Creating Consumption Through the Pages of the WEST AUSTRALIAN During the 1930s: Women’s Business and Men’s Business


This is appearing here by way of experiment.  One of the things I want to do with this website is ‘publish’ some of the material that I’ve written but never got around to doing anything with.  This is a first attempt.  I still have a lot to learn about this web site business, one of which includes finding ways to post things like this without the endnotes disappearing.

I don’t know when I wrote this but my guess is that it was around 1994.  During my research for my thesis I’d looked at every issue of the West Australian from 1919 to 1939 and had noticed the advertisements and how they gradually changed over time.  Towards the end of my thesis work, while I was waiting for others to decide whether it was good enough, and that kind of delay, Grant Stone, a librarian at Murdoch University, used his contacts at the University of Western Australia to give me access to the hard copy of those issues of the West so I could look at the ads in their original form, rather than on microfilm.  (Had I been doing the work today I would have photographed everything, but that technology was not available in the early 1990s.)

We had in mind a book called Wash Your Hands or Die which would have been about the creation fear of disease through advertising, among other things, with plenty of illustrations.  However the publisher who had shown some interest decided not to go ahead and the logistics of photographing a couple of hundred images from crumbling newspaper pages defeated us.  I have the draft sitting on my shelf somewhere and might turn it into a pdf one of these days.

I pulled this out this morning as an exercise in putting longer documents on this web site.  I do not have a copy of the original wordprocessor file but I so have a pdf that I must have made at some stage that I’ve converted into this format – I must be learning something.  This particular post might just as easily have been about flying boats or civil aviation legislation, but I clicked on this file at random, so here we are.  It would be a lot more interesting with images in it, and I might get around to that one of these days, but you will find four images that are with this paper at the end of the text to give you an idea of what it’s all about.

This is an interesting line of historical inquiry and I suspect that the reason I did no more along these lines is because I probably got the commission to write the history of Main Roads Western Australia not long after this, and so my life went in a different direction.

So, let’s go back to 1994 and see what I had to say on the topic.


This paper uses advertising which appeared in the pages of the West Australian between 1930 and 1939 to consider some issues of gender relations. I suggest that the theory of separate spheres which is often used to describe so much about gender division in the past century or so had broken down to a considerable extent by the 1930s but that there was still severe gender division in society. I suggest that advertising can be used as an indicator of the roles that men and women were allowed to take and propose the idea of women’s business and men’s business (shamelessly borrowed from Aboriginal culture) as an alternative to the concept of separate spheres. To get to this I must first consider some ideas about advertising in general and then the kind of advertising which appeared in the West Australian.
Is advertising able to change a culture? This is not an easy question to answer because it is not one which seems to have been commonly asked and because it is a historical question and the available historical literature on advertising is limited. There is a large body of literature on advertising but most of it is practical, explaining how to do it or how to decode and criticize it . Although some literature deals with the past of advertising it is antiquarian (such as Ads that Made Australia) or focuses on the process of advertising (such as The 100 Greatest Corporate and Industrial Ads) rather than the use to which advertising is put? Perhaps the question is also difficult because it supposes a counter-factual alternative culture in which there has been no advertising or advertising did not develop in the way we know.

In any event it is clear from the mainstream literature on advertising that those who do it and those who criticize it believe it is powerful and dangerous and able to have a profound effect on society. An ‘elder statesman ‘ of the advertising industry saw it’s past as a running battle between those who were out to make as much from the business as possible with no care for the customers and ‘the Respectables ‘ who:

looked upon advertising as a legitimate and necessary economictool. They believe that advertising , being a tool of business , is as necessary to the American economy and as respectable as banking or the law.

The ‘Respectables’ have attempted to bring their ‘ Swashbuckling’ opponents under control through self-regulation and this suggests that the ‘Respectables ‘ at least believe that what they do can have bad effects on people. They fear that their industry may be brought into disrepute by bad advertising but this also shows that what they do is important enough that it needs to be protected.

In Australia there is the same dichotomy between good and bad advertising but, being what we are, Australian’s make the point differently:

Advertising is to business what the toilet is to the home – a handy facility in times of need. It affords quick access and, usually, quite satisfying results. Sometimes even a sense of achievement. It also comes in a range of shapes, sizes, colours, sounds , costs, to cater for most tastes. It flushes the economy and helps to maintain a healthy tone.

