The Great Depression Reflected in Ads from the Back of Women’s Magazines

Ad from Womans’ Home Companion, March, 1936.

“My husband is out of employment and has been for some time…. Our savings are gradually disappearing, and I am so helpless. I don’t know a thing I can do to earn money….” The Woman’s Home Companion invited her to sell magazine subscriptions.

One of the fascinations of vintage women’s magazines is their “time capsule” quality. While reading through them for fashion information, I can’t resist the advertisements, which give me a idea of the era’s preoccupations (zeitgeist is the correct word, I suppose.) What was new — from zippers to steam irons? What did advertisers want people to worry about, from halitosis and pyorrhea to underarm hair? In the Thirties, massive male unemployment found many women desperate to help support their families.

Women’s magazines had many such ads, promising that women could make money at home — “no experience needed.” Ad from Delineator, February 1931.

Before color photography was widespread, black and white photos were hand tinted — “We instruct you by our new simple Photo-Color process and supply you with work.”  Coloring printed images was already “women’s work.” In the 19th century, some women had earned money by hand-painting fashion plates with watercolor.

I realize that researchers tend to notice what they expect to find, so it’s not surprising that, as the child of people who married in 1933 — in the heart of the Great Depression — I noticed these little ads crowded into the backs of magazines.

A few ads from the back of Delineator magazine, October 1931.

Here is a selection of ads which promised women that they could earn money at home, with no experience or skills. Some of them were probably preying on the desperate — but perhaps I’m just cynical….

Top of an ad for Brown Bobbys, Delineator, February 1931.

Text of Brown Bobby ad, February 1931. Brown Bobbys were doughnuts. I suspect that the Food Machine Display Corp. was willing to sell families the equipment for a home doughnut business.

Women might also try to start a candy business….

Open your own candy business? “Making and sales equipment furnished.”  Delineator, February 1933. The American School of Home Economics was already publishing home economics study courses and books in the 1920’s, including Cooking for profit: catering and food service management.

Or sell clothing…

“Women — Sell Fashion Frocks…. Earn up to $22 a week and get all your own dresses without a penny of cost.” Ad from Delineator, April 1936.

Sell Silk Hose: “Startling money-making proposition…. enormous earnings…Your own hose free of cost.” Ad from Womans’ Home Companion, November 1936. Wilknit Hosiery Co. ad. [Do you think that guaranteed stocking replacement might be a problem?]

“Women wanted” to sell fabric, sheets, handkerchiefs, blankets… Mitchell & Church Club ad, Delineator, February 1934.

“Do  you want to make money? … Sell Fashion Frocks.” Ad from WHC, March 1937. “We are appointing a few more ambitious women to act as our representatives.”

[I don’t think it would be easy to sell dresses or anything else to your friends and relatives if you were all equally broke….]

October, 1934; Delineator. “Start earning at once. Thousands of prospects near you.” General Card Co., Chicago.

Was there really such a demand for hooked rugs? From a series of ads for Hollywood Studio Stores, Inc., Ltd., Delineator, December 1934. “Women… Earn extra money at home making beautiful hooked rugs…. Make money the first week! …We furnish complete instructions, tools, and materials.”

Another “Hooked rugs” ad, November 1936. “No experience necessary.”

Fireside Industries said there was a market for hand-painted decorative items:

“Make extra money at once” — after you learn to “decorate clever art gifts at big profit per piece. No experience needed … No tedious study… You don’t even have to leave the house.” October 1931, Delineator. Fireside Industries ad.

Fireside Industries ad, March 1935. Delineator. “Everything furnished including supply of Novelties, for you to decorate and Homecrafters outfit.” “Openings in every locality.” “FIRST LESSON FREE.” [And then?]

Selling greeting cards, stationery, and especially Christmas cards, was advertised as a way to make money.

Ad for Wallace Brown, Inc. greeting card sales, Delineator, February 1937. “Show samples to friends and neighbors. Everybody buys.”

