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 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).
- 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.
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.