That retro headline is taken from the cover of the May 1963 issue of Good Housekeeping. I recently took on an assignment to compare extant titles of women’s magazines from 50 years ago and today. While I will probably focus on GH (I always do!), I also have Ladies Home Journal, Redbook, and Family Circle issues from 1963 sitting on the floor of my office right now.
The issues are utterly fascinating. 1963 was a big year. There are lots of articles about life at the Kennedy’s, scenes of Camelot which were, of course, about to meet their doom. Ladies Home Journal had just run a big piece by Betty Friedan called “Have American Housewives Traded Brains for Brooms?” Friedan had, among other things, pointed out that a bachelor managed to spend much less time getting his own house reasonably clean; women were spending scads of time on an activity that didn’t require it. The readers of LHJ hated that piece; as the editors pointed out “four out of five of hundreds of readers who’ve written us say that Betty Friedan is wrong.” But The Feminine Mystique would go on to be enormously influential.
The Good Housekeeping article on saving time is emblematic of this era. Some of the language is eternal. “Ways to make the most of your time and energy…and have some left ‘all to yourself’!” screams the headline (news flash to people who think modern Americans are more pressed for time than ever: people have always thought they were busy, busy, busy, and have taken pride in that. I’m guessing there’s a Tocqueville quote on that somewhere). But the opening text hints at a changing time. “Busy, says Webster, means constantly active. Heaven knows, wives are that! Thousands of details, big and little, to see to every day … a dozen outside activities to sandwich in between. And for a phenomenal 40 percent of you, a demanding outside job besides the care of your home. No wonder you’re so enthusiastic about new ways to do things.”
The tips show a world that’s changing. On one hand, there’s a picture of a “place where you can plot and plan, keep records intact and in order” — a home command center with file boxes and, if you substitute a laptop for the typewriter and adding machine, visuals that could be straight out of Real Simple now. But then there are other ideas that hint at assumptions of complicated domesticity, of the sort that might make you wonder how on earth a woman could handle a demanding outside job besides the care of a home. To make your own tortillas, GH tells us, you can use “biscuits, rolled tortilla-flat in corn meal, before cooking.” That’s actually a time saving tip as opposed to, well, buying tortillas at the store. Or if they didn’t exist at that time (ethnic foods were a new and exciting phenomenon in 1963) just not eating tortillas. To the modern woman, making your own tortillas sounds like a project, not a time saving tip.
There is also a “Time saver supreme, this miraculous meringue that ‘bakes’ in a turned-off oven while you’re asleep. Comes the great moment of serving, pile it high with fresh fruits and ice-cream balls.” The next tip says “Relaxed in the knowledge that tomorrow’s dessert is preparing itself, have a leisurely manicure. Buff nails rapidly to smooth surfaces, stimulate circulation.”
I’m guessing that most of my readers have not wasted a great many minutes pondering tomorrow night’s dessert — minutes that, once freed, could be devoted to a leisurely manicure. Indeed, our busy wife would, within a few years, figure out that you could skip the meringue entirely and go straight to the fresh fruits and ice cream balls. If you thought about dessert at all. But baked goods still played a key role in 1963 daily life; other articles give instructions on desserts and baked goodies you could make ahead of time and freeze so that you’d be ready if company stopped over for coffee. Which they’d do because you were presumed to be home at 3pm (and not running the kids around either, interestingly enough).
Another fascinating passage from the time-saving article: “All wives work, whether they have a paying job outside or devote themselves to their rewarding job inside the home. Whatever the kind and scope of your busyness, you always try to be calmly efficient and good to look at. Here’s a wife who succeeds, judging from her pleased husband’s affectionate kiss.” The accompanying photo shows a woman polishing the serving dishes, eyes closed blissfully, lipstick perfectly put on with nary a strand of her Mad Men ‘do out of place, as her husband pecks her temple. “She polishes off all her decorative brass, copper and silver in one productive session. How does she manage to stay so sparkling herself? We’ll get to that further down on the page.” Further down the page are instructions on taking a good soak in the tub so you can be so calmly efficient and good to look at while polishing off the decorative brass and silver in one fell swoop.
Over the next few decades, the proportion of women working outside the home would rise far over 40 percent. In 2010, 75.2 percent of women aged 25-54 were doing or seeking paid work. Good Housekeeping has completely remade itself to focus on celebrities, health, beauty, lifestyle, money and so forth, with far less content on the actual care of a house. The February 2013 issue features a quick hit on the best products for removing wine stains, a tip on how to remove pet hair from upholstery (use dampened rubber gloves) and some hints from Heloise. A short tout for a self-cleaning vacuum seems more about showing a picture of Anderson Cooper using it than any instructions on proper vacuuming. There is a feature on a “one-sentence recipe” (Cheddar-Beer Fondue, in case you’re wondering) and none of the special Valentine’s Day dinner items take more than 25 minute of active time. We know that because Good Housekeeping now tells the reader how long recipes take, something the 1963 editors didn’t bother with. After all, if you had time to polish the decorative brass, copper and silver in one productive session, while making sure you looked good at the same time, you probably had time for whatever recipe they were going to throw at you.