History Through Hollywood: 4th Edition
The History Through Hollywood series looks at old films as inadvertent time capsules packed with the norms and customs of a bygone era. Traditions change, cultural mores shift, and technology races on; what was once commonplace might now seem totally weird.
For example, have you ever seen a man wearing sock garters? Why does everyone in old movies have an English accent? And have you ever noticed that characters drink champagne out of coupes instead of flutes? Old movies are full of history hiding in plain sight, and you can learn a lot without meaning to, and usually without even noticing.
The History Through Hollywood series is also my attempt to explain why old movies can sometimes seem so very different from today’s films. With a little context, a “boring,” and “tame” old film can suddenly shimmer (watch for those cross-dissolves!), and something that seems utterly alien can make sense (why are so many wives going to Reno?)
You can read my other History Through Hollywood posts about love, doughnuts, train travel, vintage ads, telegrams, and the ever-smoldering cigarettes here. This entry will examine women in the work force, soda fountains and drugstore lunches, shampoo, and travel trunks. Read on to learn more!
- Women held all sorts of jobs.
Obviously, this is an enormous topic and I’m just barely glancing at the surface, so bear with me on this very shallow dive. According to Census data, in 1930, 24% of women worked outside of the home, in 1940 it was 25%, and in 1950 it was about 33%. (In 2016, it was 57%.) And movies reflect that.
Many onscreen women work even in very early films, and not just in the traditionally female-dominated fields. As you might expect, old movies include many female teachers, secretaries, nurses, shopgirls, telephone operators, and waitresses. And a lot of models, actresses (after all, it’s easier to get Jane Powell, Ann Miller, Ginger Rogers, and others to sing and dance if their characters are entertainers), and of course women who don’t hold jobs outside of the home, especially mothers and wives. More on that in a minute.
But there are also women in less traditional fields. You’ll see female doctors, editors, designers, writers, taxi drivers, reporters, and lawyers.
You’ll find professional athletes, photographers, novelists, farmers, artists, and researchers. In movies made during WWII, you’ll even see some factory workers, which reflects the reality of the time.
Even though women hold all sorts of jobs in movies, the high-powered positions are almost exclusively reserved for single women because there is a prevailing attitude that once a woman gets married she’ll quit her job. And she’ll definitely stop working outside of the home once babies arrive.
Although many (too many!) issues still remain around women in the workforce, at least working while married isn’t taboo anymore! But there used to be a very strong attitude and even official policies that reserved jobs for men first and single women second.
In fact, the 1932 Federal Economy Act prohibited more than one member of a family from working in government. Unsurprisingly, this mostly affected married women.
Private companies instituted similar policies; many films feature a boss telling a young woman that he’s sorry, but they have a policy against hiring married women. You can see this in action in Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), when soon-to-be-divorced Carole Lombard gets a job at a department store but immediately loses it when her husband tells her boss that they are still married. The boss explains, “As an aid to the unemployment crisis, it is our policy not to employ married women.”
This attitude reflected society’s stance: for example, in 1936 Fortune magazine asked its readers, “Do you believe that married women should have a full time job outside the home?” 48% of respondents said no, 37% gave it “conditional approval,” and only 15% said yes.
You can see this attitude twelve years later in For the Love of Mary (1948). Rumors about an engagement swirl around Deanna Durbin‘s character, and her boss warns her that she can’t keep working on the White House switchboard if she gets married. They have a policy against hiring married women, and even women who are soon-to-be-engaged!
So it’s not surprising that the Hollywood happy ending also includes the implicit understanding that the woman in the newly formed couple will quit her job. Of course, sometimes it’s explicit: at the end of Neptune’s Daughter (1949), Esther Williams‘ character tells her business partner that she is leaving their swimsuit design company to get married. It has always seemed like a bittersweet ending to me because she is so good at her job, she seems to enjoy it, and she has worked hard to build a successful company. But now that she’s engaged, of course she’ll stop working.
