40 Vintage Photographs That Show What Life Was Really Like For Housewives In The Mid-1900s

Today’s woman might look back on the 1950s housewife and scoff. The idea of staying home, cooking, cleaning, taking care of the children and not working wouldn’t necessarily sit well with her. But that viewpoint comes from those who didn’t live the mid-century lifestyle. These pictures give a better idea of what it was really like for housewives during this time – and it wasn’t quite as compartmentalized as women today might think.

40. Washing the family’s clothes

Some people may romanticize 1950s housewives, but their work wasn’t all glamorous. Take, for example, this woman, who clearly didn’t have a washing machine in the household, although such appliances became increasingly common throughout the 20th century. Instead, she had to wash clothes by hand in the bathtub.

39. Seriously scrubbing the floors

Keeping the family home sparkling clean has long been a priority, for health reasons as well as personal pride. But this photo, snapped in 1956, shows that it wasn’t that simple to achieve, especially if a housewife had a toddler to look after at the same time.

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38. Preserving her wardrobe

Washing, drying, ironing: a lot of the classic housewife’s jobs revolved around her and her family’s wardrobe. This photo shows yet another clothes-centric task in which a woman pours mothballs into a bag to hang in her closets, thus protecting garments from the insects.

37. Daydreaming in the kitchen

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With so much time spent cooking and cleaning – all by herself – the mid-century housewife certainly had the opportunity to daydream. And apparently she sometimes did so while leaning on her mop.

36. Trying out the latest in home decor

A housewife had to make her house a home and that job didn’t just require her to cook, clean and do the laundry. She was also responsible for its interior design and that’s why the pictured woman has curled up in an armchair that flaunted 1953’s most modern styling.

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35. Improvising when the baby falls asleep

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As the old saying goes, never wake a sleeping baby. This 1950s housewife named Sharon Reny took that advice to heart: here, she’s competing in a 1951 cooking competition with her infant daughter, Laura Ann, snoozing by her side.

34. Awaiting her husband’s dinner inspection

The concept of family dinnertime came to be in the 18th century, and it has remained a key way that loved ones reconnect on a daily basis. The 1950s were no different, although then it was the housewife’s duty to whip up dinner – and sometimes let her husband see what was cooking.

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33. Washing the dishes

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Nowadays, you might hand-wash particular plates and pots to preserve them. However, most dishware can survive the dishwasher, which makes post-meal clean-ups so much easier. Mid-century housewives didn’t always have that luxury: sometimes, they had to scour everything by hand.

32. Frequenting the beauty salon

Fortunately, the mid-century housewife did get to pamper herself from time to time. Modern women know just how rejuvenating a trip to the salon can be, and arguably it may have been even more of a reprieve for their housebound mid-century counterparts. Here, a line of them are having their hair dried.

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31. Achieving an enviable shine on a clean dish

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This photo was taken just after this housewife had seemingly scrubbed a baking tray as part of a TV commercial for the detergent Vel. Apparently her work had brought the metallic pan to a visible shine. What’s more, we think we can detect a lot of pride in the smile on her face as a result.

30. Pressing linen

Nowadays, lots of people prefer not to press their clothing. Indeed, in 2015 fully 90 percent of shirts sold at Brooks Brothers were non-iron, according to Bethesda magazine. But 65 years before that statistic came to light, housewives helmed all of their household’s laundry and ironing, making everything from shirts to bed sheets as crisp as possible.

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29. Roasting the perfect turkey

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Thanksgiving Day feasts call for a turkey at the center of the table – and that bird had better be roasted to perfection. We imagine that this mid-century housewife had her cooking method down to a science because she’s pulling one perfect-looking piece of poultry out of her oven.

28. Whipping up a family breakfast

Nowadays, most of us grab breakfast and run out of the door in the morning. But in the 1950s, life was different in at least one way: families sat down for a full meal before starting their days. This picture shows a housewife serving up a hearty breakfast for her three kids and her husband.

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27. Mixing the perfect cocktail

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It wasn’t all laundry and dinner and cleaning for women in the mid-20th century: they had to whip up a great cocktail, too. This housewife has bottles of wine and rum surrounding her as she mixes up something we’d like to try in her 1960s kitchen.

26. Picking up a sweet treat (or three)

A housewife didn’t have to bake every dessert she served to her family. This woman stopped by a bakery to pick up what appears to be a trio of Norwegian Kransekakes, stacked confections served to mark special occasions.

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25. Line-drying the family’s clothes

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Today’s wives (and husbands) still do lots of laundry, but the process can be a lot quicker during inclement weather if you have a tumble dryer in the house. In the mid-20th century, though, hanging clothes to dry them was your only option, and doing so outside was infinitely preferable to inside, weather permitting. This woman relied on the sun and wind to help her get through the wash a little bit more quickly.

24. Giving directions around her neighborhood

Mid-century housewives didn’t just take care of their families – they helped their neighbors, too. Take this London woman who had her picture taken in August 1957. She gave directions to two overseas visitors trying to navigate her neck of the woods.

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23. Partaking in an old-school recycling scheme

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Today we have regimented recycling schemes in most of our cities and hometowns. In the 1940s, though, housewives in London had to go and sort their paper, cans, bottles and jars as part of a salvage scheme set up much more simply than our current collection services.

22. Bottling homemade jam

Prepping food ahead of a busy week feels like a massive accomplishment nowadays. So, it might be hard to imagine, but women in the 1950s prepared and preserved foods for the weeks and months ahead. For example, this woman has made several jars of jam.