The other side of this healthy service is that many see advertising as ‘a dodge of the devil, spawning false lusts, pandering to unworthy passions’. This expression of the value and importance of advertising to Australian society is more soberly expressed to show that advertisers at least believe they are capable of and perhaps should, even as a duty, help to shape society:

Advertising is such an important part of the modern environment that it has a duty … not just to sell products but to contribute to the fund of knowledge necessary for making balanced judgments on all the things we do, use, wear, eat, see , hear.

Advertising is, generally, only part of a process of industrial production. If there were no products from factories to sell there would be no advantage in advertising them. There is. of course the business of advertising ideas and here the power of advertising to shape culture might be demonstrated more readily. Political parties advertise themselves but, more importantly, the mining industry advertises the idea of progress and the Australian Conservation Foundation advertises the idea of preservation. Advertising also promotes itself as a valuable idea. The banning of certain kinds of advertisements such as those for smoking, suggests that our legislators believe that people fear the power of advertising.

Despite these suggestions that advertising is a powerful force acting upon society the case is not proved. (In any event, there is some difference between society and culture so that changes to one might not be reflected in the other.) The other feature of advertising which is similarly not proved is whether advertising simply mirrors society or whether it shapes it.

Advertisers conduct surveys to find out what the public may want and use psychology to create much advertising but they are also imaginative and creative. Do they find market niches or do they create them? Perhaps it is simplest to consider the relationship between advertising and culture as a dynamic system in which one feeds from and is food for the other so that it makes no sense to see advertising as separate from society but as creating and expressing society.

Whether for products or ideas, advertising is primarily about consumption. Advertising. in a form we would recognize, has been around for almost four hundred years and may first have appeared in the ‘Mercuries’, news papers published in 17th Century England. They were for traded goods such as tea and exotic fabrics and local products such as books and patent medicines. It seems to be agreed, however, that modern advertising is around a hundred years old and created in the United States where growing industrialization of goods for household consumption led to the need to create markets for those goods. This coincided with the creation of means of mass communication in the invention of the linotype printing press in 1886 which was adopted very quickly by newspaper companies so that mass distribution publications became more widespread very quickly. Thus the industrialization of mass communication coincided with the need for mass advertising to support mass production of household goods.

The industrialization of the production of household goods such as soaps and foods was the continuation of the process of industrialization of earlier forms of household production such as s pinning and weaving which had been taken over by factories in the early stages of the first industrial revolution. However the mass production of this next wave of goods required their mass consumption and this called for means of bringing about consumption through mass advertising. The household, which had produced almost all that it needed for survival a hundred years earlier, gradually became a site of consumption for goods which were mass produced in factories. Advertising became the way in which households were informed about the existence of these goods and were encouraged to purchase them.

The history of the development of these industries and their advertising are closely intertwined but falls outside the scope of this paper. However, the large number of now familiar company and brand names – Kellogg , Hein , Arnott, Colgate and so on – are the result of a process of brand identification encouraged by large manufacturers through mass advertising to get people to consume the products of their factories rather than those of less well publicized competitors or home made products. It is likely that without modern advertising the patterns of household consumption which we now experience would not have developed due to a lack of profitable markets. Thus advertising has been an important component in the process of industrialization which has led to our current day consumer society. This has led to a class or Marxist analysis of advertising which emphasizes such factors as power and exploitation and also, on occasions, the way in which advertising assists in the process of creating hegemony.

Hegemony through consumption occurs because, when we buy something which has been advertised, we not only buy the product itself but also the associations which advertisers attach to it. A can of Pepsi-cola is not just an aluminum container of soft-drink, it becomes a state of mind which is advertised alike to people of all classes. Aspiration to consume crosses class boundaries even though the result of aspiration and consumption is profits for industrial corporations. This is particularly effective in an affluent society:

Many products which are consumed in a society which is rich are consumed for their psychological or ego- satisfying effects as much, or more than, for their basic want-satisfying ability.

