Ever seen those cards on Facebook? The ones that offer a twist on what it means to be a domestic goddess? Humorous though they are, such retro postcards offer a satirical commentary on advice once given to housewives.

Retro Housewife Postcard
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Regular readers of this blog will know by now that women’s magazines are the main source for my current research project, which focusses on the 1960s. Flicking through the pages of those publications, I can’t help but notice the frequent advice given to women about how to attract a husband and be a good wife. Occasionally, men themselves offer their thoughts too — like in this gem from Mr J McA of Dublin:

Twenty-two years ago I married a girl I saw for the first time while she was sewing buttons on an old shirt. Men get inspiration from seeing their future wives doing the necessary things of life.[1]

or this one submitted by Miss E Walker of Wexford on behalf of her grandfather:

Always watch the way your sweetheart eats cheese … if she removes it wastefully or eats it without taking the rind off — she won’t make a good wife, but if she takes if off economically — she’s the girl for you.[2] 

Drawing on various articles and responses to letters across an array of magazines throughout the 1960s, I’ve found that the most common advice given to women was as follows:

Be Patient, Don’t Nag – Praise Him!

‘Every man hates a scene, and to avoid them he will become secretive, silent and eventually … he will grow to hate her’. Mara Farrell advised that it was the woman’s responsibility to manage jealousy in a marriage. She praised a ‘wise young wife’ of twenty-two she knew for encouraging her husband to go to the pub after work: ‘He is never more than about three quarters of an hour …, anxious to get back to her, thankful, I am sure, for her understanding and with the feeling that he is not tied to any apron strings’.[3] ‘G.R.’ from Tipperary agreed. ‘A gentle hint works better than nagging’, was her advice for making marriage work:

Never give him orders — rather say, ‘I wish I had time to paint the kitchen, mow the lawn, dig the garden, etc’. If he takes the hint and does it for you, call him a darling and mean it. If he ignores you, forget it, maybe he’ll take the next hint [4]

Philomena Groake recalled the story of one man who broke off his engagement to an otherwise charming woman. He had a lucky escape, she noted: if she nagged him before marriage, she would ‘crucify him’ afterwards. Her advice? ‘Don’t nag … a woman when she nags has a horrible expression on her face and a tense sound in her voice – not a very attractive picture, you will agree’.[5] As we’ll see below, appearance is important.

Take an Interest in his Day

All good wives knew it was essential to take an interest, but, as we’ll see next, to also let her husband relax after his working day has ended:

Be interested in his day but don’t be hurt if he doesn’t ask about yours. Welcome him home and make a fuss of him. [6]

Housework is not Man’s Work

Many women wrote to magazines complaining that their husbands did little to help out around the house, but the message was clear: housework is not man’s work, and to ask him to ‘do his share’ was just another type of nagging. Maura Laverty believed it was a husband’s right to relax after a day at work: ‘I consider it most unfair to expect the breadwinner to wash dishes’. Women who expected such assistance were deemed ‘lazy and selfish’.[7]

Ask Yourself: Are You the Problem?

Sharing Maura Laverty’s views, Angela Macnamara responded to a letter from a housewife complaining she was over-worked and got no help from her husband by asking if the woman was as organised as she could be.[8] ‘Not an angel’ from Limerick also expressed the view that, where there is a problem, a woman should first self-examine:

If there is something wrong, look inside yourself for the cause, before you decide it is your partner who is wrong.[9]

Make an Effort to Look Good For him

Continuing her response to that particular housewife, Macnamara added another point to the ‘good wife guide’: ‘don’t forget to look as attractive and bright as possible for him … no rollers in your hair!’.[10] As Eithne Ryan explained,

Marriage is based upon more than perfect grooming, but personal carelessness easily becomes disorder and if you have an orderly, tidy-minded husband, this can become an early cause of irritation.