And in Christmas in Connecticut (1945), Barbara Stanwyck‘s character is a successful, if not particularly honest, magazine writer. She is forced into an engagement due to various screwball factors, and her horrible fiancé is thrilled that she will finally stop working and devote herself completely to him. This has always struck me as a strange disconnect because stars like Esther Williams and Barbara Stanwyck continued working in movies after they got married and had children in real life, but their characters never do…
Despite this attitude and the laws in place that made it harder for women to work, the Depression actually saw a rise in wives in the workforce. Married women who worked outside of the home rose from almost 12% in 1930 to 15% in 1940. Not a huge jump, but an increase nonetheless.
Their husbands might have lost jobs, or wages weren’t high enough to support a family on one income, so wives went to work. But the prejudice against working wives roared back after WWII when veterans returned home and needed jobs. Women were often fired in favor of men.
Since movies reflect society, old films can seem terribly old-fashioned. But you can’t expect a movie made in the 1940s to perfectly fit the norms of today. Sometimes you’ll get ridiculous misogyny like this directed at a female psychoanalyst in Spellbound (1945). But, hey–she’s a psychoanalyst, and a good one! So it’s a mixed bag. Progressive elements aren’t that hard to find if you’re looking for them. But sometimes you do have to look.
You can get more information about women in the workforce at the Department of Labor, this site about 1930s and ’40s workers, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
- You could get an excellent lunch at a drugstore counter along with your ice cream soda.
It’s a safe bet that your neighborhood Walgreens, CVS, or Boots doesn’t have a lunch counter. And I’d be shocked if they offered strawberry ice cream sodas or orangeades to sip on as you browse the makeup aisle. But pharmacies and drug stores used to have both, and characters in old movies often stop in for a quick lunch or a treat.
Soda fountains that dispensed cold, carbonated water have been around since the 19th century, and “soda water” has been a popular treat for even longer than that, with the first methods of combining water with carbon dioxide under pressure turning up in the early 18th century.
Soda water, or carbonated water, was originally thought to mimic the health benefits of mineral water from natural springs, so it’s not surprising that pharmacies began selling it early on.
As the machines that created the fizzy water improved and refrigeration became easier and less expensive, soda “fountains” began popping up in pharmacies, department stores, train stations, and various other locations. The fountains were gleaming and graceful, and became increasingly elaborate as companies competed to sell the most beautiful, sculptural fountains.
As the soda fountains gained popularity, stores hired “soda clerks” to operate the machines. These clerks quickly got the nickname “soda jerks,” most likely because of the back and forth “jerking” motion required to get the shiny spigots to dispense the fizzy water. Soda jerks would then add ice cream, flavored syrups (like Coca-Cola), fruit, and various other additions to the cold beverage.
As people became accustomed to stopping in at the drugstore soda fountain for a treat, the stores realized they could sell more victuals alongside the root beer floats, orangeades, malteds, vanilla Cokes, and ice cream sodas.
It was Charles Walgreens of the eponymous drugstore chain who first began offering hot food, sandwiches, and desserts at his store counters in 1910. His idea worked beautifully, and also helped bolster the soda fountain’s revenue in the winter, as the demand for cold drinks and ice cream fell when the temperature dropped. Soon other drugstores began offering soup, sandwiches, pie and other goodies alongside the soda fountain.
So that’s why Judy Garland‘s character stops by her local drugstore for a sandwich and a glass of milk in Easter Parade (1948), why the gang gets some dinner at Schwab’s Pharmacy in It’s A Great Feeling (1949), and why Janet Leigh pops into Walgreen’s for a snack in My Sister Eileen (1955).
Soda fountains were most popular in the 1940s, and now the tradition is mostly gone. But you can still find a few old fashioned soda fountains and drugstore lunch counters around the country. Here is a list from around the US, and various locations in North Carolina.
- Washing your hair was a big deal.
In the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, straight hair wasn’t fashionable. Waves, rolls, and pin curls were, so women’s hair was almost always “set” in some kind of style. Curlers, rollers, rags, perms, and other tools were employed to get tight, marcelled finger waves or voluminous, rolling curls.
When your everyday style requires the effort of curling, rolling, pinning, or frequent visits to a hairdresser for perms and other treatments, naturally you minimize washings. After all, every time you shampooed your hair, your curls would be erased and you would have to start over to get your ‘do. I remember being confused when it rained and my grandmother wore a plastic kerchief to protect her beautiful, salon-set waves, but it makes sense now.