This advertising induced hegemony is also more likely to apply to small every-day items than large items which are not commonly purchased. Houses and cars are advertised only to induce the consumer to consider (‘Please consider’, as the Toyota advertisement puts it) the product when making a large-expenditure decision in which earning-power and class position plays a large part. Soap, prepared foods, drink s and similar products are relatively inexpensive and so decisions to purchase based on advertising a1one are much more 1ike1y. The number of these products which can be purchased may be determined by class but the actual brand chosen is relatively classless. Consequently soap appears fairly classless when, 1ike a can of Pepsi, it is not.
Advertising is so commonplace in our society that we take it for granted and hardly notice it. It is on the television and the radio, on posters and billboards, in windows and sings, neon lights and throw away containers, in magazines and newspapers. The issue of the West Australian for Saturday 26 October 1991 carried about 160 feature ads on 96 pages and 35 ads in the accompanying 56 page glossy magazine. By the mid 1970s many millions of dollars was being spent on advertising; in the category of foodstuffs about $35 million was spent on advertising and $28 million was spent on motoring.

In the decade from 1930 to 1939 the West Australian carried over 130 000 feature advertisements ranging in size from a full page (64cm by 44cm) to small ones (the smallest was generally 8cm by llcm). During this period the newspaper published about 130 pages a week, ranging from 100 pages in April 1931 to 148 pages a week in September 1937 and May 1938. The paper followed a fairly predictable format through this whole period; the first page of classified advertisements, the next page a mixture of classified and movie (starting in 1931) advertisements and then the following few pages a mixture of pages of special interest, general news, advertising and classified advertisements. In the second half of the issue would be about three pages of topical local and world news without any advertising, a page or two more of news, advertising and classified ads, a page of photographs, a couple more mixed pages and then the back page of classified advertising. There were no large headlines and very little innovation from the style which had been used since the end of the First World War. From 1933, when the West Australian moved into new premises with modern printing equipment, photographs gradually spread through the pages of the paper but a page of photographs towards the back of the issue remained a feature and perhaps took the place of comic strips which were the focus of general curiosity in other papers which had that innovation. There was some modernization in the appearance of pages but not in the overall format. This old-fashioned appearance probably enhances the reputation which the paper had for conservatism; the Daily News looked more like a modern newspaper in the early 1920s than the West Australian did by 1939.

The pages of special interests included sport, rural news, trade, shipping, motoring, radio, movies. high culture. real estate and women’s interests. Special pages for trade and shipping information appeared regularly in each issue and it was very unusual for there not to be at least one page of sports news in every issue; on average about 15 pages a week were printed peaking at three or four pages on Monday and as low as one or two on Saturday. Other feature pages appeared regularly once a week; for example two pages of motoring news usually appeared in the Thursday issue, two pages of movie news on Friday, a page of two of real estate news would appear in the Saturday issue and between two (at the beginning of the decade) and four (by 1939) pages of ‘Life and Letters’ would also appear in the Saturday issue. The number of pages dedicated to these special interests remained fairly constant through the decade with one exception, that of the women’s pages. In 1930, 1931 and 1932 there were five pages a week devoted to ‘Women’s Interests’. two on Tuesday and three on Friday. For the rest of the decade the average was about 12 pages a week with the lowest at 10 pages in June 1936 and the highest of 14 in November 1935. From 1936 there was at least one page of the ‘Women’s Realm’ in every issue of the West Australian and generally as many as three or four in the Tuesday and Friday issues.
The editorial content of the women’s pages varied depending on the kind of copy which was available and there was probably more local copy in the smaller number of pages published at the beginning of the decade than in the larger number of pages at the end. Through the whole period there was some emphasis on local social notices such as engagements. balls , parties and musical afternoons but also an equal emphasis on the exchange of useful household information, either through the publication of handy hints and recipes from readers or a question and answer column in which women asked for and were given information on a very wide range of household business. There might also be articles on personal hygiene. fashion, food preparation or social news from London. Later in the decade these features remained but were supplemented by material which originated outside the State on such topics as the children of the Belgian royal family, women in Nazi Germany and the latest Paris fashions. It is also not uncommon to find that by the close of the decade some pages headed ‘Women’s Realm’ also contain news of general interest. These changes and obvious padding suggest that by the end of the decade an important aspect of the women’s pages was not the editorial content but the advertising which appeared on them. I will return to the matter of advertising in a moment.
The heading of women’s interests pages as the ‘Women’s Realm’ is a reminder of the belief in separate spheres for men and women which was commonly held in society at this time, and had probably existed for the previous century or more. In summary this idea claims that men lived and operated in the public sphere, a kind of Hobbesian ‘state of nature’ which was vulgar and vicious while women lived and worked in the private sphere which was quiet and harmonious, not only for themselves but also for their men who retreated there to recover from the rigors of the public sphere. Men were considered the rulers of their households but in practice women managed them and the skills necessary to run the private sphere were specialized and the reserve of women. These skills, which included washing, making and mending clothes, food preparation and child care where things which men were excluded from and made up the foundation stones of the private sphere.

