Urban dads in the 1950s did a surprising amount of childcare. (from Phase 1 of the Princeton Longitudinal Fertility Study)

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, since they were tiny babies) 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 excluding “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 higher) 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.

The Little House on the Prairie and its autonomous mamas.

This is kind of an overview of the Little House On the Prairie books, hereafter LHOTP, as is common when discussing them online.  I recently read the original eight book series and it was truly astonishing how much autonomy and independence Laura’s mother and Almanzo’s mother had.

There is a fascinating phenomenon in which this cultural bedrock of Americana is being transmitted solely through (mostly Frontier-American) women and Frontier-American men are basically ignorant of a major piece of where their women’s beliefs about home and family are coming from.

So Ma and Mother are these women who have a huge span of responsibility and authority, along with far above average native talent and skills in the homemaking arts of their eras, but this has not become codified as any sort of serious norm for housewives/SAHMs.  Caroline Ingalls was a truly astonishing cook, with a high level of natural understanding of chemistry and plants to be able to cook on an unreliable stove with inconsistent heat and a nearly random selection of ingredients sprung on her at any point in time.  She was also a truly above average hand sewer.  Mrs. Wilder was a weaver and a food processor extraordinaire, whose skill with cloth and butter making accounted for much of that family’s cash income and nearly all their clothing and linens.

And Mrs. Wilder’s workspace is arranged and designed to suit her, so she can be the most highly productive she can be for her family.  Almanzo’s child’s eyes view of her weaving room is very insightful, you see a little boy who expects a grown woman to have her own separate space that Father doesn’t have any input into, beyond making it to her specifications.  You see a little of this in how Almanzo sets up the house for Laura when they marry.  He assumes it’s important for her to have things set up so she can be as effective/efficient as possible.

This was actually an interesting subtheme in a lot of early 20th century writing, because men were still building a lot of the houses directly and the whole notion that you needed to make the wife-offices, so to speak, tailored to your own wife’s skills was one that crops up in a lot of the women’s writing of those early decades.  Like, you were supposed to get a spec list out of her and then make it happen.

It’s interesting that the Frontier-American subcultures who are most into LHOTP as a world and worldview tend to not allow the wives and daughters and sisters the sort of free hand that was clearly not at all outside the norms of the era (late 19th century).  There are a number of reasons for this, not least of which is the desire to believe there is no skill in domestic arts precisely because of the increasing arrival of mechanization and automation.

A lot of other things about LHOTP struck me as I was reading, but this one, that the two main mamas were badasterisk but also very lightly headed by (some) modern standards despite not at all being psychically of one accord with their husband’s desires and wishes was one of the bigger ones.

 

Nuclear family plus servants doesn’t equal nuclear family plus appliances

Below is a tantalizing excerpt of an essay by Peter Laslett (link is paywalled), who researched the structure of the Western European (particularly English) family for decades.  He’s one of the reasons I talk about the domestic help aspect of family formation, even as righties of all types ignore that when declaiming about how the nuclear family is a staple of certain kinds of white people.  I’d put Laslett’s more exhaustive work on the back burner, but I have moved it up in the old queue. Below I’ve reposted the excerpt with the important bit at the end highlighted.

Characteristics of the Western European Family

Peter Laslett

By ‘family structure’ many things may be intended. I shall take it here in two senses. First, in the sense of composition of the co-resident domestic group, as the historical sociologists call it. This means the knot of persons who live together, man, wife and sometimes, but by no means always, their children, their relatives, if any, along with their servants, now excessively rare. Such is the family which the wage-earner leaves when he catches his bus in the morning to go to work, and which he returns to in the evening. It is also the assemblage of possessions which the bachelor girl or the solitary widower or divorcee calls a home, along with himself or herself. A modest array of this kind is the constitution of the family for very large numbers of Western Europeans in the 1980s. The family in the second sense is the extended family of cousins, aunts, uncles and so on who are recognised, and sometimes associated with, but do not live together in the same place.

