Tuesday, January 26, 2016

1950s Housing Conditions

The myth of 1950s as the "Golden Age" of the family persists. Of course, comparing with the present day there were relatively few married women in the workforce, about 20% vs 60% in 2009, yet what was the reason for it? I keep hearing claims that it was due to some uncommon after-war prosperity. However, in the year 1900 only 5% of all married American women worked. Was it because in the beginning of the 20th century folks were on average much wealthier than 50 years later? How comes a lower class man could afford for his wife and kids to stay home 100 years ago but he can't now?

I have noticed that a lot of people, especially Americans are basing their ideas of the times past on Hollywood productions. I've watched my fair share of vintage movies and I've noticed one thing: they nearly always feature an upper middle class household with all the problems they face. A wealthy husband having an affair with his secretary, spoiled college-attending kids mouthing off, a bored middle aged lady of the house with her fur coats whose problem is her housekeeper left her. That's not how most families lived.

Just a week ago I was talking with somebody on this very topic. The lady was telling me about her childhood. They were a family with 6 children, the father had a small business, the mother stayed home. All 8 of them lived in a house of 80 sq.m., with a small garden. It had a living room, a master bedroom and 3 small rooms where the children slept, one was so tiny it had no windows and it was pitch dark in there in the evening. Since they were with 1 boy and 5 girls, it meant that the brother had a bedroom all to himself while the sisters had to share: 3 in one room and two in the other (the dark one).

They had no TV and they had to rent a washing machine to do their weekly washing. The house still exists, though the inside walls were broken to create bigger rooms as it's been a fashion over here for some time. These types of houses are often put on sale nowadays as a "starter" or one person homes yet they had lived there with a family of 8. Something tells me that the current rate of married women in the workforce has more to do with high demands of the modern lifestyle than with any great wealth of the previous era.


  1. Very good topic. Needs or wants? The modern family needs so many things that in the past were only rare priviledges. Owning a car was a luxury when I was a child. Now everybody has a personal car at 18. Is a car something one should wait and save in time or just a strict necessity that is worth a sacrifice like a credit? What do you think? I know it definitely depends on each household or family but this is a very important aspect of good housekeeping. What should a responsible homemaker do in order to achieve something the family needs? What empowers us best in order to support our husbands in carrying out their plans?

  2. Alexandra, it's a difficult question. In my humble opinion, it depends on the family income. In a traditional family, it will be father's income (though mother will probably supplement sometimes by babysitting, gifts from her family and that sort of thing). If a family can afford all these luxuries, why not? However, with easy credit and wives as a rule working it becomes easier to live above one's means. There was a TV program featuring people in debt and there were 2 income families earning together quite considerable amounts of money yet they ended up broke because they couldn't handle it. Have you read "David Copperfield" by Dickens? There was this character constantly getting into money trouble who in the end learned his lesson that yearly expenses shouldn't be higher than a yearly income even by a small sum.

  3. Also I think a responsible homemaker will be a wise manager. After all, a penny saved is a penny earned:) However, being too stingy isn't good, either. One should be able to enjoy small pleasures in life.

  4. Thanks for your balanced answer. Earning and spending must overlap in favor of saving something not just spending everything. You're right about the temptation of living above one's means. This happens where money is not so tight because spending more is a habit. But going into a too strict thrift can be frustrating indeed. I hate buying cheap unhealthy food for example. I avoid white sugar and buy raw brown sugar instead. I prefer very small housing and healthy food over a big house but cheap food instead meaning poor health in future. I can understand the little pleasures that every family needs. That's why I consider that some basic things shouldn't be sacrificed in life just for making some ambitions come true if one can't afford them normally. Normal means the husband's income and the wife's saving power.

  5. You are welcome! I think healthy food is very important, but there should be some trade offs. I mean I don't think it's always necessary to buy organic or biological. On the other hand, if you save on chips and Cola, you can afford buying more expensive but healthier foods. If you are interested, in comments to the previous post I added a link to my earlier article about budgeting.

  6. Yes, budgetting is a tough task. Buying fresh and healthy food especially when somebody has special needs or menu restrictions is a challenge and fulltime job. I need to rearrange my grocery expenses if other things require money and thrift in future. I don't buy everything organic but in summer we produce some fresh food which makes a difference. But sugar and store sweets are something crucial for me. The less the better. Since brown sugar is 3x expensive than white sugar, I am very thrifty with it. But other things are far from being organic, I admit. oil is another weakness I have. If it is not of good quality I feel frustrated. At least I am trying my best. Nutritious food and wise spending must go together somehow.

  7. I think there is some real truth to that. I do think our culture (here at least) demands people "keep up with the Joneses". If you want what commercialism tells you you are supposed to have, both husband and wife must work.

    I have also seen, however, a very comprehensive wage/price of goods index that takes into account the way the government used to calculate GDP and such before the Clinton administration. Today, we are worse off than in the 1950's. It has in fact reached near Depression era numbers as far as unemployment goes.