Susan Strasser argues that by perhaps as early as the middle of the 19th century this theory was being eroded in practice; that the public sphere was invading and taking over some of the functions which had been reserved for the private sphere. Among the first areas of the private sphere to be taken over was the production of men’s clothing but later such activities as soap manufacture, preparation of foods like bread and biscuits, washing and then women’s clothing followed. These were items or processes which had once been made and done by women in the private sphere but then became industrialized. As time progressed more and more was produced in the public sphere which could be sold to women to use in their homes and which deskilled them in the business of the private sphere. The private sphere was also invaded through the introduction of utilities such as running water, gas and electricity which made women’s work somewhat less laborious but also took from them many household skills such as fire setting, water collection and use and household lighting. A further invasion of the private sphere came through the professionalization of household management and child care. Home economics and child care became professions which, while they were mainly developed by women, were intrusions into traditional ways of household organization to suit modern ideas of scientific progress and industrial consumption. These professions took away women’s control over what they could do in their private sphere and subjected them to heavy influences, both covert and overt, which made them much less the mistresses of their own homes in which they had previously been able to organize their work to suit themselves. By the 1930s the end result of these changes was that although the majority of women appeared to support the ideal of separate spheres by staying at home to raise families and tend to the needs of men, they had little control over how they went about the business of running this private sphere and so it was largely an illusion.

Advertising in the West Australian during the 1930s supports Strasser’s idea. The women depicted in advertisements are not very confident or knowledgeable about the business of running their homes. At best they are willing recipients of advice, at worst they are confused, incompetent and unable to solve simple problems without the help of outsiders. The infant’s preparation Lactogen advertised their products with headings like ‘He was undernourished and I didn’t know’ and ‘I was taking chances with my baby’s health’. Another formula producer accused, ‘Blame yourself if baby is sick at teething time’. Kraft advertised their cheese as a sandwich filling with the words of a woman, ‘Why didn’t we think of this before’. As though women might not have already known, Mills & Ware’s advertised biscuits with the reminder that ‘in the days of their youth, they must have pure food’. And for women who were not equal to the demands of home economics Ovo advised ‘Egg prices drop – preserve without delay’.

It is probably debatable whether or not women were actually as helpless as advertising depicted but, if advertising is as effective as some people fear, it is probable that advertising created confusion and fear in women by the way in which it told them to do things which may have been contrary to the way they had already been taught to do things by their mothers and grandmothers. Advice to women through advertising could thus undermine what remained of the of separate spheres by the 1930s. It is also worth noting that advertising itself was a public activity and entirely in the hands of men. The advice which women received about how to experience their existence was created by men for the process of making profits, an activity of the public sphere.

The concept of separate spheres was still current at that time and men and women would have used it to explain the gender divisions existing in their society. This is not because the separate spheres really existed but because society was so obviously divided by gender that some explanation was necessary. An examination of advertising in the West Australian confirms that there were areas of human activity which were the responsibility of women and others for which men were responsible. Areas of responsibility were usually mutually exclusive and most women’s responsibilities were centered around the home while most men’s activities were located outside the home. But this was not entirely the case with household activities so that women ventured into the outside world to do their shopping and deal with health care specialists or to earn an income while men had household activities which included maintenance, some forms of interior decoration such as painting and day-to-day activities such as cleaning boots and shoes.

