Saturday, September 11, 2010

11 September 1956 “What is a Vintage Life? Rosie the Riveter or June Cleaver?”

Recently, I received a comment from a follower that said:
I love your blog, but sometimes I think that what you are trying to express is a return to "civility", to the social norms of the first half of the 20th century, rather than to the specific decade of the 1950s. Your homesteading and self-sufficiency seems to be more pre-war than post. After the war we truly did want to forget our home front struggles, just as our men who served rarely spoke of their war front activities.
This got me thinking. Am I living a more pre-war life? rosierivetor Am I more Rosie the Riveter or June Cleaver? junecleaver Does my desire to want to keep chickens, grow veg as well as pretty flowers, and can my own food and sew make me more 1940’s than 1950’s? And it isn’t as if I need to really just choose a decade, I just happen to like the positive feelings of the 1950s and how much ‘hope’ there was in the world. But, I also don’t want to fall prey to the easy plastic world which really was beginning in the late 1950’s.
I met a woman who would have been close to my age in the 1950’s. She lived on the Cape and still does. I met here volunteering at our local church run antique shop in town. I talked with her about this concept, my being more 1940’s than 1950’s because I chose to make more of my own, grow my food, keep chickens. She laughed and told me that the 1950’s must have been different everywhere. She, living in my old town (1600’s is pretty old for the United States) said the 1950’s in the movies was not the 1950’s here.
First of all, as I can plainly see, there were very few ‘new’ modern 1950’s homes in my town. There are some, but they are greatly outnumbered by Capes and Colonials that have seen 1650 as well as 1950. Living here in 1950 may have been the modern world, but plastic, wonder bread and gleaming but sterile green lawns were not the norm. In East Sandwich, a town outside of my own, new developments were started and one might find a row of typical 1950’s ranch, but by and large my town is house much older than the 1950’s.
“Maybe this lady is thinking of the newer parts of the country” she told me “When a town just sprang up out of an old farmer’s field. But here, on Cape, I was keeping chickens and canning in 1950’s.”
My town is, in some respects, a garden lover’s dream. Many people care greatly for their garden and their yards are full of lush roses and hydrangeas as well as pots of annuals and an equal smattering of vegetable. This, at least according to this fine lady, was true even then.
I think what I must remember( not as if I need to validate the ‘true living’ to myself, but I do want to express a true experience) is that much like today or 100 years ago, the decade in which you live is going to be lived differently depending on your area. The middle class homemaker of my age in 1956 here on Cape Cod certainly did not live like a homemaker in Wisconsin in a new suburb of cookie cutter houses. The families living outside of NYC in the growing suburbs also most likely lived a different life. And though many regional dialects and atitudes are all but gone thanks to shared media and tv, in 1956 a Cape Cod wife would have lived a very regional existence.
“Look,” she told me, “We live and breath history here on the Cape.  In 1956 I may have bought a new sofa, but my house was also filled with colonial antiques because they were my families. They were what was available around here. My vegetable garden was as much a pride to me as was my rose garden. I didn’t pack up the chickens because the war ended. They make the best soil for roses. We still canned and even traded recipes and shared jams and pickles amongst one another.”
In trying to recreate as well as study a time period as I am doing, I must remember that there is no one way to ‘be 1950’s.’ There is no one right or wrong way to live “A Vintage Life”. I find myself naturally falling into step with what local ladies in 1950’s would have done here because I AM here. My house is not a 1950’s ranch. I do have old furniture that people have sat in long before 1956. I have a nice little yard with room for veg and chickens and flowers and I naturally fill them with that.
I think, then, if any of us want to live a Vintage Life, no matter to what extreme, getting to know the traditions of our own area will make it all the more rich and real. We might only want to simply where some vintage clothes or perhaps just learn to cook and dress better, but to learn our regions history and social history, rather or not we implement it, is worth it.
As much as I have come to see how important it is for Women’s History to really study and understand the Homemaking arts and skills, so to is it important to understand where and how your community was built. The history of it’s buildings and economy is all worth the effort.
When I asked this lady if it was true,what my commenter said, that the men rarely spoke of their war activities, she laughed and then sort of went quite, thinking. “Well, I suppose we never really heard of the bad things the men must have gone through, but to say they didn’t talk about it is not true. The men, when they got together, loved to swap war stories. And though it must have been horrible what they went through, what they talked and laughed about were the good times. Roughing it and the comradery was always discussed with these men. In fact we women would often say such things as ‘oh, here comes another war story’.”
She told me they even often sang old war songs, such as this line that makes me laugh,
The biscuits in the Army, they say are mighty fine
one rolled off the table, and killed a friend of mine
And the refrain of that song almost brought a tear to my eye
I don’t want no more of Army life,
please mum I want to go, but they won’t let me go
please mum, I want to go home.
Maybe it is the New England spirit. The old curmudgeon who can get a nickel out of a penny if he squeezes hard enough. He remembers ancestors who had to literally fell forests to eek out existence. To them, hardship is merely the very stuff they are made of. Though the war was filled with unmentionable horror, they old New Englander still enjoyed a good gossip about the ‘war’ with the comradery of men around the old wood stove at the local general store.
Much like that song, with the raucous joke combined with the said refrain, ‘I want to go home’. And they did and when they returned they did not complain and go on about the horror of it. But they also recalled the good times, imbuing our communities with the very idea that, even in deadly hardships one can laugh and smile again. That is the never give up spirit I truly love about New England.
I felt better after learning this. I began to realize life, in any form, is really how we make it, but also colored by our town, our culture. We are lucky in this country in that if we do not like or feel any affiliation with our area, we can pick up and move and soon become a part of a different town a different history a different set of local values. That freedom is one thing our country prides itself on. And though we might be thought as an ‘outsider’ if we were to move to a new community, we know we would still be accepted because what is more flattering to a town than to know an outsider would like to be let inside. Just as the ladies at the old antique store are flattered that I have taken a part of my life to re-live and rekindle a time in their life that they not only loved but of which they were proud.
The civility and comradery of the past is like that. It is willing to take you on and, though you don’t really belong there, it welcomes you. Because you have bothered to blow the dust off and care and to realize that what has gone does not have to be forgot. And even though sometimes in the modern world I might fell much like that refrain from the old Army song to return to a time I did not belong: “Please mum I want to go home” I realize, the old adage is true: Home is where your heart is. Corny but sincere. And we can make our homes and our community and our lives the way we like it. That might be different for you than for me, but we can all agree on the love of the past won’t ever steer us wrong.
juneinpants And after all, even June cleaver took off the pearls and got into the garden, didn’t she?


