jobs and even homes. It’s true in current times when rising costs and stagnating middle class wages often require two incomes to provide for a household. And it was definitely the case during WWII when young men went off to war leaving wives behind to care for their homes and families alone.
Ever since I was a little girl I’ve been passionate about homemaking. “Playing house” with my cousin who lived next door was my major occupation as a child. Almost every day we’d push our loaded doll strollers to Grandma’s house and spend hours playing with our dolls.
My mom was generally home when we weren’t in school but otherwise she worked at my dad’s business with him. She kept us fed and in clean clothes. Our bathrooms were always spotless and we had clean sheets on our beds every few days. But she would be the first to admit that homemaking wasn’t her passion.
Grandma, on the other hand, always seemed perfectly content in her role as a homemaker. She went about her day in a calm and peaceful manner, never rushed and usually whistling or humming to herself.
She was the one who taught me how to iron my doll clothes, how to make tea, how to support a newborn’s head and sooth them to sleep (I worked the church nursery with her from the time I was six years old), and how to make hospital corners when changing the bedsheets.
My grandparents married in the middle of The Great Depression and set up housekeeping in rural Oklahoma. Those were difficult times. At one time my grandfather worked for a dairy and milked 60 cows by hand twice a day. They had no indoor plumbing and in the winter the house was so cold that milk froze in the bucket overnight.
I cannot imagine how challenging homemaking must have been under those circumstances and then during the war years when Grandma shouldered the burden of home alone. But I do try to think of that whenever I’m tempted to complain about housework and laundry.
The typical 1940s housewife faced a number of challenges:
During World War 2, a number of items were rationed – gasoline, food and even clothing. Ration books were issued to each family and required careful planning of meals by the homemaker. Rationing was especially severe in Great Britain and continued for a much longer period of time than in the United States.
Joining the work force
Women entered the work force in large numbers in order to replace the men who had gone off to war. This didn’t relieve them of their household responsibilities, however. Women “became proficient cooks and housekeepers, managed the finances, learned to fix the car, worked in a defense plant, and wrote letters to their soldier husbands that were consistently upbeat.” (Stephen Ambrose, D-Day, 488)
Minimal labor saving devices
Today we take for granted such things at automatic washing machines, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, electric or gas stoves, frost-free refrigerators, etc. But most women in the 1940s were still tackling homemaking tasks without much improvement over what their grandmothers had. The sheer workload of homemaking could be staggering.
There were fairly rigid notions of what constituted a “good housewife”. Even a cursory glance at vintage women’s magazines of the time period will demonstrate the pressure on women to keep a spotless home, serve delicious meals and raise well-behaved children.
Then, because we were at war, there was the additional pressure to “do her part”. These World War 2 posters were aimed at the women of the 40s:
The challenges were many but it seems most women truly rose to the occasion. They took on jobs while still keeping “the home fires burning”, as the saying goes. I find these women to be quite inspiring and excellent role models.
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