Urban dads in the 1950s did a surprising amount of childcare.

It looks as though the dad pitching in with the kids and housework is not quite as recent as people, particularly on the right, often claim.  While GI fathers show decent evidence of being hands-off, it appears things had changed for the fathers who came along a decade or so later.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, there were a lot of excited demographers studying the lower age of marriage and relatively higher fertility, and thrilled at the idea that a new pattern of family growth even in urban areas via natural increase might be the new normal.

One of those studies was done in two parts in 1957 and 1961 and it involved over 1100 white collar and blue collar couples in the eight largest major metropolitan areas at the time. It involved white couples who’d had their second child in 1956.  They further narrowed the group with technical requirements beyond the scope of this post, but the upshot was that they got some interesting data that Catholics, Jews and Protestants alike all wanted 2-4 children (90% across the board) and less than 10% wanted 5+.

Another interesting detail of this study is the post title.  Many of the mothers were still housewives, but fully 2/3 of them could count on their husbands to take care of the children as a norm.  Fully 1/3 of these urban women mostly living in apartments could also count on someone who wasn’t their husband (and by definition for the study not one of their own children) to help them around the house as a norm.

If one includes “sometimes”, 85% of the 1100+ wives could expect some recurring level of help with the kids from their husbands.  And including “sometimes”, it was 60% of those wives.  So by 1957, the husband was already viewed as a major source of help by urban wives.

They did a follow-up study covering whether a third (or) child had been born, and I haven’t gotten far into that one yet.  But I found the detail about help that the wife felt she could count on reliably very relevant to 60(!) years later.

Source: Family Growth in Metropolitan America, 1961, Princeton University Press.


12 thoughts on “Urban dads in the 1950s did a surprising amount of childcare.

  1. In an apartment-dwelling setting, there would be a lot fewer “traditional” yard and car type tasks.


    • Well that was kind of the point, that you have this alternate non-frontier-inflected context where the men don’t just sit around after coming home from work just because there’s no man-work for them. Although this does include suburbs (the pool of couples was from metropolitian statistical areas).


  2. A lot of today’s traditional gender roles type of men are just lazy. Even if you are living in a house and not an apartment there isn’t a lot of man stuff that has to be done on a regular basis.


  3. The 1950s dad would often have had a lot of experience in taking care of himself and others–for example during military service. (My grandpa, for example, was a WWII Army medic.)

    I can imagine that, especially with the drop in age of first marriage that occurred during the first half of the 20th century and the differences in generational experiences, 1960s fathers might be (on average) less experienced at matters domestic than 1950s fathers.


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