This sense that there were things which women did and other things which men did leads me to the terms ‘women’s business’ and ‘men’s business’. This does not infer any kind of secret knowledge and the fact that it was all so widely advertised in the press meant that anybody could read it. It certainly suggests, however, that there were areas of competence and responsibility which might almost be as hidden as secret knowledge. This was because if something was women’s business men did not have to know how to do it and so were effectively ignorant about it. Food preparation and washing clothes are two examples. The good wife knew that her husband could not cook and so made sure that the pantry was stocked with canned food before she went on a holiday and the good husband who noticed that his wife was not able to cope with the washing would rather hire help or buy a washing machine than get his hands wet helping.
There are two notable differences in the kinds of advertising used in the 1930s and now. The most obvious is the much greater use of text to persuade readers and educate them into the habit of consumption. The other was the large number of advertisements for patent medicines of a kind which have now almost completely disappeared. The following table gives some idea of the appearances of major categories of advertising during this period:


Patent medicine 15.0
Motoring 12.1
Prepared food 9.5
Smoking 6.0
Home equipment 4.4
Clothing 3.7
Women’s beauty products 3.6
Movies 3.5
Liquor 2.9
Dental care 2.4
Laundry soap 2.3
Finance 2.2
Toilet soap 2.0
The number of advertisements printed does not tell the complete story, the size of advertisements is also important. In 1935 the largest advertisements were, on average, for dental care (29cm by 11cm) while others which were often very prominent included toilet soap (26cm by 17cm), swimwear (28cm by 16cm), shaving (25cm by 11cm) laundry soap (24cm by 14cm) and motoring. The average advertisement was about 20cm by 12cm in size.
To give an idea of what appears in more modern day advertising , the following table gives a ranking of categories of advertising by expenditure during the mid 1970s:

Foodstuffs 35
Motoring 28
Household equipment 21
Finance & insurance 12.6
Travel & tours 12.5
Smoking 11.25
Women’s toiletries 10.5
Household cleaners 8.9
Liquor 8.5
Medical preparations 8.25
The best signifier of what was woman’s business and what was men’s business is the kinds of advertising which appeared in the women’s pages of the West Australian. For example, with the exception of several advertisements which came as part of toilet soap advertisements, nothing about shaving appeared in the women’s pages. On the other hand advertisements for sanitary pads did not appear off the women’s pages and it was exceptional for advertisements about beauty products such as creams, powders and lipsticks to appear anywhere but on the women’s pages. (There was one exception in a range of products called Charmosan which, from about 1933, only advertised on the bottom right hand corner of the photo page where, no doubt, women became used to seeing it regularly. Perhaps readers even looked for it there since some of the dialogues in the advertisements were quite charming.) About 18.5 per cent of advertisements in the West Australian appeared on the women’s pages even though those pages comprised only 7 per cent of the content of the paper during this period. Ranking the percentages of advertising on the women’s pages against all advertising gives a clear indication of what kind of advertising was directed at women:

Infant’s products 78.0
Lingerie, stockings, etc 78.0
Home cleaning products 73.0
Women’s beauty products 71.8
Laundry soap 67.7
Shoe polish 64.4
Toilet soap 65.1
Prepared foods 59.0
Dental care 49.0
Hair care 46.3
Ointments, liniments 46.0
Swimwear 42.9
Tea 40.0
Miscellaneous 33.4
Pesticides 33.3
Patent medicines 28.4
Clothing 14.8
Confectionery 13.5
Shaving 12.2
Home equipment 12.1
Liquor 5.0
Smoking 1.6
Finance 0.0
Motoring 0.0
Movies 0.0
Women’s business was still largely centered around the home and in looking after children. But almost as important was the business of looking, feeling and smelling good, mainly to find and keeping a man. (Women were, of course, interested in other things which included movies and clothes. The movie advertisements were, however, all gathered together and never strayed from their allotted place at the front of an issue. Clothes were advertised extensively by the various department stores in Perth but there was very little individual brand name advertising which suggests that the industrialization of the production of women’s clothing had not developed much by this period. The manufacturers of cigarettes were also advertising to women but their advertisements were usually found on the sporting pages no matter who they were directed at. Both the home and the search for a husband emphasize the dependent position of women and how their business was directed towards social and economic survival in the patriarchal society. Two advertisements for insurance, which were unusually directed at women, emphasise this: ‘Every woman should see that her husband is insured … ‘ was aimed at married women and ‘Popularity now, but at 60 your need will be an income’ sought out those who had avoided the blessed state of matrimony.

