If there’s one thing I love, it’s old-timey advice and ads geared towards women. That shiz just cracks me up. True, it can also be depressing (especially when you consider how the misogynistic attitudes and assumptions behind the advice are still astonishingly prevalent today), but I think it’s a laugh or cry situation. If nothing else, seeing such blatant sexism at work can help alert us to the (comparatively) more subtle forms of sexism evident in advertising practices today.
As you can imagine, vintage ads for sewing machines are particularly rife with problematic assumptions about gender and “women’s work.” Sewing, and craft in general, have traditionally been seen as falling in the domestic realm, an area which –not coincidentally– has been considered inferior to the field of fine art, traditionally dominated by men. I’ve got lots of feelings about this hierarchy between craft and fine art and its intersections with gender, so definitely expect some more on this–if it gets you riled up too, we should definitely talk.
Disclaimer: I’m trained as a historian, so I am sympathetic to the argument that we shouldn’t read historical texts through a modern lens. I can almost hear a stern voice calling out: “You can’t blame them for being [sexist, racist, ableist, your-favorite-form-of-opression-here], that’s just the way it was! They’re a product of their time!” And I get that, I do. But here’s the thing: that’s also kind of BS. I’m interested in how these ideas have molded our culture, particularly in the realms of craft and art, and part of that requires calling a spade a spade. A historically-situated spade, but a spade nonetheless. I think we can diligently contextualize a text or image in a particular historic moment, while also assessing the degree to which it supports or subverts traditional narratives about gender, race, and a host of other identities.
And this isn’t just a historical issue! Gender and craft continue to be hot-button topics for professional crafters and hobbyists alike. The legacy of traditional attitudes about art and craft has a long reach. I’m still working on articulating my thoughts on all of this. It’s a lot to unpack. I’d love to hear others’ thoughts.
All this is to say: check out this advice from a 1940s Singer Sewing Machine manual:
I’m not sure which part I’m more troubled by: the belief that you have to look good for your husband at all times, or the idea that there is such a thing as an “urgent housekeeping chore.”