February 16, 2011

How to Be a Good Spouse in the 1930s

When we get glimpses of the way things used to be back before the divorce rate climbed to one in three, whether it’s a scene from Mad Men or the charts presented here, we try not to think that this might have been the way things were for our grandparents and great-grandparents — that marriage was a kind of pleasant business partnership in which both partners walked a fine line between cheerful (he) and deferential (she). Would my great-grandfather have really been disappointed if his wife “put her cold feet” on him at night “to warm them”? Then again, can I even imagine my great-grandmother putting her cold feet on him at night to warm them? Nope.

Of course, the saddest thing about these charts, which were created from surveys of real men and women of the 1930s by Scientific Marriage Foundation founder George Crane, is that the answers are so different. I don’t suspect my female forebears had a craving for red nail polish, but it is comforting to think that these days, fewer and fewer people would even blink at the sight of anyone wearing any color of nail polish, least of all red. Nor would they necessarily mind if a woman had crooked seams in her hose, or if she didn’t “dress for breakfast.” These small fashion statements speak loudly of how times have changed.

As for the men’s chart, it’s particularly depressing that women wanted men to read aloud newspapers, books, and magazines to them, and it makes you wonder whether we’re about to find out about some horrible Way Things Were, like that women weren’t required to learn how to read in school, but no one has let on until now because they thought it would make us sad.

There are a couple of things listed here that will always stay the same. For one, it’s still not fashionable to be “jealous” or “suspicious.” Too bad. TC mark

Liz Colville

Liz is a writer based in New York City. She has written for The San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Pitchfork, New York