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  • Advertising in Life Magazine and the Encouragement of Suburban Ideals
  • Rebecca Centanni (bio)

Placed within the context of social turmoil and confusion, advertisements in the early 1950s mirrored not necessarily what the American population experienced, but rather the lifestyle that many desired. The end of World War II reintroduced the idea that familial values could be more important than the needs of the nation as a whole, reviving family-centric social traditions.1 Life magazine, a source that was already popular amongst American families, became an influential advertising mechanism during the 1950s as it presented the safe traditions and familial values which many sought in the postwar adjustment period. The ads encouraged a gendered separation in everyday life through their differing portrayals of men and women, and marketed goods typically associated with the suburban household. These two factors, combined with the advertisements' strategic interplay with the magazine's editorial context, created an image of the safe haven of suburbia amidst social turmoil. Advertisements in Life encouraged suburbanization by masking the traditional suburban lifestyle and products in an image of familial stability, appealing to the majority of the population struggling to adjust to postwar society.

The first half of the 1950s was a time of readjustment to postwar America, during which many citizens fought for the reestablishment of traditional gender roles, often associated with suburbia. While many women were forced out of the home to take on jobs during the war, much of the postwar population encouraged them to relinquish their work and return to their domestic sphere in the home.2 Proponents sought to present the stereotype of the housewife as socially desirable with continual enforcement of the domestic ideal.3 Many families simply embraced this stereotype, leading to the baby boom, family cohesion, and mass migration to the suburbs, where their family-centric lives could flourish.4 Yet other women held onto their extended social power and refused to return to the home. In the 1950s, the employment of married women grew by forty-two percent and some women even began to work towards rivaling the male position of power.5 Consequently, much of the population desired a means of overemphasizing the necessity of traditional family values, and the risk of the deterioration of the family that would result from atypical female roles. Advertising became a valuable mechanism for this reinforcement of ideals that appeared to promise stability.

Ads encouraging suburbanization flourished not only because much of society encouraged gendered separation, but also because the postwar housing situation created the perfect context for suburban development. The government created multiple programs to help facilitate home building, though most were extremely biased towards suburban rather than urban development.6 The Housing Act of 1949 put most money towards the development of single-family homes in middle-income suburbs, while The GI Housing Bill provided aid to returning veterans and their families, much of which went toward the purchase of suburban homes.7 The combination of these two acts encouraged movement to the suburbs, as the returning soldiers who wanted a place of safety for their families found expanded housing options there. As a result, individuals could relate to ads depicting suburban homes. Additionally, homeowners began to take pride in their suburban dwellings, as they provided better living conditions for the family.8 Ads suggestive of suburbia also flourished due to the boom in postwar spending that accompanied the desire to enhance family life.9 An expansion in both income and consumer spending made many suburban individuals apt to buy, and city dwellers eager to attain, a lifestyle that would bring the stability of suburbia.

One manifestation of the suburban sense of consumer power was the popularity of Life magazine in households during the early 1950s. Life was a family magazine whose popular audience was the average American, not the elite.10 It had the potential to influence the spending patterns of a large portion of society since it aimed to reach the everyday family, but could also bring suburban desires to non-suburban readers. The magazine not only reached thirty-six percent of American families on a regular basis, but it also had an extremely high "pass-along" rate. In just...