I am concerned here with family in both these senses, historically, over time. This is not only because of the interest people have in their family history: but also because it has now been shown that unless we have some knowledge of the history of the family, the family of today, of our own personal experience, can be profoundly misunderstood. For the fact is that in the matter of the family we have suffered, and still suffer, from a series of persistent, deceptive, obfuscating misbeliefs which can only be shown up and corrected by a knowledge of the past.

This self-deception about the history of the family has particularly affected Western Europeans. Frenchmen, Germans or Englishmen, unless they have come across the work of recent historical sociologists, are likely to believe the following. That the co-resident familial group in the past, at least up to the point of industrialisation, was large and complicated, with several generations living together. Furthermore, that this comfortable, kin-enfolding, welfare-providing family group not only nurtured the young, but took in their spouses when they married, and also provided them with shelter and succour when they became old or suffered other misfortunes. That the family in the sense of extended kin was a further source of welfare. It seems to be supposed that before the days of the Welfare State it was the family and kin which rescued social casualties. Now all this has turned out to be untrue.

Untrue, that is to say, in a literal sense and for the particular part of Western Europe which first became industrialised and which has given what might be called industrial culture to the rest of the world. By this North-West Europe, especially the British Isles, Northern France, the Low Countries and Scandinavia, is meant. In this cultural region family groups had been simple in composition and quite modest in size for many centuries before industrialisation. Married children only seldom lived with their parents, and two couples in one family household were quite unusual. It is true that the family group has become much smaller in the 20th century, servants have disappeared, and solitary living has grown enormously in our own day: but this did not happen during the process of industrialisation as ‘traditional society’ gave way to ‘modern society’ and cannot be called a transition to the ‘nuclear family’. The ‘nuclear family’ was there already.

The kin composition of the English family group was much as it is today in the 16th century, and had been so since the 1300s, the 1200s or even earlier, but with one very important structural difference. Servants lived in large numbers of families, and the presence of servants made the family groups of the rich large, and the family groups of the poor correspondingly small. In this area of the West, moreover, welfare never flowed along lines of kinship. The casualties of the system, the widows, the orphans, the poverty-stricken, were supported by the collectivity rather than the family.

The implications, needless to say, are pretty major. I originally heard about this from someone with a subscription to the periodical, whose interest was in Laslett’s discussions of high servant turnover, and that the lifelong servant was less common than it appears in literary portrayals.  This is kindasorta true.  Laslett’s work is more nuanced, in point of fact.

Relatedly, due to labor shortage and some other historical quirks, the longtime or lifelong servant did exist in various forms in America and Canada all the way into the first half of the 20th century.  Likewise, the nuclear family in its frontier-isolated and later suburban form could not exist without the Industrial Revolution’s massive infusions of radical new technology and mass production.  So on the one hand, “the nuclear family has always been part of Western Europe”, but on the other hand, the people who came to America transmuted it along radical lines that were not reflected in the old country’s version of it.

And more to the point, as my title for this post notes, it’s not the same to say that appliances are your servants, even if they were devised as a replacement.  They are not a true replacement for all that.

I am Shirley Jackson and Shirley Jackson is me

As T.W.O. would put it, that’s overegging the pudding a tadge.  I’ll never publish the most notorious and universal short story in American history.  More intimately, my husband is not a Kavorka Man.

But she and I both are housewives with strong intellectual drives living in whitopias where household help is only for weird inferior women who can’t manage entirely on their own or micromanage the bleep out of that poor cousin they did have come by a few days a week.  She couldn’t get nice college girls because mother’s helping was beneath them in 1950 and non-college girls were from families that hadn’t moved in 50-100 years and so they didn’t have anyone “strange” come help.  People tend to think college towns are all the same, but they operate along a continuum.  And Jackson was not in a college town where the degree was a MRS.

