Household products of the 1950s were part of a tremendous social change following the end of World War II, when the emphasis on rationing shifted to spending and consumption. In the early 1940s, women briefly enjoyed increased job opportunities that disappeared as men returned home from the war. Many women returned to stay-at-home roles, but as "career" homemakers, whom advertisers targeted for products touting tidy organisation, cleanliness, time savings and a flawless hairdo at the end of the day.
Plastic Storage Containers
Tupperware, a company that has become legendary for its lidded, plastic food containers and social marketing, was an obscure producer of household products in 1951. That was the year the company launched its distinctive "home party" sales program. To this day, housewives are recruited to sell household goods at home parties. Tupperware is such a powerful symbol of 1950s culture that the Public Broadcasting Company produced a documentary titled "Tupperware!" about the decade.
In an interview at the documentary's website, University of Minnesota historian Elaine Tyler May says that networking with friends to sell Tupperware was one way 1950s women could participate in a business other than as a secretary or waitress.
Two inventions that greatly improved in the 1950s and transformed American culture were the television and the refrigerator. The Library Index website notes that 3.8 million (9 per cent) of U.S. households owned televisions by 1950. Statisticians also note an increasing number of homes with refrigerators that year. Both contributed to a change in eating habits.
One dietary change was the popularisation of precooked frozen dinners by the Swanson Company in 1954. The Library of Congress says that although many individuals and companies contributed to the invention, it was Swanson that coined the term "TV dinner." By doing so, the Library of Congress says, Swanson transformed its meals in three-part aluminium pans into "a cultural icon."
Packaged household laundry detergents took off following WWII, when industry used wartime research to create a cleaning product without the fats and oils used in soap making. The American Cleaning Institute website says the military needed a cleaner that would work in seawater and cold water. This stimulated research on detergents based on a "surfactant/builder" combination. Surfactants do the cleaning, while the building agent (such as phosphates) make the cleaning agent work more effectively. Recent research has focused on ways to minimise negative environmental effects from phosphates.
Ad agencies worked hard in the 1950s to glamorise detergents and cleansers, as demonstrated by some of the funny film clips at the Classic TV Ads website. One ad shows a housewife dancing up the detergent aisle.
Similar to washing powder, hairspray was based on military research. The Learn Something New Everyday website says that the U.S. Army created aerosol sprays to combat insects. It notes that the first commercial hairspray was available in 1948 and contained shellac, a natural resin that can be removed with shampoo. By 1955, one major producer was selling its product worldwide, and America was destined for the beehive hairdo.
- PBS: Tupperware! -- Women and Work; 2003
- Library Index: The American Consumer -- The Rise of the Consumer Culture
- U.S. Department of Labor: Bureau of Labor Statistics: 1950
- U.S. Library of Congress: Everyday Mysteries: Who Invented the T.V. Dinner?
- American Cleaning Institute: Soaps & Detergent -- History (1900s to Now)
- Classic TV Ads: Clean