Plus, “shampoos” didn’t even really exist until the 1910’s when companies began making hair-specific soap. They advertised the new products to convince consumers that they needed to switch from using bar soap to specialized liquid shampoo. And the two-step shampoo and conditioner that we are used to didn’t become the norm until the 1970s!
Whether you used bar soap or newfangled shampoo, in the days when your hair had to be curled and arranged before you’d even think of stepping outside, washing your hair could be a very involved event. The old “I can’t because I have to wash my hair” excuse was real! If you set aside one night a week to shampoo and re-set, then you certainly couldn’t go out that evening. (And even if you could, it made for a very convenient out if you weren’t excited for a date.) Creating rolls and curls like Betty Grable‘s, Rosalind Russell‘s, or Barbara Stanwyck‘s could take a while…
With the recent popularity of the “No-Poo” method that advocates foregoing shampoo all together, it’s interesting to look back at a time when washing one’s hair was a weekly, not daily, event, and when a woman’s hair was always “done.” No air dry and ponytails for them! (It makes me tired just thinking about it…)
And that’s why the photographer wants pictures of Debbie Reynolds washing her hair in I Love Melvin (1953), why Esther Williams wore elaborate braids and curls even underwater, and why Carole Lombard rushes to get a “shampoo and set” before her big date in Hands Across the Table (1935).
You can read more about vintage hairstyles and methods here and here.
- People traveled with trunks and cases, not the duffels or rolling bags we use.
Watch characters in old movies take a trip, and you’ll see them pack hard-sided leather cases or large trunks, particularly if they’re traveling on an ocean liner. Then they’ll definitely have a “steamer trunk” to hold their belongings. Preferably monogrammed and plastered with hotel and destination stickers!
The large trunks usually contained hangers in one section and drawers in another, which turned the trunk into a portable closet and dressing room. You can see this in action quite well in Romance on the High Seas (1948) and Daddy Long Legs (1955).
The outside was perfect for those cool travel stickers that ensured your luggage made it to the right place. They also served as visual brags of all the places you’d been, as well as advertisements for the various hotels and locales. (You can buy new vintage-style travel stickers on Amazon, Etsy, and Luckies, and you can peruse some gorgeous originals here.)
For shorter trips, don’t forget your handy train case! The hard case was just big enough for your necessities, and sometimes came stocked with cosmetics and doodads perfect for a journey.
Trunks and train cases fell out of fashion as cheaper, lighter options emerged. They’re just not practical for air or car travel nowadays, though you can still find trunks for camping, going away to school (Harry Potter, anyone?!) and various other uses, including decor. But if only the real thing will do, there is no shortage of vintage trunks and suitcases out there, too.
That’s it for now! You can find all of the History Through Hollywood posts here, including meditations on Fashion, Telephones, Vice, Accents, Love, Advertisements, Telegrams, and even Esther Williams and the Olympics.
For more on classic movies, follow me on Twitter, tumblr, Instagram at BlondeAtTheFilm, pinterest, and Facebook! As always, thanks for reading!
“And of course, women who don’t work, such as mothers and wives.”
Explain this inane comment!
If you continue reading, I explain that it was very rare for married women to work outside the home, and even more rare for mothers to work. I’m certainly not endorsing that, but saying that those were the trends in those days.
She’s explaining the mores of the times, as you can see in the next paragraph. Even if many women did work after marriage–particularly working-class women, who often had to–it was frowned upon and discouraged in society before the 1960s. Pop culture reflected that.
Thank you! That’s exactly right.
I think I see what Missy is getting at, although she’s putting it rather rudely: Mothers and wives ARE working, by definition. They just don’t get paid for their work. It might be better to say “women who don’t work outside the home, such as mothers and wives,” or “women whose work is defined by their being mothers or wives.”
Referring to mothers and wives as being non-working occupations is akin to saying slaves did not work since they did not receive payment… Defining work by payment alone does a great injustice to women in particular whose efforts at childrearing and household management continue to be devalued by both men and women throughout our contemporary world. Work is work, whether one gets paid for it or not.
Great piece. Thanks fir all your research and super pics
Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it!
Enjoyed this post. I was happy to see Toomers’ Drugs on the list of soda fountains/lunch counters (from American Country list) Toomers is famous for it’s fresh squeezed lemonade in Auburn, AL.