  1. Well, here I am commenting again. I'm glad you were able to talk to somebody about this time period, which is the baby-boom post-war years of 1946 to 1964. It would be different for everybody depending upon who they were, where they lived, what they did for a living, their financial situation, etc.

    This is something I learned from reading your blog, because, I, too, have been confused as to whether the 50's were like Rosie the Riveter or June Cleaver. I knew both types of women from back then. My family would have been more the Rosie the Riveter type. My father was from N.Y.C., but I was raised on Long Island, not in a cookie-cutter Levittown, but in a small, working-class town, as was my husband. It was considered semi-rural.

    So, I have a different perspective than a woman who grew up in a middle-class suburb, or a middle-class historical town like where you live.

    Oh, and I remember that Army song! My father used to sing it. He had been in the Army. He did not go to war, though, though he was in the Army during WWII. He completed 2 years pre-WWII, was discharged, then recalled when the war broke out and served more.

    No, talking about the horrors of war, or the horrors of anything (wife beating, etc.) was not the flavor of the day. In the 60's, with psychiatry mushrooming and everything, "let it all hang out" was the flavor of the day. I don't know that that made things better, but some people would say that it did.

    You have a fascinating blog. Makes me remember and think.

  2. Also, (sorry for my "books"), "my" time was the late 60's/early 70's, and I graduated high school and married in 1970. Yet, I never did drugs (have never even smoked a marajuana cigarette), was never sexually active before mariage, never protested anything, never knew anybody who burned a bra or draft card, was not a feminist, was never a hippie, did not wear love beads or paint daisies on my face, did not go to California or Woodstock, never owned a water bed, never got divorced, etc., all things that were "typical" of the 60's. A lot of that stuff, again, was for the middle- and upper-middle-class -- those who had the time and the money to do that stuff. My male friends were all drafted into the Army. They didn't go to college. Parents could not afford it and it was not as easy to get college loans then. So, I have a different perspective of "The 60's."

    What I learned from you blog here is that social class and where you lived during those times makes a difference in what exactly you did.

    So, I'm glad you have clarified the fact that your blog comes from a middle-class, New England historical-type town perspective.

    Very good. I would prefer to be June Cleaver to Rosie the Riveter!!! LOL!

  3. I was actually thinking about your blog the other day and the way that some of your ways are different from how "I" picture the 50's. You are right about finding out about our own local history int he 50's.

    My dad was born in 40 so he was around and old enough to remember the 50's. We used to talk about what stores were like int he 50's what businesses were here in the 50's. What the downtown area was like. What his mom did at home.