Advertising suggests that looking after children was almost exclusively women’s business. If children were ill, not full of energy and struggling at school their mother was to blame. Men might bring home treats (‘Daddy, have you brought me home my Nestle’s’) and play games with their children (‘Always fit for a game with the kids’ ) but that was the extent of their advertised role. On rarer occasions father might have to help with his children ‘s education or serve as a figure of authority. Men were, however, very important in child care as professionals, particularly as educators and doctors and women were expected to go to them for advice. A child’s poor performance at school might be due to a medical conditions which only a doctor could explain or a mother simply may not understand enough about children and need expert advice. Mothers might also go to other women who were also professionals for advice about their children. Consequently, although women might not look to their husbands to play an important part in raising children they were expected and encouraged to look outside the home for advice from male experts on how to raise their children. Advertisers of prepared foods also made sure that women understood it was their business to ensure that their children were properly nourished through correct purchasing; ‘Your choice of children’s foods of great importance’ said Mills & Ware’s, ‘Children need the essential nourishment of Nestle’s milk’ and Arnotts advised women ‘Research has proved that school children given extra milk food increase their height, their weight, and also their proficiency in school tasks’.
The home was not purely the woman’s preserve, men had an important part to play in its establishment and maintenance. Women’s business was the routine chores of washing, cleaning and food preparation but her rule came to an end when major expenditure was to be made or major changes were to be undertaken. Three quarters of all household cleaning products were advertised on the women’s pages but only 12 per cent of household equipment was advertised there. Modern granulated laundry soaps like Rinso and Persil were said to save much of the labour of washing and were generally advertised on the women’s pages, but they still assumed that women would soak, scrub, boil, rinse and wring their clothes by hand. Advertisements for washing machines did not appear on the women’s pages of the West Australian even though they would be important to and used exclusively by women. Buying a washing machine was a man’s decision:

Should women, in this enlightened age, continue to slave over a washing tub in the trying and humid heat of the washhouse?
Medical evidence declares that MORE WOMEN’S ILLS are caused through the strenuous task of clothes washing than all other housework combined.
In USA women have accepted the Electric Clothes Washer as part of their domestic equipment, and consider it as equally important as an electric iron.
Men! Women have been slaves to clothes washing long enough! Emancipate them by installing an Electric Washer.

