Friday, 19 February 2010

You deserve a Whitbread!

Whitbread Pale Ale advertisement in Lilliput, June 1947, page xv.

This startling advertisement appeared in Lilliput magazine's June 1947 issue. A man is pictured in a frilly apron doing the washing up, presented with no comment or indication that this is the least bit remarkable.

Taken in the context of the immediate post-war years, it did surprise me. Men were returning from fighting six long years of war and the usual story we are told is that women who had ably coped with 'men's' jobs - working in munitions and aeroplane factories during the war - were immediately pushed out of their jobs and ordered back into the home and kitchen where they belonged. It was back to 'business as usual' - the reassuring gendered division of labour with women as housekeepers and mothers, men as breadwinners, and pampered kings of the castle at home.

This ad complicates those assumptions. There's no suggestion that this man is emasculated by helping out at home, even with a frilly apron on, and the scenario is not exploited for comic effect (as it inevitably would be today). In fact he looks rather noble in his woodcut-style vignette. Perhaps gender roles in the post-war years were a little more complicated and nuanced than we have been led to believe by most popular histories.

Of course, I'm sure most women wouldn't have expected to be rewarded with a bottle of pale ale for doing household chores, so there's an indication that the man's efforts are a little bit special, although obviously not unusual.

In fact, within a few pages of the same magazine is another very similar advertisement:

Votrix Vermouth advertisement in Lilliput, June 1947, page iii.

The occasion this time is the aftermath of a party, with two gentlemen gamely tackling the piles of dishes. They both wear feminine, patterned aprons and are again deserving of a reward in the form of an alcoholic drink. A delighted-looking wife peers through the door (and then perhaps runs off to fetch their drinks?!)

Did men do anything else around the home except the dishes, now and then? Perhaps . . .

Vactric vacuum cleaner advertisement, from Housewife, November 1947, inside back cover.

This vacuum cleaner advertisement from the same year is rather less credible ("Give him a Vactric"? Hmm) and there is a lightly ironic tone to the copy: "When the household god descends to lend a hand" is a clear indication of the 'normal' domestic power relationship, however humorously expressed.

So the idea of a man helping out with onerous domestic chores is framed in all these advertisements as a sort of special treat for their wives, who are still expected to do them most of the time. But at least its not portrayed as ridiculous or unmanly, as you might expect even to this day, and its considered unremarkable enough to be featured in mainstream advertising.

It makes me wonder how far we've progressed since then (as I contemplate the stairs that need vacuuming . . .)

4 comments:

Marcia said...

I'm going to have to check my old Life magazines to see if there were any ads like this in the U.S.

The TV ad you posted on Flickr is really an excellent piece!

Sarah said...

That would be fascinating, Marcia! Could you post a link here if you find anything similar?

I did wonder if this was peculiar to the UK, especially as you might have expected exactly the reverse - like all those 'happy housewife' ads that dominated later on in the 1950s.

Thanks for the kind comment about the tv ad too. Abram Games is a graphic design hero, and I'm sure its one of his ads.

Marcia said...

It may well be a U.K. thing. I checked 6 issues of Life from 1946-1950 and the closest thing I could find was a new dad changing the baby's diaper while mom reads a congratulatory telegram, and no apron.

Sarah said...

Thanks so much for checking! So it looks like it was just a UK thing at that time - how interesting!