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  • The Fabulous Fifties: Selling Mr. and Mrs. Consumer
  • Juliann Sivulka (bio)

The new medium of television presented America with dozens of model wives on programs like The Donna Reed Show, Leave It to Beaver, and Father Knows Best. Television commercials and advertisements in women’s magazines then glorified the typical housewife’s everyday life and constantly reminded the American woman of everything she ought to be. These images displayed idealized fifties women with freshly shampooed hair, whiter-than-white teeth, fresh breath, and smooth skin that all ended with romance and eventually marriage. Elegantly attired models clad in Dior gowns extolled the virtues of everything from refrigerators to dishwashing detergent, showing how the latest product or new technology removed drudgery from household chores.

What Betty Friedan and other feminist critics later deemed as sexualizing American women and stereotyping their role in society as mothers, wives, and servants of men was not an all-male development by men’s institutions and advertising—that is, solely the work of the businessman and the ad man. For one thing, these commercial images were largely created for women by women. At every level of marketing and advertising activity for the women’s market—cosmetics, fashion, food, home furnishings, housewares, and even the key financial services and automotive industries—women had become involved. The very notion of this business of femininity contradicts feminist theories that claimed it was the ad men, acting from their limited ideas of female character and aspirations, who turned women into sex objects and portrayed them in narrow roles. In doing so, they discounted or even ignored significant market-oriented women’s contributions in the mass-consumer goods industries.

Certainly women in marketing, advertising, and public relations in the 1950s had a different view of their work from feminist critics. For example, the glamorous Betty Furness recognized the value of her appearance to become a credible television spokesperson. Three of the most famous cosmetic and fashion campaigns of the 1950s were created by women, Kay Daly for Revlon, Mary Fillius for Maidenform, and Shirley Polykoff for Clairol hair coloring, and all used sex as a basis of their appeals. The very appearance of female industrial designers to add the feminine touch to automotive design suggests a broad-based demand for women’s sensibilities to reach the expanding women’s market. The whole mass-consumer goods industry seemed intent on pushing exaggerated statements of gender. But, in fact, things would never be the same.

The Advertising Profession in the 1950s

In the years since World War II, for the most part, there continued to be a general breaking down of barriers by working women. They especially were welcome in advertising agencies and selling fields to service “female interest” accounts, as the number of agencies tripled in the nine-year period from 1939 to 1948 to meet industry demand, and they were offered a sizeable number of new jobs. By 1950 women accounted for about one-third of the workers in the advertising industry alone (38,859), according to the federal census. This trend would continue in the decades to follow, as women created jobs for women, organized associations, and utilized networks as expressions of solidarity and support.

These numbers revealed just how far the woman’s touch, or the feminine viewpoint, had progressed. The view that because a woman possessed a certain mysterious quality, ad makers felt that she could facilitate communications between manufacturers and Mrs. Consumer, or the women’s market. Hence, agencies and industry hired more and more women to work as writers, artists, and merchandising experts; research workers, media analysts, administrators; models and spokespersons; and people who knew graphic arts, radio, and television production. Women also proved effective in direct sales to the women’s market.

To communicate with Mrs. Consumer, these cultural mediators would make use of things they already knew just by being a member of the same gender. They would select the most familiar pictures, the heroines, the best-known narratives, the prejudices, as well as the hopes, dreams, and fears to appeal to other women. However, these cultural mediators also were a product of their own upbringing, so it was not unusual to see some...