Tag Archives: women’s studies 1930s

Too Fat or Too Thin — 1933 & 1934

"You'd never guess they once called me SKINNY." Ad for yeast supplement, Delineator, 1934.

“You’d never guess they once called me SKINNY.” Ad for ironized yeast, 1934. Breasts are prominently featured.

Nineteen thirties’ fashion illustrations show tall, impossibly narrow-hipped women, but magazines also ran ads humiliating women for being “too skinny.” Sometimes I encounter an “Are you too fat?” ad, turn the page, and encounter an “Are you too skinny?” ad. One explanation is that, in times of famine, looking too thin implies poverty and hardship. And many people really did go hungry in the 1930’s.

Feeding a big family on $9 a week, January 1934. Ad for Royal Baking Powder.

Feeding a big family on $9 a week, January, 1934. Ad for Royal Baking Powder. Delineator.

(In modern America, cheap, poorly nutritious food — a tasty and addictive combination of fats, carbohydrates, salt and sugars — has created a historically unique situation: now, obesity is often a sign of poverty, while a lean, fit body is a sign of wealth and leisure:  it signals enough money to afford fresh foods, along with time — and a safe place — to exercise.)

Certainly the emphasis on a “boyish” figure favored the young and slender in the mid-nineteen-twenties.

But 1933-1934 was a time of mixed signals for the average woman.

Delineator, March 1933, page 81.

Delineator, March 1933, page 81. “Safe Way to Lose FAT.” Ad for Kruschen Salts.

“How would you like to lose 15 pounds of fat in a month…?” That was on page 81.

Or maybe you should gain 15 pounds? The following ad was on page 97 of the same magazine:

Delineator, March 1933, page 97.

Delineator, March 1933, page 97. “Dangerous to be skinny.” Ad for Ironized Yeast, which “adds solid, healthy flesh quicker than beer.”

“I’m so lonely and unhappy.  Nobody likes a skinny girl.”

“There’s no need to be skinny now.  I’ll tell you a quick way to gain.”

“New discovery adds solid, healthy flesh quicker than BEER…. For years doctors prescribed beer to put flesh on these scrawny, weak, nervous people.”

The ad urged readers to compare their weight and measurements with the “solid, healthy” model on the left.

March 1933: The model's measurements are given as 5' 3.5" tall, 118 lbs, 34"-25"-36."

March, 1933: The model’s measurements are given as 5′ 3.5″ tall, 118 lbs, 34″-25″-36.”

“Selected as having the best figure in the U.S. for her height, according closely to measurements favored by a famous theatrical producer and a great artist.” [Both anonymous…. She’s a long way from the 1930’s fashion illustrators’ ideal!]

The same Ionized Yeast company offered different models’ measurements in each ad:

June 1933 ad for Ionized Yeast. The model's measurements are

June, 1933 ad for Ionized Yeast. The model’s measurements are given as 5′ 4″, 120 lbs, 35″-26″-36″.

“Skinny girls listen to this! … Adds pounds quicker than beer.”

May 1934 Ionized Yeast ad. The model's measurements are given as

May, 1934 Ionized Yeast ad. “Now no need to be thin…. New easy way adds pounds so fast you’re amazed.” The model’s measurements are given as 35″-26″-36.”

Six weeks ago she was jeered at, but Ionized Yeast “gives 5 to 15 lbs. in a few weeks.”

June 1934 Ionized Yeast ad. The model's measurements are

June, 1934 Ionized Yeast ad. “…Get lovely curves fast!” The model’s measurements are height 5’5″, weight 130 lbs., 35″-27″-38″.

In some of these ads, “curves” seems to be code for “full breasts.” By modern standards, the models are all well within the range for a healthy BMI [Body Mass Index], which cannot be said for many of today’s fashion models. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine most of these women being chosen to model slinky 1930’s dresses like these:

Ads for Kruchen Salts, sold for weight loss. Delineator ads from May and April, 1933.

Ads for Kruchen Salts, sold for weight loss. Delineator ads from May and April, 1933. The word FAT is dominant.

Text of ad for Kruschen Salts. April 1933.

Text of ad for Kruschen Salts. April 1933. E. Griffith Hughes, Inc.

Ginger Rogers appears in an add for Kellogg's All Bran, Delineator, April 1934.

“Ginger Rogers is just the type to wear this difficult but delightful gown.” Ad for Kellogg’s All Bran, Delineator, April 1934. “Watch your figure. Modern fashions are built around youthful curves.”

