A Girdle to Set You Free. What Does that Mean?

Last week when G and I were in Amish country, we stopped by an antique shop (and there are tons of them).

In the midst of the many piles of stuff...

G came across some old (old as in 1933-1935) issues of Woman's Home Companion. We started flipping through them and noticed an abundance of fascinating period advertising. Since these magazines were geared towards women, the ads were overwhelmingly about personal beauty, cleanliness, and the necessity and virtue of keeping your family happy and healthy. A woman's worth was inexorably tied to these things through these ads with almost hilarious, absurd transparency.

 Some of them seemed like parodies of the time. They made me think these can't possibly be real, who would be suckered in by these glaringly manipulative and biased messages? Who would actually choose to conform to the idealized image of women in these ads (and how incredibly diverse they are)? But really, how different are they from the advertising of today? Perhaps advertising now focuses more on imagery rather than lengthy text and testimonials and advertisers are now more savvy about how they get their points across. But it seems to me the goal is still the same: make the consumer feel inadequate, prey on their insecurities, and assure them of how much "better" they'll be if they buy such-and-such.

When looking through the magazines I was reminded of a scene in the film  Mona Lisa Smile, during which frustrated Wellesley College art teacher Katherine Watson  shows her class slides of current (then 1954) advertising, and asks them "what will the future scholars see when they study us? A portrait of women today? There you are ladies.The perfect likeness of a Wellesley graduate, Magna Cum Laude doing exactly what she was trained to do. A Rhodes scholar. I wonder if she recites Chaucer while she presses her husband's shirts." And upon showing an ad ironically praising the freedom obtained from a certain brand of girdle, she exclaims, "a girdle to set you free! What does that mean? What does that mean? What does it mean?"

Looking at these ads makes me appreciate the fact that women today can recognize them for the ridiculous, confining, stereotypical pieces of propaganda that they are, and also makes me think about how much further we have to go. After all, what will future generations think about us when they flip through the brittle pages of some old issue of Cosmo in an antique store someday?

At only two dollars each, these little pieces of history were a steal and I thought you all might find them interesting. I posted them as enlarged as I could. If you can zoom in more to read all the text, please do, as they are so illuminating!

(picture heavy)

"So much of a woman's charm depends on keeping her skin clear-appealingly smooth."

If I was a woman in the thirties, I would likely be peevish too. But no worry, it's only because of my coffee, as "stale coffee, science says, often causes indigestion, depression, headaches, 'nerves.'"

The message here? Why, good mothers give their families Royal gelatin, of course! They come in seven fresh fruit flavors, including the new "healthful, delicious, Pineapple."

Women and little girls have "peculiar requirements," apparently.
Bad mummy, not feeding little Billy his Cream of Wheat. That article set her straight, now husband John praises his "clever wife!" You want to be clever too, don't you? Well, don't you?

"There is one quality which has an unfailing appeal to all men-the essentially feminine quality of freshness, immaculateness of person." Ah, the old women- as -the- moral -compasses- of -society stereotype again. Pristine, angelic, pretty little mantelpieces. And they must smell good too, always. Or no one will marry them, and we all know THAT would be the end of the world. Gah.

"Alluringly feminine" skin is hair -free skin. My, how times have changed. Er...not.
"Hideous Embarrassment"...caused by women's "peculiar requirements" because women are supposed to have "immaculateness of person." I'm starting to sense a trend here...

"When you realize that the musty perspiration odor in the fabric is the way you smell to others, you will be horrified." Women must have no pores if they are to have "charm , daintiness, and social acceptability."

"The correct corset has become more important this season than ever before."

"But others always notice. Behind our backs we're criticized as 'undesirable.'" Ouch. That's harsh. And all I can think of is Ralphie from A Christmas Story saying "Lifebuoy...yuck!"

They're so.....white.

"Looking for something to make your husband sit up and take notice at the table...something he'll give you a kiss and a compliment for? Then, serve Bisquicks, the modern day successor to biscuits. And- the one thing even a bride can't go wrong making!" Yeah, who needs the pleasure of your clever , charming company,  your dainty, poreless skin and your immaculateness of person when there are Bisquicks to be had!

Huh, wherever did men get those crazy notions? I must admit this one is starting to piss me off.

"How often you sense that people are looking at you, judging your beauty! Whether they glance at your guardedly or search your face, you feel instinctively that you are in a never-ending Beauty Contest." Can't get any clearer than that.
Just some food for thought. Discuss amongst yourselves!

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  1. These are so interesting - I just read them all, I find them so intriguing! It really is like another world (and this is emphasized even more by the fact that I'm watching Mad Men right now).

  2. I LOVE this sort of thing too,(as much as it angers me, too, lol!) It makes history hit much closer to home, makes it more real, in a sense.
    I opened my cupboard the other day and found a box of Royal gelatin that I think my mom must have given me and I had forgotten it (had no idea it was still made). I looked at G and was like "Yum, this Royal gelatin tastes like fresh lemons ripened on the vine!" Gotta laugh to keep from crying !


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