    My mom was born in 48 so her memories arent as clear or as "adult" but she shares with me what she remembers as well.

    Both of my parents came from poor backgrounds. My grandma on my moms side was a manager in a retail store downtown in the 50's (she was a single divorced mom)

    My Big Moma (grandmother on my dads side) worked factory work sometimes and sometimes she did hair from home.

    I really wish when I was younger I had talked to my grandmothers more about that time period. They are both gone now.. As well as my dad.

    Anyway, the 50's in our area was a mid sized southern factory town. Most people that I know of were working class... In fact I don't know of many women personally here that stayed at home full time or if they did they did some sort of work from home.

    yet, my desire is a little more toward the "stereotypical" 50's.

  4. I am sure the 1950s life was different all over the world. The Americanisation of many western countries through film and television has meant that many people who didn't live in the 1950s or who were too young to remember have largely accepted that the 1950s everywhere was like Happy Days with Richie and Potsy.

    I wasn't born until 1959 the year after my parents moved into their newly built modernist inspired brick home. Before that they had lived in one half of a Victorian terrace house surrounded by houses built in the 1800s and early 1900s. Most of the postwar building that went on around here was of boxy style brick homes or timber homes, all with small windows as there was a glass shortage after the war. Most of these homes had vegetable gardens and kept hens as well I'm sure.
    We didn't have supermarkets until the 1960s, we got Kentucky Fried Chicken in the early 1970s and MacDonalds in the early 1990s ( much later than the rest of Australia). Television started in 1956 for the Olympic Games in Melbourne but was not widespread in homes until the 1960s. We got our first set in 1963.

    Most families only had one car and amongst my circle of school friends, the middle class mums didn't go out to work and about half the working class mums did and mostly at the local knitting yarn factory.Though by the early 70s, when we started high school, most mums had part time jobs.

    My mum was a very happy homemaker, she didn't keep hens though and happily gave up the vegetable garden to make way for a swimming pool. She did bake and make jam and cook all our meals and sew, she loved to sew clothes and new curtains and cushion covers. She loved to garden so she could fill the house with flowers. She always dressed nicely but never wore high heels around the house, never more then a 1 1/2" heel but mostly flats and she never wore pearls to do the housework.

    Australia in those days looked to the UK for inspiration. Many of our television programmes in the early 60s if they weren't local were from the UK. The US influence was beginning but not so obvious as today. Our public broadcaster still does show many UK programmes but the commercial stations are mainly US and a little Australian content.

    The books I was given as a child were mainly English writers so my vision of the world was a mixture of the Australian-ness I saw around me but which came from the British culture originally and the thoroughly jolly hockeysticks books I was looking at and later reading.

    So yes the 1950s ( and the 60s and 70s) experience here in Tasmania

  5. was different to the stereotypical Hollywood version. ( the last part of my comment above was cut off)

  6. Jenny-That is so interesting and thank you so much for that. I love to hear about the 50's in other parts of the world. I have come to find that it was vastly different here in the states and even more so in other countries. I suppose even today, there is no one way to live 2010.
    I do wonder at the us influence on culture world wide and wonder if we are really doing any good. It seems our influence is not based on our having the 'best culture' but having the most vast and the greatest share owned. I watched a special about India in which toilets are still not a major part of their life and how they are trying to introduce more sanitation as the increased numbers of people are becoming so ill due to it, washing and cleaning and then drinking the same water. Yet, in all these remote villages and far reaching places they all were drinking Coca Cola and wearing US company t-shirts. It made my heart truly hurt. I know that must sound 'political' but I hate that the power of money is far greater than the power of human compassion. What I don't understand is why they cannot go hand in hand? Would it hurt to make 1 billion instead of 2 billion so that infiltration of culture such as products could go hand in hand with aiding people to learn to have sanitation or to regain their own farming cultures? Oh, well.
    Thank you again for your take on the 1950's
    If anyone else is reading this PLEASE tell us what the 50's was like in your town/state/ or country.

  7. The neighborhood I lived in was Italian (on Long Island, where 3/4 of us are of Italian heritage -- my grandfather was Italian). The older Italian people, from "the old country" still made stuff from scratch, pasta and tomato paste and stuff like that. Mostly it was the old men who gardened for a hobby (think Marlon Brando in "The Godfather" puttering around in his garden when he was old). I don't remember any of the younger Italian-Americans doing a lot of that stuff, unless it was helping grandma and grandpa.

  8. I have to different experiences to share with you 50's Gal......

    My mom grew up in a typical 50's suburban setting, her mother stayed home, cooked and cleaned, pretty much the typical ranch with green grass, modern appliances and middle class lifestyle.