She also put her kids in preschool, which was called “community nursery school” and which 10-20% of women used back then.  Exact data is had to come by because of terminology and lack of collecting data issues.  And even back then it was the middle and up stay at home mothers who used it part-time and the smaller pool of working mothers using it full time.

I have her sense of anxiety and frustration, but not her pretty solid domestic skills. Our children find us odd but loving.  There is a sort of weirdly beautiful e-drama online somewhere where one of Stanley Jackson’s coed affairs is bragging about it on salon or something similar and Shirley’s kids post comments defending their mother and whaling on the smarmy coed selling the only interesting thing about herself. I was touched by the love her kids (one of which I think was a grandparent by now) had for her and their respect for her hard work keeping their home so it could be an entertainment vehicle for dad.

Stanley Jackson was a literary critic and professor who tomcatted around and expected his wife to produce both domestically and intellectually, but was jealous of her ability to get thousands of dollars for a handful of stories about women and children and often the domestic sphere.

I 100% do not think I can compete with the mad literary skills of Mrs. Jackson, but it’s reassuring in a strange way to know that this literary ninja had some of the same struggles I, a much more ordinary housewife, have sixty or so years later.

It also brings me back to wanting to smash conservatives in the face for chronically declaring that there was no widespread frustration among average women in the 1950s and during the WWII era and that anyone talking about it was just a loser who was unhaaaaappppy or a communist.  Shirley Jackson wrote for Good Housekeeping, for pity’s sake.  She was not writing some edgy scandal stuff like Peyton Place.  And yet there remain in both sets of writing much the same sort of struggles of women trying to adapt to the rapid shifts in technology, social roles and relationships with men.

One of the anecdotes in her domestic memoirs is about a pregnant woman she meets at the hospital when she has her third baby who is running late on delivering and is relieved and happy to be free of household tasks for what in the anecdote is about two weeks and heading into a third.  General audiences of women wouldn’t have wanted to read about stuff like that if it didn’t seem real.  They were very quick to write letters where they believed something to be unrealistic in its slicing of life.

Anyway I’ve only just begun reading her domestic memoirs and that sensation of being drawn close in time to a writer across so many seismic changes in daily life is dizzying.

Women on the Pill had 20% more sex than women not on it.

There was a lot of research done on the Pill when it was first made available to American women on a mass scale in the early 1960s.  The big takeaway, relevant since use was primarily restricted to already-married women, is that women on the Pill had a higher “coital frequency” than women not on the Pill and that pre-Pill, women were in fact having less sex with their husbands over time to avoid pregnancy.   Marrying young was resulting in not as much sex after the first ten years, due to desire for limiting fertility rather than lack of interest according to separate surveys of husbands and wives.

But once the Pill was introduced, women who went on it had more sex and of course had fewer children.  It sure seemed like cake was being had and eaten too.  This is particularly interesting given that decades later research on women taking the Pill showed it to be heavily correlated with reduced sex interest in women and lower libido.  Thus we have the origin story for the mythical housewife who wasn’t that into it but just trying to keep her man satisfied.

The other thing I just remembered about this is that the Pill was the only contraceptive with a substantial increase in sex-having vs non-Pill users.  Sterilizations on either male or female side, condoms, jellies, and the like never showed people utilizing them to have more sex than people avoiding contraceptive use.

The Boomers’ mothers wanted smaller families.

A great many women who had children from 1955-1964 wanted exactly two children, but due to contraceptive inefficacy compared to the Pill, they ended up with 3+.  And women who wanted large families of 6+ found themselves having around 5-6 with a suspiciously high frequency.

Long story short, even without the Pill, the desire for contracepting into a smaller family was already baked into the postwar cake for American women.  It’s not clear that large family desire is particularly common to American women when they aren’t part of an intensely religious subculture.  Frontier women had large family sizes, but this is confounded by the frontier being a hotbed of highly religious subcultures.

Now the story of how more education for women went from being strongly correlated with fewer kids to…not is a different story, mostly still unwritten by any demographic researcher.