Bluebird Studios ad, WHC, Sept. 1936. “Sells on Sight. Box on approval.” The text looks very similar to that Wallace Brown ad, above.

The words “Earn,” “Easy,” and “Extra Money” appear again and again, often with the promise that women can work from home..

Process Corporation ad, August 1931. ” Thousands of women — many without experience — turn their spare minutes into dollars…. Permanent, big-paying position, if you make good.”

Process Corporation sought women and men to sell greeting cards” imprinted to customer’s order.” October, 1931, Delineator. Jeanette Maumus of New Orleans “Earned $78.20 in 45 minutes. $87.50 just a day’s sales for Mrs. H.H. Castle, Burke, Idaho.”

Janes Art Studio ad for card sellers. Sept. 1934. This ad admits that the pay is on commission — which makes Mrs. H.H. Castle’s $87 in sales look a little less lucrative.

From my own experience in door-to-door sales, sometimes you have to sell a “quota” amount before you qualify for the commission. In 1967, if I didn’t sell enough children’s encyclopedias to meet my weekly sales quota, I didn’t get paid at all. I believe some car salesmen still face this problem.

Ad for John A. Hertel Co. Christmas card sales, September 1931. Delineator. “No experience needed.”

Other ads [which I regard less cynically] offered educational opportunities leading to a new career — in hotel management, dressmaking, or nursing.

Ad for Lewis Hotel Training Schools, October 1934, Delineator.

Women could “Be a Hotel Hostess” or possibly manage an apartment house — a good job for a single mother. Lewis Hotel Training School ad, October 1931. Delineator. In the ad just below, you could make $2 by tipping the Denver Optic Company off to potential artificial eye customers….

Back in the 1920’s, Lewis would teach you how to run a tea room, so this was an established business school:

Ad for the Lewis Tea Room Institute, Delineator, January 1924. “Fortunes are being made in this big new industry….”

Ads for nursing schools were also traditional, and little changed from 1924 to 1937 — except for the potential salary and the hats.

Ad for Chatauqua School of Nursing, January 1924. This school offered a home-study course.

Ad for Chicago School of Nursing, February 1935.  “You can learn at home in spare time.”

Ad for Chicago School of Nursing, WHC, March 1937. “High School not required. Easy tuition payments.”

Ads for the Woman’s Institute have a long history, but during the Depression, the ads emphasized using your sewing skills to earn money. March, 1934.

I have some respect for the ads that suggested professional training for women who, like this one from the ad I began with, had never expected to work outside the home.

“I am nearly 35 years old and have no business experience…. My husband is out of employment and has been for some time.” Woman’s Home Companion ad for subscription sellers, March 1936.

And I can’t resist sharing (again) the “ad from the back of a magazine” that startled me into collecting them:

Ad from Delineator, March 1937. Courtesy Remembered Summers. Who wouldn’t leap at the chance to raise giant frogs for the American Frog Canning Company?

Now, that is desperation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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5 Comments

Filed under 1920s-1930s, 1930s, Musings, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Woman's Institute

5 responses to “The Great Depression Reflected in Ads from the Back of Women’s Magazines

  1. Well, of course “Raise Giant Frogs” takes the cake! I think we can classify these in four big groups: work at home (perhaps for those with small children); become a salesperson–and Fashion Frocks is my favorite there; get significant retraining and become a nurse; and more away from home to become some kind of manager. The ones that interest me the most are the hotel manager ads, because the targeted age group is older and they seemed designed for widows or unmarried women.

  2. Just the thought of trying to earn a living by selling playing cards is giving me anxiety!

  3. A garden full of giant frogs sounds even worse! Especially when you had to ship them …… In the 1950’s my mother decided to raise earthworms for a bit of extra cash. I may have written about this before …….

  4. To the best of my knowledge frog canning has never been a thing in the UK, but I have come across an ad in a 1930s magazine for using your cellar to grow mushrooms!

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