    My father's side was farmers, so the 50's experience of my dad was completely different, my dad's mom worked in the fields, barn, sewed, baked, canned, cleaned the house, - they did not have electricity till 1953, and no indoor bathroom facilities till 1967.

    So while my suburban Grandma S. stayed home in her modern ranch, went on family vacations, had the modern appliances etc., my Grandma Irene struggled with my grandfather to keep the farm afloat and even had to work at cleaning other people's houses to provide an income.

    The irony of it all is that if just looking at the above one would assume the happiest life would have been my Grandma S., as she had every modern convenience, yet I have to be honest in saying my Grandma Irene who never had much money and struggled her entire life was by far the happiest.

    Her home may not have been as clean as my Grandma S., nor did my grandparents have the financial means as my mom's side. But my Grandma Irene and my Grandpa's honest farm existence was by far I think the most rewarding.

    Through these struggles, she always maintained a cheerful disposition, and she had the wealth of neighbours. In contrast my mom's mother Grandma S., choose to distance herself from neighbours and such.

    If I could choose one of their lives, by far it would be the country life, where hard work built character and neighbourly bonds. Things that are sadly lacking in our cookie cutter modern world.

    Mom in Canada

  9. Donna, I grew up in England in the middle to late 50's. I went to English schools and lived in English villages. My Dad and Mum were Americans stationed to England and my Dad kept putting in for extended stays when his time was up. England at that time was still recovering from the war and from what my Mum says they were just getting off rationing. I remember many of the women (the mums of my friends) boiling their clothes in big pots in the back garden. That was how you got them clean and then hung them on the line. Very few had washers and dryers. I think our family was considered rich Americans because we did have a washing machine. But then since my Mum was Catholic new babies were born every year or so and we became less and less "rich". By 1962-3 there were 8 children in the family and we had by that time moved to the States. We were never even upper middle class again. More what I remember as dirt poor.
    I do remember that song about "wanting to go home", but we always sang it as "Air Force" 'cus that is the service my Dad was in.
    Great interesting post.
    Julie in WA

  10. I grew up in the country. We were very poor. In many ways, my life was like life in the earlier part of the 20th century.

    We got a flush toilet in the early 1990s, but before that, we had an outhouse. I didn't have cable or the internet growing up (I am 26). We didn't have cell phones.

    My sister, who lives next door to my parents, still doesn't have electricity. My parents make a "weekly trip" down to our town of 3,000.

    In addition, my parents don't have hot running water. I grew up heating water on the stove or on the range in the summer and taking a "sponge bath." When the well got low, we would haul water up from our pond on the property to take showers.

    I guess I am more old-fashioned than most people can even imagine! I had a wonderful childhood. My parents are still in the same house and live the same way.

  11. mom in canada-what a great difference. It is like my husbands grandfather's, one, on the west coast, came back from the war and had a large family in a modest middle class home in Seattle and worked his way up from worker to manager of the local Mall. His new england grandfather (rather a bad egg really) married my hubby's grandmother (2nd marriage) and married into wealth and business their family had had and grown for centuries and to this day has used so much of it up and done countless horrid things. The poorer middle class grandfather is called 'the good grandfather' the wealthy one 'the bad grandfather'. Money and things only added to the horror of the man and unfortunately affected my hubby's upbringing greatly to the point that he refused to attend Harvard as he wanted to 'make it on his own without them'. The old saying is true, money does not buy happiness.

  12. julie-it must have been wonderful to be in England even in that time or especially in that time. The banning together and the simplicity sounds as if it can be fun as well as sometimes inconvenient. It's interesting, too, that once you returned to the States your class status dropped in comparison due to how much we had here at that time. Very interesting and thanks for sharing. I hope we get more stories.
    Mei-This is an amazing story, if you don't mind my asking what part of the country did you live in or what country do you live in if not the usa? It's amazing what little we can live without when it becomes normal to us.

  13. Hi '50sgal! I grew up in New England, not too far away from you, actually... near the Vermont/New Hampshire line. My parents are from Massachusetts (Dad from Essex, Mom from Watertown). I live a more modern life today, but I will always be extremely frugal by nature. It's something you can't shake!

  14. Mei-that is amazing that your family chose to live so 'historically' I call it. I have often toyed with the idea of going off somewhere in the woods and living very 'little house on the prarie' with no electricity or hot water etc. It must take some very good determination and now you can live 'modern' but with a very grounded sensibility. The property must have been or still is I assume ,lovely, We ski in NH the N. Conway area, and I love Vermont, Stowe also wonderful skiing.

