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:
Victory Begins at Home: World War 2 Posters
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.
You may also enjoy:
Frugal Tips from 1940s Housewives
Plan Your Meals Like a 1940’s Homemaker
Get Your Housework Done Faster – Tips From 1940s Housewives
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I was a baby during rationing and my tells about my not having any shoes for me and trading her coffee stamps for his coffee ones so I could have a pair of shoes. She said one year during the depression my brother didnt have a snowsuit so they took the material from the roof of the car so she could make him one. We had no electric in out little village and she talked about the storekeeper getting a small piece of beef and several of the ladies going to the store in the dark of midnight to get a small portion of the beef and what a treat it was. In about 1939 she went to another town, my dad took care of my siblings and ironed shirts at factory that made them with big heavy irons for a quarter an hour. That was the only income the family had for quite a while. They were tough times and she lived in fear that they would happen again. It made an impact on her whole life.
Deanna Piercy says
I’m in awe of women like that. My grandmother worked as a maternity nurse for several years when her kids were young. She worked the night shift then came home, cooked breakfast and got the kids off to school. Since I know my grandfather wasn’t doing any cooking or cleaning I have no idea when/if she slept. I’ve also heard the stories about her shooting squirrels to help feed the family when my grandpa was out of state working in a plant during the war. I feel so lazy when I think about these women.
I agree they’re inspiring. Though I expect they didn’t think so. I expect they’d tell you they just did what they needed to do to take care of their families.
Deanna Piercy says
I’m sure that’s true. Things weren’t easy in the States but they were SO much harder in Great Britain. I truly can’t imagine what it must have been like, especially for those in the areas being bombed.
And rationing was so much toughing in England, too, in regards to both food and raw materials like cloth (and clothing!). Every book I read about rationing makes me wonder how on earth we’d handle something like that today in the US, when people throw tantrums in the store if the store has run out of Cheetos (generalizing, but you get it!). The women back then truly rose to the occasion.
Deanna Piercy says
Those British women were just amazing. And while I’d like to think we’d rise to the occasion if called upon, I’m not so sure these days.
Anna | Yes, Little Hummingbird? says
I think you’d absolutely love The 1950’s Housewife by Sheila Hardy. It’s definitely worth the read <3
Deanna Piercy says
Thank you for the recommendation. I’ve had it on my wishlist. I just had the sample sent to my Kindle and will likely buy it.