Family life in the 1950s is the stuff of myth: rolling suburban lawns, practical housewives, Cadillacs, and tuna casserole. A lot of that is based in fact. Flush with postwar freedom and cash, life looked pretty good to most Americans. They got married earlier than at any other time in the century (women at 21 and men at 24). Incomes more than doubled from 1935 to 1950, and 59 percent of American households owned a car. Still, day-to-day life could be a slog.
We decided to imagine what a typical day might have been like for your grandparents at age 30, circa 1950. We’ll give them the most popular male and female names of babies born in 1920, Robert and Mary. A marriage search on Ancestry shows this isn’t a hypothetical pairing: There are millions of records for Robert-Mary couples in the early 1940s, when our 30 year-olds would have gotten hitched.
Mary wakes up early because there’s a lot to pack into the morning. Before her two kids go to school at 8 a.m., she needs to iron Linda’s dress and John’s shirt, make their lunches, and get breakfast ready. She’s in a rush, so it will probably just be cereal: Grape Nuts for her and Sugar Frosted Flakes for the kids. Sugar cereal was still a novelty and they’d begged her for Sugar Frosted Flakes after hearing Tony the Tiger say they were “Grrrreat!”
Robert has coffee and cereal with the kids and skims the morning paper. He gives the kids the comics page. Then he hops in the car and drives to work (“Goodnight Irene” on the radio). Their house is in an urban metropolitan area just outside the city, in a nascent ring of suburbs. Like a third of American workers, he has a job in manufacturing, at an automobile factory.
Having put the kids on the school bus, Mary cleans up the kitchen. Then she throws a load of laundry into the washing machine. Before marrying Robert, she had worked briefly as a secretary (the most common job for women at the time) but now runs the house. Most of her friends do the same: only 33 percent of women work, while 86 percent of men do.Yet the 20 hours a week she spends cooking certainly feels like a job.
Robert clocks in and takes his place on the factory floor. He supervises the new machines that the company is experimenting with to cut and install parts. Automation is just beginning at car factories, but there were still a lot of human operators on the noisy floor. It’s a boom time in the industry.
Robert and his co-workers have an hour for lunch and go to the diner a block from the factory. They scan a menu of toasted club sandwiches, burgers, and milkshakes — though they could also treat themselves to veal cutlets or crab cakes.
Mary goes to the supermarket, which has recently opened and was more convenient going to multiple mom-and-pops. The number of supermarkets in America doubled between 1948 and 1958, offering shoppers plenty of parking, wide aisles, bright lights, and air conditioning.
With the kids home from school, Mary keeps them entertained. John watches a slinky climb down the stairs and Linda blows bubbles. Other popular toys are Legos and a new Fisher-Price fire truck. The decade would later produce classics like Mr. Potato Head and Play-Doh.
Robert leaves work after an 8-hour day, as set by the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. He makes about $13 a day, which makes his annual income around the national median of $3,216 per year (about $32,00 today).
Mary has Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook open on the counter. The family is tired of casserole so she’s trying a new ham meatloaf, made in a ring pan for visual interest, with a side of canned pineapple. She is often tempted to pull out a frozen TV dinner — the important thing is that they all eat together, right? — but Good Housekeeping says you should take pride in your cooking. (And always makes it sound so easy.)
After dinner, the family plays a game of Monopoly. In the years before TVs were common, board games were a popular form of entertainment. Only 9 percent of American households had TVs in 1950, but everybody wanted one. If the family went to a bar or a friend’s house, they might catch Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater. A variety series filled with gags and jokes, it was the most popular show on television in 1950-1951.
Mary gets the kids ready to bed while Robert reads. Following the advice of Dr. Spock, whose child-care Bible came out in 1946, she tries to make bedtime pleasant, with stories or songs. Unlike her parents, who thought too much affection could make a child spoiled, Mary makes them feel loved. Sometimes, she dozes off with them. It’s been a long day.