(If you didn’t recognize her, remember that Ginger Rogers was called “Ginger” because she had red hair.)

Laxative salts were advertised for weight loss, as were breakfast cereals. “Two tablespoonfuls [of All-Bran] daily are usually sufficient…. Isn’t this better than risking unpleasant patent medicines? Kellogg’s All-Bran is not fattening.”

"A curve is the smartest distance between two points." Ad for Kellogg's All Bran cereal, June 1934.

“A curve is the smartest distance between two points.” Ad for Kellogg’s All Bran cereal, June 1934.

“Figures must be graceful, slim, and rounded in the right places…. To look well in the new gowns, many of us must reduce. We must exercise. We must watch our meals.”

Ad for Kellogg's Corn Flakes, May 1933.

Ad for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, May, 1933. “When you begin to think about light summer clothes….”

There’s no promise that Corn Flakes will help you lose weight, just the suggestion of lightness.

However, the cover of the July 1933 Delineator shows the appeal of sugary temptations.

Delineator magazine cover, July 1933. Illustration by Dynevor Rhys.

Delineator magazine cover, July 1933. Illustration by Dynevor Rhys.

Ounce for ounce, ice cream will also “add pounds quicker than beer.” Alas.

True story: A hand-lettered sign appeared taped to a lamppost in my neighborhood: “I LOST 40 lbs of ugly fat! Call: (it gave a phone number.)” The next time I passed, someone had added a smaller sign:  “Found @ corner of Sunset & 37th: 40 lbs of ugly fat. Call (a different phone number) to claim.”

 

 

 

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Filed under 1930s, Bathing Suits, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture

Living on $18 per Week, 1930s

“Marrying on so small an income is a courageous undertaking….’I can’t allow a cent more than $8 a week for food,’ says Mrs. Green.”

Ad from Delineator, Feb. 1935, p. 35. Royal Baking Powder

Ad from Delineator, Feb. 1935, p. 35. Royal Baking Powder

"No Need for Self-Pity." Ad from Woman's Home Companion, Sept. 1937, p. 112

“No Need for Self-Pity.” Ad from Woman’s Home Companion, Sept. 1937, p. 112

By chance, I came across two advertisements from the late 1930s that referred to living on eighteen dollars a week (above), and I also found a clothes’ budget article for a young college woman which confirms that her wages after graduation would be about $20 per week. (I will go into detail about each of these later.)

"What Can A Girl Live On?"  Woman's Home Companion, Oct. 1936

“What Can A Girl Live On?” Woman’s Home Companion, Oct. 1936

Sharing the History of Everyday Fashions and What They Cost

It’s difficult to get a sense of what things really cost in the past, but theatrical costumers need to be able to place fashions not only in time, but in social class.

We ask, “What kind of woman could afford $6.50 shoes in 1936? Are they cheap or expensive?”

Red Cross Shoe Ad, Delineator, April 1936

Red Cross Shoe Ad, Woman’s Home Companion, April 1936

“Would these dresses have been worn by the wife of a clerk, or the wife of the company president?”

Companion-Butterick Patterns from WHC, March 1937

Companion-Butterick Patterns from WHC, March 1937

Even information from the same magazine can be contradictory; a September 1937 advertisement seeking women to sell subscriptions to Woman’s Home Companion magazine (“No Need for Self-Pity”) implies that a working girl will struggle to get by on $18 a week; an editorial in the same magazine, October, 1936, said she would be able to afford vacation travel, and still put money into savings, while earning just $20 a week.

What Can A Girl Live On? A College Girl’s Clothing Budget, 1936

I have broken this brief editorial (one column from Woman’s Home Companion, October 1936) into sections so that it will be large enough for you to read it yourself: 1936 oct college girl's budge theadline1936 oct college girl's budget number only1936 oct working college grad woman budget paragraph top1936 oct working college grad woman budget end

I’m posting it in the hope that some enterprising economist or women’s studies researcher will find it of interest.  I’ll try to limit my comments, but…

1. Note that items with an asterisk are expected to last two or three years: coats, pull-on rubber shoe covers, an umbrella, bedroom slippers.

2. She is expected to get by on four dresses ($5 each), and four pairs of shoes ($3 each), per year. (Walk-in closets were not needed in the 1930s.)  This explains the many 1930s patterns for dresses that were easy to transform with a change of collar, or sash.