It was exceptional for any labour saving electric devices to be advertised in the women’s pages even though most were directly involved in saving women’s labour. This suggests that electricity and the purchase of electrical equipment was men’s business no matter what use it was put to. The notab1e exception was electric light globes which were advertised in the women’s pages towards the end of the decade, suggesting that by then they had become items of minor consumption and thus women’s business. The main item of electrical equipment to be advertised during thedecade was the wireless which could be bought in an astounding range of shapes and sizes. Doubtless an investment in one opened the woman’s world to a whole new soundscape of advertising which, unfortunately, no longer remains available for analysis. If, however, the advertising which was broadcast on the wireless reflected that which appeared in the newspaper the messages which women listeners were given about their roles in society would have been reinforced.
There were subtle gradations between women’s business and men’s business. Women might paint pieces of furniture and together men and women might paint a wall but only a man would paint larger areas. When it came to larger household decisions advertisers spoke to men, even if it was about women’s comfort and convenience. Furniture, floor coverings and other major household possessions were not commonly advertised on the women’s pages and the purchase of such things was, at best, a matter of agreement but just as commonly a matter of hoping that the man of the house would sanction the expenditure. (A woman who has been told that flywire would protect her home from flies puts her hands together, as if in prayer, and says ‘What a perfect idea! Oh I wonder if my husband would!’ There was, of course, the matter of whether the household had the finances for furniture, carpets or flywire but advertising shows what was taken to be the ideal at the time and so reflects the current state of mind as much as economic realities.
The real business of women was to look attractive to men although the process of finding a marriage partner seems to have concerned of both men and women. There were all manner of things which got in the way of finding the ideal partner; they included bad breath, body odour, clothes which were not snowy white, lack of energy and vitality, stomach acid , poisoned blood, being too fat or being too thin. to name only a few. There were products to solve all these problems and bring about perfect happiness and wedded bliss. In addition to these problems women had also to make sure that their fingers were alluring, that their faces had no unsightly splotches or freckles, that their hair was properly waved and the right colour (because ‘light haired girl’s have 47% more sex appeal .. ‘, that their teeth gleamed attractively and that their foundation garments and stockings accentuated their figures. There were, of course, products which vied with each other to do all these things. By way of comparison it seems that men might have gone in for a bit of body building and shaved properly. Owning a car was helpful.
Where women’s business really differed from men was in the problem of keeping their marriage partner. Women were told they had to be on guard against the predations of other women and that this was best done by staying as beautiful and attractive, as vivacious and exciting as they had been on the day they married. They had constantly to watch for the signs that their husband was losing interest in them, as women and as wives and to do this they had to keep up to a standard which advertising set in their looks and their housekeeping skills. If women were successful they kept the economic support which was so necessary to them. ‘Mrs Can’, who looked after herself by taking Eno’s Fruit Salt, knew that that was the reason ‘her husband was so jealous of her’ and why ‘other men whisper[ed] to her’, “If Jim hadn’t married you, I would have”’ Because women were economically dependent on their husbands they also had to ensure that those men were physically and mentally fit to compete in the world. ‘You must watch your husband! … If you LOVE him – do this now’, proclaimed one patent medicine. On the other hand, men were not expected to look after their wives who had to take care of their own health and try to cope with illness and stress without complaint.
Women had to clothe and feed their men to send then properly fit out into the world of work. Women had to make themselves attractive for their husband’s employers and customers because their social lives were often actively tied to their husband’s business activities. There were, of course , products available to ensure endless wedded bliss and security.
A woman who did not succeed in finding a husband seems to have failed in achieving the main goal to which she could aspire. ‘Twenty-three and no wedding bells? Don’t let the best years slip by ‘, cautioned one Lux advertisement. Another was blunter, ‘After 25 it’s harder to get your man’ The failure to get a man was understood to be an emotional and social failure but it was even more an economic failure. Other advertising suggested that consumption of beauty creams, undergarments and a number of other items might still save the day and bring about that happy union with a breadwinner.

Women learned how to behave in the world outside the home, socially in search of amusement or a husband or in pursuing the careers which were slowly opening to them. They found that the same physical attractiveness which was important to marriage was just as important in every day interactions. ‘Since when have you been using Gibbs?’ a man asks a woman in an advertisement for toothpowder. “Since I learned what a smile could do’, she replies. Women who went out to work were almost as dependent on men as if they were married to them. The low status of their jobs meant that they had to work well and look and smell attractive. Advertisers concentrated on women who worked in offices as typists and secretaries. occupations which put women into close relationships with men.

Women ‘ s business was fraught with fear and danger. It was primarily directed towards ensuring personal survival in a world which did not afford women very much status. If there ever had been such a thing as a woman’s realm in which they were safe and secure from the ravages of the outside world it had long since disintegrated. Advertising had perhaps helped in this process by dictating to women new modes of activity centred on consumption in the marketplace.

Leigh Edmonds

Sources used

John Bryden-Brown, Ads that made Australia, Lane Cove (NSW) 1981.

Carroll Burton Larrabee , ‘The good fight is an unending fight’ in Advertising today/yesterday/tomorrow; An omnibus of advertising prepared by ‘Printer’s Ink’ in its 75th year of publication, New York, 1963.

Fred C Poppe, The 100 greatest corporate and industrial ads, New York 1983.

Tim Hewat (ed), Advertising in Australia, the force that feeds the market place (A working paper on the merits – and some of the sins – of advertising, produced by the Advertising Federation of Australia), Sydney, 1975.

Ann Stephen, ‘Agents of consumerism: the organization of the Australian advertising industry, 1918 -1938’ in Media Interventions, Leichardt (N SW ), 1981

Susan Strasser. Never Done, A history of American Housework, New York, 1982.

E S Turner, The Shocking History of Advertising, London, 1952.

R R Walker. Soft Soap Hard Sell in Adland Australia, Richmond (Victoria), 1979.


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