    But, also, there wasn't "Welfare" the way it is now also, so I dunno.

    My great-Grandma had stories from the Great Depression. Her and her husband had a home and a car. She used to drive the car while he rode on the hood...whatever he shot in this manner they took home to cook up. I would say, most people are faring better than this thankfully...some because there is food stamps, others because they have family to rely on, still others still have work.

  8. The mindset, "Bigger is better" is an American mindset. Borrowing money is cheap. Shopping is a favourite past time of many people. This has led to a lifestyle of much stress, burnout and discontentedness. I do enjoy a larger home; but if it was borrowed money - give me smaller.

  9. I imagine things were tougher in Europe after WWII and into the 1950s than the US. But even here in the US most people led modest lifestyles.

    My grandparents married in 1938. Grandpa was a truck driver and Grandma never worked once she got married. When she was single, she worked in a shoe box factory.

    They bought their first home in 1948, a one-bedroom home for a family of four. My mother and aunt slept in the unfinished attic with no heat in the winter and roasting hot in the summer.

    My mother got married in 1959 but my grandparents and aunt lived there till 1963 when they bought the house next door and my now-separated mother moved into the little house with my sister and me.

    At that time in the early-mid 1960s we didn't have a telephone and we even took in a boarder, a young lady who worked with my mother. We four slept in the one bedroom. My mother, sister, and myself in a double bed and our boarder in a single bed. I was born in 1960 and my sister in 1961 so we were very little when we three shared a bed. So even well into the 1960s money was tight for my family anyway.

    My husband's parents were married in 1945 in Italy. He was a G.I. and she was Italian. They had nothing when they got back to the US. They lived in an apartment with no heat so they had to buy a couple of little heaters. No washing machine and they couldn't afford the laundromat so my MIL washed everything including sheets and diapers in the bathtub. They moved to a really run-down house and gradually fixed it up, sometimes only being able to buy one board a week.

    In 1955 they bought a brand-new little house of under 1000 square feet, 3 bedrooms and one bathroom. They had 8 people living there, themselves and the 5 kids and my MIL's elderly father who came over from Italy to live with them when his wife died.

    People definitely lived simpler then with one car, tiny houses, nobody went away on vacation. One tv if you even had one at all in the 1950s. No air conditioning, cable tv, cell phones, video games, computers, etc. No expensive gadgets like today. It was a real treat to eat at a restaurant. I would bet that my inlaws went years without going to a restaurant.

    I live in a tiny home by today's standards. Two bedrooms, one bathroom, under 1000 square feet. We've lived here since 1984 and raised one daughter in it and I've not worked since 1989 when she was born. Having a small home meant that we could afford to have me stay home. It also means smaller utility bills and less maintenance and cleaning. I never wanted to be a slave to a house by either having to work to afford it or to keep up with all the cleaning and repair a larger home would need. I expect I'll live in this house for another 30 years or until I die.

  10. Alexandra, have you tried honey instead of sugar or is it just as expensive as brown sugar? Here price difference isn't so big. I think if one avoids all these sugary drinks (including juice) then white sugar now and then isn't such a big problem.

    1. We buy local honey in summer and we ran out of it. Cheap store honey is made of sugary items and real honey is 3x brown sugar if bought from stores. We can afford it only in small quantities for milk and tea. Honey can't be used in hot liquids because it becomes toxic at more than 50 degrees celsius. We'll have to wait for the next honey production. It is great and healthy. and also much cheaper. Raw sugar isn't better for the calories because it is sugar too but for the impact that refined white sugar has on my hormonal balance. White sugar is difficult to get processed by our bodies. it is a strange type of artificial sugar that requires tough work after being eaten. It exhausts the glands especially and steals vitamin B from our natural supplies that the liver needs in order to process carbohydrates. You're right that small quantities of white sugar aren't a disaster but I have real problems with blond sugar levels and liver processing carbs. Healthy people don't feel a difference.

    2. Not really, according to this article:

      However, if you are convinced that something is bad for your health, it's probably better not to use it! Sorry about your health problems.

  11. Peace, yes, I've heard about these comparisons. Apparently, housing was cheaper, while clothes/food were more expensive. Yet, nowadays, most families have mortgage AND houses are often oversized compared with 1950s. Lots of women over here work for a mortgage, to afford a bigger house. However, in the USA, as I understand, many women work for medical insurance and retirement funds?

    Also, this doesn't explain why even less women worked a hundred years ago. I guess nobody can state with a straight face that 95% of married women in America in the year 1900 all stayed home because their husbands earned insane amounts of money:)

  12. Yes, things were tough after the war. I have a 1960 cooking book which has a chapter on meat substitutes for those who couldn't afford meat.