  15. I've talked about my grandmother here before. She would have been about your age in 1956, married with 2 teenage children, a full-time job, and a new house in the suburbs. Yet, she still kept many of the habits that she learned while growing up and as a young wife during WWII, like sewing clothes, knitting, and crocheting, gardening, and canning. She told me she learned to sew in high school home-ec class, a friend taught her to crochet, and she learned to knit at a class that Sears gave in the evenings. This was in the Fort Wayne, Indiana, area.

  16. DarcyLee-thank you. Another great story of a 'different form' of 1950's woman. A great mix of a homemaker who is still using her pre-war skills and also a full time job! Amazing. When I started this project I wanted to make it as real as possible and to dispel the generalized view of the mindless Step-ford wife serving her husband blindly and being bored and not challenged at home, vacuuming in pearls and heels. Women's history, specifically in this period, is rather shoddy as the women who really move to make liberation in late 60's/70's were coming from these women so, most likely, saw them as the ideal to move away from. I think we are now far enough removed from that time to take it seriously and see how much we have to learn from that time and these greatly varied and strong women.

  17. I was a homemaker in Boston in the 1950s; married in 1954. My circle of friends were all married in our late 20s due to the shortage of men during the war year. In those days were were proud to stay home, and we considered ourselves lucky that we did not "have to work." Living in the city we did not keep any livestock or animals. During the depression many had chicken and small gardens, but post war these were viewed as lower class immigrant pursuits. We were proud to keep our houses and our husbands and our children as well as we could. We were grateful that we had money to pursue a better life for our children. We were not sheep being led blindly by clever ad men, we were proud to American and contributing members of our capitalistic society.

  18. As someone who did take a mans place in a munitions factory during WW II I must say that I was thrilled when the war ended and I was able to return to my role as a housewife. We gals who fought the war on the home front were not doing it for women's liberties or freedom from our domestic situation. We were doing what we could for Uncle Sam, for our country and our boys on the front. We did not want to replace men in the work force forever, only until we won the war.

  19. What a sweet blog post this is. I hope you keep in contact with the ladies at the antique shop, since they may be a great source for answering your questions. Perhaps they can read your blog too. I know not all elderly ladies master a computer, but many do.

  20. Life in central Louisiana in the 50's would have been similar to life in New England. Older homes for the most part. But very few family heirloom/antique furniture pieces. The bulk of that sort of thing was destroyed by the retreating Yankees in May of 1864, after their march to Shreveport was stopped at Mansfield and Pleasant Hill. They burned everything they encountered, including the town of Alexandria.

    Gardening is still a big thing here in Cenla, as we call it. We have a Master Garderners society, though we won't have anything to with most of them because they're "old money" snobs and quite rude to people who haven't lived here for three generations. Parts of the area didn't get electricity until the 60's.

    I'm sure Rapides Parish was an interesting place in 1956. We landed an Air Force base in 1942 that remained open until 1992. The town of Alexandria grew a LOT during the war and right after. Most of the on-base housing still stands and they're the typical 1950's ranch homes. It's our airport now and the base housing was turned into a seniors-only community where they can still have a house of their own, but not be responsible for the yard if they don't want to or can't. The funny thing is most of the people who live there are people who were stationed at the AFB in the 50's and 60's!

    My mom was born in 1956. She grew up in a new suburb, in a new house that her parents built. It was a cozy little house, but not the typical 1950's ranch. My cousin lives in it now. Life was tough. Papaw worked for the gas company and Mimi stayed home, scrimping and saving and making his little paycheck stretch as far as she could. She made most of the family's clothes, crocheted a lot. Taught me and my sister how to crochet and made clothes for our Barbies and American Girl dolls.

    My dad's mom grew up dirt poor and so did his dad. My dad was also born in '56. Papaw had just gotten out of the Army when he and Mamaw married. Mamaw stayed home for awhile, but then went to college and got a biology degree so she could teach school. Papaw went to college too and became a preacher. He's also an electrician, a carpenter, a plumber and an all-around handyman. He taught my dad everything he knew about repairing things and Papa has in turn passed that on to his children. I just finished reattaching the rearview mirror in my mom's car! My brother that's married is continuing the family tradition of carpenters and cabinet-builders. He's at least the fourth generation of carpenters.

  21. Donna, Once again great job So blessed to have had that talk. I too, lived in new england and know that the 1950 track homes were not really built on the island of Aquidneck, Newport area. The homes were colonial and I do not remember the house boom till the 1960's when military homes were built. My family lived in the homes they had some since 1902. My grand parents built their home in 1933. So the fifties did indeed blend into what was there still doing what they had always done. The cooking, canning etc. I grew up with the war stories of the home front. Thanks again, jeanne


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