Saturday, October 18, 2014

Living On One Income In The 1950s

Both conservatives and liberals spread misinformation about life in the 1950s. For the modern liberals, 1950s are the ultimate Dark Age of patriarchal oppression, while for conservatives they are the Golden Age of the family.

In fact, they were neither, but that's not what I wanted to talk about today. I'd like to address one particular myth about this time period, which is particularly persistent among those who declare themselves anti-feminist. They will often say something about the importance of the traditional family and how in general, they think that women ought to be housewives, but unfortunately, nowadays it's impossible, unlike in that Golden Age of the family, 1950s, when all men earned enormous paychecks etc etc. Well, you know the type.

It's true that in the 1950s more married women stayed home than nowadays, but did it really happen because people were so much wealthier than now? Let's look at some of the popular TV shows of that time, like I Love Lucy, for instance. Ricky and Lucy are supposed to be an example of a typical middle class family where the wife stay home. In the beginning of the show, they are a childless couple living in an apartment which consists of a kitchen, a living room, a bedroom and a bathroom. In Season 2 when they finally get a baby, they continue for some time to live in the same apartment, later they move to an apartment with 2 bedrooms.

It's only in the last couple of seasons when Ricky has been to Hollywood and became internationally famous, that they finally buy their dream house in the suburbs. The first three seasons they don't own a car. It's true, they have a TV set, a washing machine, a fridge (without a freezer at first) and a vacuum cleaner, and they can afford to eat out and Lucy always wastes money on clothes, but they aren't shown going on expensive vacations, unless Ricky has to travel for work. Their friends and landlords, Fred and Ethel, have even lower living standards.

Now in 1955 there was another popular TV show called Honeymooners which featured two working class couples, Ralph and Alice Kramden and Ed and Trixie Norton. Ralph is a bus driver, Ed is a sewer worker, and they both earn the same amount of money - 62 dollars a week. Both women are homemakers. When I watched a first couple of episodes, I kept wondering why they always showed Kramdens' kitchen and never their living room, like in I Love Lucy. Then I understood - their kitchen was also their living room. Their whole apartment consisted of living/kitchen + a bedroom and a bathroom. The same was true for Nortons.

It goes without saying that neither of them owned a car. Alice Kramden also had no washing machine or vacuum cleaner, and in the very first episode she insisted her husband bought them a TV set and complained about their electric bill amounting to 39 cent a month or something similar. Nortons had a better furniture and a TV set because they bought stuff on credit.

I hope by now you have guessed why I'm telling you all this: our living standards have changed dramatically and that's one of the reasons so many married women work. I knew a couple in real life who raised their four children in a 4 room flat, which was later sold as a "starter" apartment and there is a single man living in it now. A newly-wed couple naturally expects to be able to buy a semi-detached in a nice neighbourhood with a big garden. Or is it natural?

I said above  the rising standards of living demand that wives keep on working after marriage and this is reason number one. Reason number two is that our whole perspective on family has changed. Nowadays a wife of a man like Ralph Kamden would be accused of "not contributing to the family income" and shamed into working. People feel they are entitled to two cars, luxurious vacations, regularly eating out, having houses much bigger than they really need and owning lots of expensive gadgets (half of which they don't use). Kamdens didn't have a phone in their apartment. Nowadays, every child in the family is supposed to have a mobile.

1950s were closer to the "Golden Age" of the family not because people were so much wealthier than now, but because they thought that family was important. We find stuff important. That's all.


  1. Wow great post! The last line of your article sums it up great!

  2. Anon, first, thanks!
    Second, pick up a handle. According to the blog rules, anonymous comments will be deleted.

  3. The older home we raised our family in the realtor had told us would do for a starter home! Well the children are grown and have their own home and now this home is still good for the two of us. If we had gotten a larger home for the two of us we would then be stuck with to big of a home! I was taught you lived on what your husband made and saved too. No matter how small or large the pay check was. Not to compare my husband to another's. In any way. Each person and marriage was different as God designed it this way. If we complain and compare we will never be content. If then we are able to step up and get say a new something it is a joy and unexpected too. We are relaxed and content because we have the basics and a savings plan too. The needed new luxury we are now able to get is out of the ordinary and ever so more special because of it. Appreciated even the more. Now a days couples seem to think they Need and Should have right away what it took their parents half their marriage to acquire Another thing we were all taught is that with age comes responsibility !! As a little girl I would not think I could wear high heels or lipstick till I was much much older. With each age comes new and more grown up things. Each comes a little at a time. Along with it comes new chores to add to your list and new studies. So it is in growing up and marriage. You save to get a house and furnish it with just the very basics. Good used pieces are fine and we still have many of them. As needed..needed... and can be saved for, you get more as time goes on. If I had gotten all the furnishings I wanted when I first married I would have soon tired of them. I at that time, was in love with a style of furnishings I now would not like to live with. What a waste to have gotten it when I was so young and did not really know my mind in these things. Living gives us experience even with ourselves. :) How could I have enjoyed a house full of things I had to charge to get? I don't see how I could have slept. I certainly would feel I had to work to just pay for furnishings...for Things. It might bring resentment that I let this happen. All good things come to those who wait they say. We wait for a Christmas present and how happy we are to finally open it. !! So it is with life. It is a present too... to open one thing at a time. :-) Sarah

  4. Yes, that's true about saving and waiting to buy things you like, yet too many people seem to want it all and now;)

  5. Thanks. I have been pointing this out as well for years.

    In the US, look at the square footage of houses (for those who could afford houses). In the 1950s it was less than 1600 sq ft. In the 1990s it had soared past 2000. And there are far fewer kids living in these houses.

    But it stores stuff, like the W/D, the dishwasher, multiple TVs, computers, and often there is a garage for the two(+) cars, riding lawnmower.

    And that doesn't count the other perks like granite countertops, CaTV, riding lawnmowers, etc.

    The middle class didn't get destroyed, it got re-defined. If anything is hard on the middle class, it's college tuition costs.

  6. You are welcome! I heard about tuition costs in America being very high, but probably not everybody needs to go to the university, either:)

  7. I tried to comment earlier, but I guess it didn't come through.

    Sarah said so well everything I wanted to say :-)
    There's nothing magical in living on one income, you just need to be content with what you have = what your husband makes :-)

  8. If you have trouble posting comments, you should try to log in first. Otherwise, I don't know what could be the problem. For the rest, agree!