Gendered Hands: How Advertisements Define Social Roles

By Sara Ziegler

“She is a heroine who does all her own housework; but she seems a genius whose hands never show it. The question women ask every day is, ‘Can I do dishes, wash clothes and clean house and still have hands that do not confess it?’”

The above quote is from a 1925 advertisement for Ivory Soap, a company which ran an ongoing ad campaign on the gentle nature of their soap and its ability to preserve the loveliness of women’s hands throughout many hours of housework. These advertisements, and those of many other companies in the early 20th century, played an active role in defining the gendered roles that would dictate the lives of men and women of the time, and have substantial lingering effects to this day.

Day-long protection for fair hands

“Day-long protection for fair hands”, 1929. Courtesy of Duke University Libraries. This 1929 advertisement seems to define very clearly what was expected of women of the time: busy hours, combined with “hands (that) look as smooth and cool as flower-petals”. The ad seems to imply that femininity can be bought, and as an added bonus, so can charm! The ad reads, “FREE! A little book on charm. What kind of care for different complexions? For hands? For hair? For figures? A little book, ‘On The Art of Being Charming’ answers many questions like these, and is free.” Clearly depicted for the viewer, what it means to have feminine charm includes physical beauty, elegant dresses and jewelry, and the ability to wash dishes. Also notable is the little quote that reads “Smooth white hands add so much to charm!”, subtly excluding other races from achieving this level of femininity.


During the depression and World War II, many women were forced to leave the home and head to the workplace. However, when the men returned home (to the United States), women were expected to return home as well (to the kitchen). In The Commodity Gap: Consumerism and the Modern Home, Elaine Tyler May describes how “public opinion polls taken after the war indicate that both men and women were generally opposed to employment for women and believed that a woman who ran a home had a ‘more interesting time’ than did a woman with a full-time job” (159). Despite women’s ventures into the workplace, mainstream opinions had not changed.

“Help! Mummy’s Hands Are Rough!”, 1940. Courtesy of Duke University Libraries. Women were still expected to be dainty and lovely home-makers, as well as being mothers, which is captured in this ad, also for Ivory Soap. Apparently, if a woman’s hands weren’t soft, she was not only not charming, but also a bad mother.


In fact, as Cold War politics came into play, the nuclear family and the white picket-fenced suburban home turned full force into tangible manifestations of the American dream (May, 153). In the 1950s, as panic struck over communism, the suburban home and the buying of domestic goods became ways to contain potential threats to the traditional capitalist system. Women and workers were kept at bay as their attention was focused on domestic life. Women and sexuality in general, were to be contained within the home (May, 156). In the five years following World War II, consumer spending on household furnishings and appliances increased 240 percent, as opposed to the 60 percent increase for consumer spending as a whole (May, 157). Women were encouraged to stay at home and tend to their new suburban households, and men were encouraged to go to work in the outside world, earning money to buy more household appliances. Any arrangement outside of this was seen as a threat to capitalism.

“In these hands… more profits in good will”, 1948. Courtesy of Duke University Libraries. Just as women were expected to stay at home, men were expected to work outside the home, perhaps in one of the 400 plants surveyed according to this ad. In stark contrast to the ads directed at women, this ad focuses on the hands in an entirely different way, with the emphasis being on “profits”, “workers”, and the “tough” nature of the paper towels.


Ruth Schwartz Cowan, who has explored the many alternative approaches to domestic life that could have occurred, argues that Americans have in a sense chosen to remain focused on family life and family autonomy over community interest and technical efficiency. She says that “the allocation of housework to women is…a convention so deeply embedded in our individual and collective consciousnesses that even the profound changes wrought by the twentieth century have not yet shaken it” (Cowan, 150). Whether or not women chose to remain in the home is a tricky question, but it cannot be denied that the advertisements like the ones explored here have had a profound effect on how we define gender roles in our collective consciousness, whether it be divisions in labor, or something as simple as our own hands.


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:

3 thoughts on “Gendered Hands: How Advertisements Define Social Roles

  1. It’s interesting how you weave in all the ads about hands. I haven’t realized that the ads not only target women, but the fact they specifically target the hands of the women is also interesting. I guess that any way they target women and that they do define gender roles – especially with the baby.

  2. As much as advertisements developed gender roles in the domestic life, it is interesting to note how women actually felt with their roles. The fact that after WWII women did not want to enter the workforce may have been the starting impact on why ads starting to create the gender roles.

  3. It was interesting to see how the Ivory soap adds attacked gender roles, domestic work, race, motherhood, and sexual appearance. They had a strong notion on what exactly is clean, which is “white”. It also changed the view of “handwork” by making it “soft” for a female, since she needed to be nice and pretty for her husband after a long day of “handwork”, and rough for the male, can come home dirty and tired to his wife.

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