    While I can understand the attractiveness of a larger home, a smaller one has it's positive sides as well: for one it's easier to clean, and the heating bills in winter aren't that huge. In Germany in the villages many people have big houses but they often rent a part of it to tourists or let the family come and stay with them. If you read old books, like stories about England in 1930s and 1940s you'll see that rich folks who could afford a big house often had less fortunate relatives and dependents live with them.

  13. Housewife from FinlandJanuary 27, 2016 at 9:37 AM

    Hundred years ago most married women were married to farmers (or crofters). So no they were not counted to workforce, even though their work with home, garden and cattle was extremely important. At least this was the case in Finland, I do not know how far urbanization had gone in other Western countries.

    It would be interesting to see how many men were concidered working outside the home back then. If they were farmers, they were technically not part of the workforce. Well, crofters were, since they had to pay for their croft "rent" with their work. And even crofters wife's had to do those "rent" days.

    But anyway I think one of the reasons so few women were in the workforce was this farmer's wife -thing.

    I agree that people have insane demands nowadays. Almost all my friens have houses that are at least 130 sq.meters, most have much bigger ones. And they have two cars. We had only one car even when I was workins since I do not drive. And we live in a flat that is relatively small.

    And people eat out a lot. We do that very rarely, since my hubby is an excellent chef. :)

    About honey: We have found one brand that makes organic honey from forests flowers in eastern Finland. It is so perfect, too bad that my stomach doesn't really digest honey that well. I would love to have beehives.

  14. Housewife, here is a quote from the post I linked above:

    "Already in 1900, life was not as oriented around agriculture and farming as one might think. I want to add, in the situation of a family living on a farm in the countryside where both the husband and the wife worked equally to maintain the productivity of the farm, both the husband and the wife would have been considered employed, the husband categorized as a “farmer” and the wife most likely categorized as an “agricultural laborer”; the very low numbers of married women working is not due to women’s work on the family farm not being counted."

    The statistics I cited come from official American government sources.

  15. And one more quote "In 1900, 25% of women 16 years old and older lived in cities of 50,000 people or more. In terms of employment, however, agricultural employment for both sexes was less than you might think. Already in 1900, even though the number of married women working was still very low, the occupations that most people held were already removed from the basic necessity of producing food. In 1900, among those 16 and older, 34% of all employment was in the agricultural sector; 38% of the employment for men and 16% of the employment of women. Outside of agriculture the biggest employment category for men was manufacturing and mechanical pursuits, employing 25% of men; and for women was domestic and personal service, employing 40% of the women who were working."

    Again, this is the date from the USA. Could have been different in Finland.

  16. You are lucky to have a husband who cooks like a chef! Do you do any cooking yourself? We consume a lot of honey since I routinely use it instead of sugar, so I usually buy the cheapest brand, couldn't have afforded it otherwise, at least, not in these quantities.

  17. My father used to produce honey when I was a child. It is a natural sweetener that contains valuable enzymes that are destroyed in hot liquids. This is true. Think about any enzymes in any food. They don't resist heat. I know how my father used to manage the honey. He never heated it up more than a specific temperature even if it was necessary.

  18. Housewife from FinlandJanuary 28, 2016 at 5:13 AM

    I could not find statistics from Finland. But Finland was very agricultural even after WWII. But I do think that in towns, even if young women worked as maids etc, married women worked only if they were really poor.

    About cooking: I do most of the cooking, but if we want to eat something fancy, my husband does that.

    I don't use honey instead of sugar, since it usually effects on the structure of pastrys. For the same reason, I don't use brown sugar. But I have noticed that one can easily drop 1/3 of the sugar - 1/2 is the recipe is american. :)

    Alexandra, heating may destroy enzymes but that does not make honey poisonous, just slightly less healthy.

  19. I usually use honey as sweetener for my tea. I cook with brown sugar and nearly always substitute it in all the recipes. Never had any problems. Agree about American recipes being too sweet!

    My husband has to cook sometimes when I'm sick but doesn't really enjoy it. He'd rather opt for a takeout, I'm afraid. I guess it because he comes late from work and doesn't fancy spending time in the kitchen. He'd rather relax with a cup of coffee.

    P.S. American recipes often use too much fat as well, that's why I keep adjusting them.

  20. Housewife from FinlandJanuary 28, 2016 at 9:56 AM

    I drink my tea "raw" and coffee with only milk, so I do not need sweeteners for that. Hubby uses honey or brown sugar.

    I must try to bake with brown sugar again. I recall I had some problems with cookies when I tried, but maybe I made some other mistake. :) I usually adjust recipes so much that when something goes wrong, I don't no what it is.

    My hubby loves cooking, as long as it is his choice. He would hate to cook every day, but he likes to cook on weekends. And we do get chinese or hamburgers every now and then... :)

  21. Well, I say "tea" but it isn't really tea as I can't tolerate caffeine. Sometimes i use herbal substitutes but mostly it's just a cup of hot water with a spoon of honey or molasses.

    We eat Chinese at least once a month.