Gender Roles in 1940s Ads

Exploring Gender Roles in Vintage Advertising

Homemakers and Breadwinners
 Mel Bondfield

Before the introduction of television, cinema advertising was big business and the best way to reach consumers through a moving image format. Our new Vintage Ads curated collection features a range of cinema – as well as early TV and radio – advertising from the 1910s to the late 1960s.

The Gender Agenda

Cinema ads often reflected the style of the feature films before which they screened, particularly throughout the 1940s. High drama, adventures, romance and screwball comedy features, produced locally and overseas, were hugely popular with cinema audiences and advertising agencies were keen for a piece of the action.

Like the feature films, production values of these cinema advertisements were high, often with opening and closing credits, an orchestral musical score and authoritative narration. Many featured well-known stage and screen actors, dancers and singers.

The other noteworthy similarity among ads was the gender stereotyping. In the 1940s, gender roles were very clearly defined.

The men went into the world to make a living and were either sought-after, eligible bachelors or they were the family breadwinner and head of the household. Women filled the roles of housewife, mother and homemaker, or they were single but always on the lookout for a good husband.

From Miss to Mrs

This 1946 advertisement, in the style of a musical comedy, is a perfect example. A newlywed couple (popular stage actors Muriel Howard and Albert Chappelle) tell how they were brought together by Persil Washing Powder – and how the young woman has been successfully transformed from a 'drab and dreary' miss into a happily married woman:

Cinema advertisement: Persil Washing Powder: Their Day (1946). J Walter Thompson. NFSA title: 34959

Even when a young woman did manage to find herself a man, she had no time to rest on her laurels. While the breadwinner was at work, a woman's place was in the home. And the bar for her was set high, as she was expected to keep the house in perfect order and care for the children. On top of this, she had to be an excellent cook – and we're talking about the period during and after the Second World War when rationing was in place and goods were scarce.

You Can't Beat Homemade

Advertisers knew how to take advantage of this 1940s reality, playing on any insecurities a woman may have about not living up to these expectations.

As we can see in the following ad for Tandaco Prepared Stuffing: Don't Cry Dear Lady (1942), the consequences for this harried young wife of serving up a less-than-perfect roast dinner to her husband's boss would be too shameful to bear, at least according to the condescending male voice-over:

Cinema advertisement: Tandaco Prepared Stuffing: Don't Cry Dear Lady (c1942). Ralph Smart Productions. NFSA title: 52495

Like other cinema ads of the time, this one gives a glimpse of life during the Second World War. Locating a 'parcel' of herbs, or being lucky enough to have an onion, is a telling sign of how difficult it was to get your hands on fresh produce at the time.

Other advertisements made in this period, such as Kraft Cheddar Cheese: Food for Thought (c1941), play like an early infomercial – providing cooking tips and advice on how to make your food go further and obtain the most nutritional value from it.

The Bachelor and His 'Lady Help'

Another target for advertisers in the postwar years of the 1940s was slightly older singles who hadn't yet given up hope of finding 'the one'. Driving home those gender stereotypes of the time is this animated commercial Rinso Washing Powder: A Bachelor Grey (c1943). If a hopeless bachelor and his spinster housekeeper can find domestic bliss together, then surely anyone can!

Henry, a fussy 'bachelor-for-life' type and a fastidious dresser, has done his best to manage without new suits during the war years. But as his clothes begin to wear out and turn grey and his 'lady help' refuses to take on the washing, he loses his temper and transforms from mild-mannered gent to 'overpowering hero':

Cinema advertisement: Rinso Washing Powder: A Bachelor Grey (c1943). J Walter Thompson. NFSA title: 261284.

After finally asserting himself, the new Henry is suddenly more attractive to his 'lady help' who then agrees to do his laundry with a box of Rinso, proof that what women really want is a hot-blooded man to look after! Wash day becomes a breeze, marriage and children soon follow and the family live happily ever after.

The pressure on women to be perfect in everything they did was intense during this era and present at every stage in life. Household products were pitched directly at women, rather than men, and the marketing message was clear – 'Brand X' will help you win over that man and guarantee you'll keep him.

From accomplished, high-achieving young women, like those in this Beau Monde hosiery commercial, to the examples we've seen above, the advertising of this era shows women constantly having to prove their worth.

The period of the late-1950s going into the 1960s saw a recovering economy, greater availability of 'luxury' items, the introduction of television, widespread migration and a growing women's movement. There was a shift in culture and more relaxed social attitudes but the advertising industry continued to employ strictly defined gender roles whenever it thought they might be helpful in targeting different demographics.

To see more vintage advertising from 1914 to 1969, visit our Vintage Ads curated collection.