A Woman’s Duties by Carley Chan

Gendered advertising is a powerful and visible force in maintaining traditional and heteronormative views of the “American way of life.” Commercialization was a “quintessentially American” approach to developing the image of the home (Cowan, 103). It was often applied to more than just household appliances, however. Numerous companies exploited the extremely large market for goods that emerged from the establishment of the single-family suburban home as the dominant and favored living arrangement (Cowan, 147).  Products were often framed within the contexts of “homemaker and breadwinner [that] were central to the identity of many women and men at the time,” regardless of whether or not they served any actual domestic purpose (May, 172).

Elaine Tyler May explains this phenomenon in The Commodity Gap: Consumerism and the Modern Home:

The values associated with domestic spending upheld traditional American concerns with pragmatism and morality, rather than opulence and luxury. Purchasing for the home helped alleviate traditional American uneasiness with consumption: the fear that spending would lead to decadence. Family-centered spending reassured Americans that affluence would strengthen the American way of life (May, 158).

By turning all spending into a type of domestic spending, advertisers encouraged consumerism and alleviated the buyer’s remorse that came after. Such an approach is most apparent in marketing towards women. By playing to the fears and pressures felt by “discontented housewives,” nondurable goods could be spun as essentials for a bright domestic future (May, 164). The right shampoo would keep a marriage stable and happy;  a proper tampon would keep a housewife productive and presentable. For every problem, there was a product.

In many advertisements, women were promised an improvement in their relationship to others, whether this be their husbands, children, friends, or neighbors (Cowan, 114). Women were treated not as autonomous individuals, but rather as dependents – thus enforcing the notion of being a part of a “family unit.” This arrangement also profoundly impacted men, whose role as a dependable and capable “provider” as a “source of satisfaction” has also been continually exploited in marketing. Lastly, just as Nixon “articulated the essence of American superiority” through the display of home appliances, advertisers urged women to “keep up with the Joneses” through the purchase of various goods (May, 155, 170) In American Green, Anthony Giordano seems to buy into this idea when he states that “a lawn to a homeowner is like lipstick to a woman,” implying that personal appearance and domestic prowess are directly relatable subjects (Steinberg, 75).


“A Mother’s Duty,” 1925. Courtesy of Duke University Libraries Digital Collections.

By marketing to a woman’s motherly instincts, Palmolive shifts the focus away from a woman’s “selfish” desire to own the product for herself by instead framing her daughter as the primary consumer. The ad’s text is almost completely identical to other Palmolive ads of the time period, with the only major difference being the substitution of “your [the woman’s] skin” with “her [the daughter’s] skin.” The ad claims that using Palmolive soap is an essential skincare step that will impact the daughter “all through life,” and it is up to the mother to take the proper “precautions ” to ensure that she will maintain her “skin radiance.” Though it is highly likely that the mother herself will also be using the product, catering to her “duty” as a mother alleviates guilt about spending on an otherwise nonessential product.

A Wife Can Blame Herself If She Loses Love By Getting “Middle-Age” Skin!” 1938. Courtesy of Duke University Libraries Digital Collections.

Palmolive finds its way into the hearts of housewives through this 1938 ad, in which a cartoon woman laments that her husband “never takes [her] out any more,” and fears that he is “ashamed” of her. Her mother speculates that her dry and old-looking skin is the reason he does not want to be seen in public with her, and suggests that her distraught daughter use some Palmolive soap. In the last panel, the wife, her skin so rejuvenated by Palmolive that she turns into a real woman, happily exclaims that “Bob’s so proud of [her] again” and that she has “learned her lesson.” Palmolive again markets their soap as a collective good for the family; more than keeping a woman’s skin radiant and healthy, it is insuring that she is not a disgrace to her man.

“What Men Should Know About film on teeth, and modern ways to end it,” 1922. Courtesy of Duke University Libraries Digital Collections.

This Pepsodent ad provides an interesting contrast between marketing to men and marketing to women. While “men should know” the dangers of teeth film and mouth acid and how to remove them with Pepsodent, the only thing women need to know about toothpaste is “added beauty.” While men are informed that film “breeds millions of germs” and causes teeth decay, women are told that it causes a “stained” and “dingy” appearance which hides the “natural luster of the teeth.” Pepsodent seems to support the assumption that the man reading the ad is a “breadwinner” – a provider whom a woman is both economically and intellectually dependent upon. But, as Elaine Tyler May in The Commodity Gap points out, women’s “lives were functional, not merely ornamental.” In the next paragraph of “The Woman’s Side,” Pepsodent reminds mothers that “children need Pepsodent most.”

“This home shows the wonders of it!” 1917. Courtesy of Duke University Libraries Digital Collections.

According to this ad, Lux Laundry Flakes are perfect for the whole family. Not only does Lux keep a woman’s “blouses and silk underwear pretty,” it also allows her to “use [her] nicest linen every day,” keep her house “radiantly light and fresh” and “delight her heart with the gauziest, the silkiest, the fluffiest for her children.” With Lux, a woman is the ultimate housewife and mother – and everyone knows it. In the ad, other women are impressed and jealous of this young wife’s seemingly decadent lifestyle, calling her a “trifle reckless” for always using her “lovely bridal linen” and assuming that she “squanders a mint of money… buying fresh things all the time.” On the contrary, Lux allows her to be economical while still “keeping up with the Joneses.”


This post was completed as part of assignment on how the idea of home and the concept of domesticity has been used in marketing during different historical moments and in the present. For additional information on the assignment, please visit: https://americanstudiesmediacultureprogram.wordpress.com/the-concept-of-home-spring-2014-selling-home/.


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