Cool! I was amazed at how many of these places still exist! Thanks for reading!
Lots of fun! My Mother went to bed every night with pincurls or brush-type rollers. You shampooed once a week, but those curls and waves required daily maintenence.
Thanks, Kathy! I love the look of the ’40s and ’50s styles, but I’m grateful that I don’t have to mess with the rollers and stuff every day!
I can relate to not washing your hair all the time. We usually did it once or twice a week when I was growing up. Your grandmother (my Mom) could never relate to washing your hair every day. I remember the plastic scarf you refer to. I think I had some of those too. When I worked in Minneapolis the Walgreens had a lunch counter and I went there often for lunch. It was a place where you could be alone and get a sandwich. Love this post lots…..Auntie Ellen
Thank you! It must have been strange for that generation to see us washing our hair all the time and not bothering to “set” our hair in lovely curls! Would love to talk to you about the Walgreens counter! How cool!
To popegrutch and missy: You’re right, and I certainly did not mean to imply that those who do not work outside the home aren’t working. I thought that I was being clear about the “outside of the home” qualifier, but it seems that I need to be more explicit. I’ll edit the essay to make it clearer. The point of the post was to highlight the fact that women held all sorts of jobs, and to discuss some of the norms and attitudes surrounding women in the workforce, not to diminish female labor in any way.
Dang, Cameron. All of your stuff is so interesting and well done. I pay attention to what films tell us about the times they portray and the times they are made. But I could never put it together as you do. But what else would I expect from someone, like myself, who names Bringing Up Baby as their favorite movie? I enjoy all of your writing.
Thank you so much! That means a lot to me. Thanks for reading and commenting!
Loving this post–I wanted to comment before but kept procrastinating (serves me right for drooling over pictures of old luggage and soda fountains!). Well, here I am now, and I’m very happy to be here again. You do have an eye for spotting historical details.
I’ve loved antique and vintage luggage since I was a little girl and my parents had a steamer trunk from 1923 in the closet for photographs and Christmas ornaments. We’ve since lost the trunk, but I haven’t forgotten. (I used that trunk for its original purpose in my late teens, just before we lost it.)
Hair: Even today, women are encouraged not to obsess over washing their hair, although I note there are plenty of young women, reared with beauty tips straight out of the 1970s, who wash their hair daily or almost daily. I see lots of flat irons and straighteners around–talk about reversal of the previous trend! When I was younger I did a fair bit of damage to my own hair through enthusiastic overuse of the blow dryer. After a time I gave up on it; my hair was my hair, and anyone who didn’t like it would have to put up with the waves, the curls, and the attendant windblown look. So yes, my hair is, in the words of Bunny Watson, “naturally natural”.
I never knew there were soda fountains still operating until after I read this post–thank you! Now I want to visit one and have this experience for myself. Of course, I’d seen them before in films, but it wasn’t something I thought about much until this.
I knew a few women who lived through that era–my late grandparents both had jobs when they met and married each other (and yes, she was the one to quit her job). A former housemate of mine held down three jobs, including one as a switchboard operator, and apparently she never missed a beat–whew! And it is true that even though it was frowned upon, there were a number of married women who still had jobs after their marriages. Some women, then as now, chose not to marry, or else lived in what polite society used to call a Boston marriage (code, you may remember, for a female same-sex couple). Veddy, veddy interesting things you discover when you do a little research.
Thanks for this wonderful comment! I love hearing first hand stories of these things–so cool. I hope you get to one of the soda fountains! Thanks for reading!
Yes, it is something to hear about what it was like back in the day–I agree. The thing of it is, I was fortunate enough to have good timing when I heard those stories from the ones who lived it. I didn’t know much about my grandparents until I started digging deeper and asking some sharp and pointed questions, and then what I found surprised me no end (e.g., his cousin knew her sister, gave him the number, and in general played matchmaker). As for my former housemate, she moved back out to Nevada some years back; I don’t know if she’s still alive. I do, however, recall some of her stories from her younger days, including the years she spent living in, of all places, Las Vegas–her friends there took to calling her the Colonel, because of how tough and no-nonsense she could be when she set her mind to it.
I’m hoping same re soda fountains. As always, a pleasure. Thanks again for a wonderful post!