Of course, the trick, Ryan continued, was not to let him see the preparation that went in to personal grooming, merely letting him admire the final results. This could be difficult to achieve as the married woman no longer had the privacy of her own room. ‘Nothing must be too obvious’. Nor should efforts be relaxed the longer a woman is married.

Don’t run down to put the kettle on with your hair in rollers and a grubby housecoat wrapped round you. Set the clock ten minutes fast and go through a quick beauty routine so that you start the day fresh and sparkling.[11] 

Of course, not all busy housewives had the time for an extensive beauty regime in the mornings. The solution? False eyelashes — they would transform her into a ‘sophisticated woman’.[12] Housewives were also encouraged to fight the temptations of the kitchen and keep an eye on their weight. As Jill Fisher advised in her lists of Do’s and Don’ts for The Irish Housewife annual,

Don’t drink continuous cups of tea if you want to get your weight down. Don’t eat potatoes for lunch just because you have cooked them for the kiddies.[13]

Keep him Happy … in the Bedroom

Woman’s Choice magazine even want as far as to run a series of ‘How to keep your husband happy’ articles based on intimacy. The article opens with the thoughts of an unhappy husband:

Can you help my wife to understand and appreciate what a man is like? I want to know that I can come to our bed welcomed, not put off by excuses any child could see through. Her sexual responsiveness towards me is vital in helping me through the ups and downs of my daily existence.[14]

On first appearances, this articles seems to place the responsibility with the woman. However, Dr Martin Kennedy actually encouraged women to embrace their sexuality. He observed how young wives often feared intimacy in marriage, having been raised to think of sex as wrong and to consider their bodies as an instruments of sin, rather than pleasure. Although acknowledging that a husband has needs, Dr Kennedy also — refreshingly — acknowledged those of the wife, too.

A Quick Test

If, having read the advice, women weren’t sure if they really were an ideal wife, they could always take a quick test, complete with answers to set them on the right path:

Woman's Choice, 4 March 1969
Woman’s Choice, 4 March 1969

Read in isolation, this list of tips might seem humorous to readers in 2014. Returned to the pages of the magazines from which they are taken, they offer an interesting social commentary on the 1960s. The letters and columns quoted appeared on pages surrounded by advertisements that shared a common message: quicker, faster, better, more efficient. These were the buzz words of advertisers in the 1960s who marketed new products to women with the promise that they would make them better housewives. And the products weren’t just designed to improve the house: the latest developments in beauty — including such items as Morphy-Richards De Luxe Vanity Case hairdryer, complete with ‘a smart travelling case’ — also filled substantial advertising space. In many ways, the tips offered by columnists on how to attract a husband and be a good wife were an extension of the advertisements printed alongside their articles.

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[1] Letter to the editor, Woman’s Way, 1 June 1963.

[2] Letter to the editor, Woman’s Way, 1 June 1963.

[3] The Mara Farrell column, Woman’s Way, 26 April 1963.

[4] ‘You have the last word’, Woman’s Choice, 21 January 1969.

[5] Philomena Groake, ‘The nagging woman’, Woman’s View, January 1968.

[6] Eithne Ryan, ‘Your new life in your new home’, Woman’s Way, 31 January 1964.

[7] Maura Laverty’s Letters Page, Woman’s Way, 31 August 1963.

[8] Woman’s Way Letters Page, Woman’s Way, 31 October 1963.

[9] ‘You have the last word’, Woman’s Choice, 25 February 1969.

[10] Woman’s Way Letters Page, Woman’s Way, 31 October 1963.

[11] Eithne Ryan, ‘Your new life in your new home’, Woman’s Way, 31 January 1964.

[12] ‘Beauty for Housewives’, Woman’s Choice, 1 October 1968.

[13] Jill Fisher, ‘Household Do’s and Don’ts’, The Irish Housewife, 1960.

[14] Dr Martin Kennedy, ‘How to keep your husband happy, part one’, Woman’s Choice, 24 September 1968.

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