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21. Inspecting stockings for holes

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It’s common today for women to discover that their stockings have holes in just at the unhelpful point where they put them on and the garments crack open without warning. It seems, however, that the 1950s housewife would seldom encounter this issue, as this photo shows. Instead, she’d inspect her tights for holes before she bothered slipping them on.

20. Packing the freezer

TV dinners became all of the rage in the 1950s after Swansons repackaged its excess turkey into airplane-style trays of food. It’s unclear if this housewife is stocking her freezer with the ready-made meals, but she’s certainly thrilled about whatever it is that she’s putting on ice.

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19. Mangling her laundry – in a good way

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In the mid-1950s, some women did still benefit from some help with their laundry – but it came from an old and trusted appliance, rather than from their husbands. The mangle sped up the clothes-drying process by squeezing all of the excess water out of washed garments.

18. Searching for the perfect hat

Every housewife needs a bit of pampering. In the case of the mid-century housewife, self-care might’ve seen them go shopping for a fancy hat. By the looks of it, though, this woman was not impressed by the hat she sampled in a Parisian shop in 1951.

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17. Cultivating a victory garden

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During the World Wars, people across the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia cultivated “Victory Gardens” in their yards, using their harvest to supplement their government-rationed food. This housewife and her kids clearly had plenty of success with their vegetables: cabbage, potatoes, parsnips, runner beans and more.

16. Filling the dishwasher-washing machine

For the few households of the 1940s lucky enough to be able to afford it, the invention of this early version of an automatic dishwasher must’ve been a godsend. Impressively, this particular device doubled as a clothes washer too: it had separate drums to be used for crockery and linen.

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15. Antiquing

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Vintage clothes and wares are very much in style nowadays. They must have been in the 1950s, too, considering this picture, which came from a Housewife Magazine photoshoot and took place in an antiques shop.

14. Baking a cake

With the help of her daughter, the housewife in this photo competed in Pillsbury’s Grand National Baking Contest with an original recipe: the “throw-together-oh-so-good” cake. She claimed she had invented the confection when she lost her glasses and couldn’t read the actual cake recipe she wanted to make – that’s a boss housewife move.

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13. Giving her husband a pre-dinner sample

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The mid-century housewife helmed dinner without her husband’s help. But she may have made some exceptions to let her man in the kitchen, as this picture shows. Sometimes, you just need a second opinion on how it all tastes – and a spouse could provide that in the 1950s, at least.

12. Dinnertime double-duty

It’s clear that mid-century housewives had mastered the art of multitasking. But just in case you need a little bit more evidence, here’s another stay-at-home mom who could simultaneously prepare dinner and feed her baby.

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11. Enlisting help with the ironing

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Start ‘em young: that seems to be this housewife’s motto. Her young daughter presumably used a toy iron to mimic her mom as she completed one of the major mid-century-housewife tasks: pressing clothes.

10. Plucking frozen laundry from the line

Leaving laundry to dry outside meant it was subjected to the elements. This housewife had the pleasant task of pulling frozen garments from her clothesline, including a completely solid set of Long Johns.

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9. Grabbing her daily milk delivery

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These days, the packages on our doorsteps come from online retailers, and they can contain just about anything. In the mid-20th century, though, next-day delivery applied only to must-haves like fresh milk and newspapers, both of which this housewife had waiting for her in 1955.

8. Pruning her houseplants

This picture could have been plucked from a millennial’s Instagram feed but, as it turns out, 1950s housewives had love for houseplants, too. The woman checking out the decorative foliage did so during a design exhibition in London in 1953.

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7. Taking over the grill, too

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Mid-century housewives did it all – and when they couldn’t, new appliances were developed to make it possible for them to once again do it all. This photo was taken to show just how easy it was for a woman to operate this solar-powered barbecue, which could roast and bake meals.

6. Pouring boiling water with grace

A non-housewife named Thomas McClurg Anderson devised a way for people to pour boiling water in a graceful motion – seriously. The woman pictured here is tipping her kettle in the way that Anderson recommended, and it certainly looks effortless, although we’re sure she could’ve figured out this style of pouring on her own.

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5. Going for a country drive

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Every housewife needed – and needs – to let her hair down every once in a while. This picture shows a woman off-duty, taking a ride through the countryside with her husband at the wheel.

4. Shopping while doing her laundry

A Wisconsin supermarket implemented a novel idea in 1951: a grocery store with a built-in laundromat. That way, housewives could get their washing and drying done while they gathered everything for dinner. At the very least, this woman’s smiley baby approved of the concept.

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3. Fixing the plumbing

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Some might think of mid-20th century housewives as dainty caretakers, but don’t let that stereotype fool you. Many of these women had serious skills, including the pictured American housewife Vicky Buchanan. While her husband served in the armed forces, she took over the household plumbing duties.

2. Putting her feet up after a long day

The responsibilities of being a wife and mother never end, but that doesn’t mean a housewife shouldn’t rest. This lady ditched all of her cleaning supplies to put her feet up on the couch, and we are going to go ahead and assume she deserved it.

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1. Doing laundry for the troops

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If this list has made one thing clear, it’s that mid-century housewives did a lot of laundry. And yet, this lady in Newcastle, England, still had time to help the troops with their wash in 1941. Now, that’s multitasking at its finest.

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