Wardrobe Dress, Companion-Butterick Pattern 7579, Oct. 1937

Wardrobe Dress, Companion-Butterick Pattern 7579, Oct. 1937

Companion-Butterick offered a series of patterns with “button-in” features, like this one, # 7579, which can be worn with three separate button-in vestees. “If you are an executive’s secretary you may want two vestees for the office — one in the dress material perhaps, with a tiny piqué collar, the other in plaid taffeta – and a third, for after-hours parties, in sparkling gold lamé.”

3. A pair of stockings is expected to last a month (15 pairs per year.)

Ad for Lux Soap, Oct. 1937

Ad for Lux Soap, Oct. 1937

Ad for Lux Soap, Woman's Home Companion, Feb. 1937

Ad for Lux Soap, Woman’s Home Companion, Feb. 1937

“Runs cost money.” A run in her stocking could be enough to drive a working woman to tears – she might have to choose between eating and buying a new pair of stockings, and she was expected to wear stockings to work.

4. A “smock” is a puzzling item, but could be required in certain college classes, such as chemistry, art, or home economics. When you only have four dresses, protecting them would be important, and an apron or housedress would only be worn while doing work at home.

Women wearing smocks in Sealtest laboratory kitchen, 1930s

Women wearing smocks in Sealtest laboratory kitchen, 1930s

Living on Twenty Dollars – or Less – a Week

The 1936 article confirms that “The average University of Washington co-ed who steps into the working world earns an average of eighty dollars a month.”

"No Need for Self-PIty." Ad from Woman's Home Companion, Sept. 1937. p.112

“No Need for Self-PIty.” Ad from Woman’s Home Companion, Sept. 1937. p.112

This advertisement – purportedly quoting a letter from a subscriber – says “If you have ever known the need for extra money you can understand how I felt when I found, on starting my business career, that for several years I could not expect to earn more than $18 a week…. Therefore my small salary would just about pay my room and board and keep me in lunches and carfare with nothing left…. I needed new clothes and I often felt like crawling into the darkest corner of the office because my dress was so shabby…. My heart fairly ached.” Her problem was solved when – like “ten thousand” others, “girls and women in offices and homes, …even sweet-faced grandmothers” — she began selling subscriptions to the Woman’s Home Companion [or so says the ad.]

On the other hand, Royal Baking Powder ran a series of Great Depression advertisements, like the one at the top of this post, featuring true-life stories about people who were coping with low or lost income:

"Income cut in half... food prices rising... and six hungry mouths to feed." Ad from Woman's Home Companion, 1934

“Income cut in half… food prices rising… and six hungry mouths to feed.” Ad from Woman’s Home Companion, 1934

"Getting married on $20 a month takes courage these days." Ad from Delineator, Feb. 1934

“Getting married on $20 a week takes courage nowadays.” Ad from Delineator, Feb. 1934

The house this couple lives in (pictured at top of ad) looks rather impressive to me.

Home of the couple who married on $20 a week. Ad, Delineator, Feb. 1934, p. 43

Home of the couple who married on $20 a week. Ad, Delineator, Feb. 1934, p. 43

Maybe a single woman earning $20 a week could afford a vacation.

A Summer Wardrobe for $34.33

Make Your Wardrobe for Summer for $34.33. Delineator, May 1934

Make Your Wardrobe for Summer for $34.33. Delineator, May 1934

This home-made summer wardrobe (Delineator, May 1934, p.71) was analyzed as costing $34.33 – including patterns, not including thread. 1934 may p 71 prices summer wardrobe 5623 5686 34 33At first glance, it seemed much more than the $20 for four dresses per year allotted to the University of Washington co-eds. However, the $34.33 total included a coat ($8.13) and a shorts and shirt outfit ($3.06.) The four dresses (one a jacket dress) could be made for $23.14 (or less, if you made the striped dress from cotton instead of silk. ) If you didn’t sew, you could buy a dress, or a suit, or a skirt and two blouses from the Sears catalog for about $5 in 1937. [Everyday Fashions of the Thirties as Pictured in Sears Catalogs, by Stella Blum.] But a secretary probably could not afford to buy those $6.50 shoes.

POST SCRIPT (July 2018): Related posts are “The Great Depression Reflected in Ads from the Back of Womens’ Magazines”,   “A Woman’s Clothing Budget for 1924 versus 1936”, and Clothing Budget for a Married Couple, 1925.”

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Filed under 1930s, Companion-Butterick Patterns, Hosiery & Stockings, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Shoes, Uniforms and Work Clothes, Vintage patterns