In this interview, Tom Morain, Iowa historian and professor at Graceland University, enlightens us on the nuances of Iowa rural life in the 1950s and the role radio homemakers played in the lives of farm wives. This interview was recorded on June 3, 2009 at Graceland University in Iowa.
Debra Herbold: Describe the importance of a garden to rural Iowans in 1950s.
Tom Morain: The farm garden has always been a function of the farm wife or the farm female. The kids might have spent a great deal of time in it and sometimes if the farm wife liked to garden, she would say I'll do the gardening and I'll assign the kids someplace else. But that was the female side of the equation. And there would be canning that would take place in the summer. My grandmother and her sister used to lay out how many cans of corn they would need for the next year to feed their family. And then that would translate into how many rows of corn we needed to plant. The same with carrots and beets and onions and everything else they did. When you're planting a garden and your family is depending on it -- that's a once a year operation where you have to think in terms of a whole year. I can't imagine my family trying to exist on what we get out of our garden. There are six tomatoes, of which we're so proud, but that's it for the year. But the other thing about that when you had a family garden and you had your food supply in your basement, you could have family, you could have friends or you could do a dinner about anytime you wanted. If you had your chickens and you had your vegetables you could invite people into your house because your food supply was there.
You didn't have to say I don't have anything to cook or we got go to the store. It was there and if you had more hands to help you cook, you could be self-sufficient for awhile and thataffected social patterns. You could go and stay for a couple days with another family and they would just draw on their food supply while they had it.
Debra Herbold: What was the importance of having chickens on the farm in those days?
Tom Morain: Chicks arrived in the spring by mail often times. If there was a local nursery in town you might go into town and you might buy them but in some cases you ordered them through the mail and the post office in the back you would hear this cheep cheep cheep as they got the chicks in. And you would take them home and incubate them. This again was a farm wife operation and the number of chickens that she was willing to raise and the gathering of eggs. But, again, after WWII many families said the labor that goes into raising chickens and gathering the eggs and selling the eggs isn't worth what we're getting out of it. We can spend our time more efficiently by investing in the farm operation and the marketing and the accounting and so forth and we will be better off making money on the farm operation and buying what we need with eggs and chickens and saving that work. We'll redirect our activities into those efforts that have the greatest economic benefit. So, let's get rid of our chickens. Let's save me the time of having to do those and we will buy our eggs and chickens and come out ahead. So, you lost another family operation to the commercial market but for the farm families that got rid of the chicken house and having to clean the chicken house in the spring it was a wonderful trade off.
Debra Herbold: Was this about the time that farm women started getting jobs in town?
Tom Morain: The 1950s saw an increase in women's employment outside of the home, and this was a surprise to everyone. The fear of the post WWII era was that we will go back into recession. We will go back into the Depression which were the years immediately preceding it. So, the emphasis at first was how do we provide jobs for the returning veterans? But then the American economy with all that pent up purchasing capacity that had been building during WWII suddenly said we want to buy refrigerators. We want to expand our homes. We want to buy new cars. And the economy in the 1950s for the most part really expanded creating jobs and creating opportunities fro women to take jobs outside of the home. Farm women sometimes took advantage of these. Again it tended to be the young women or it would tend to be those women who no longer had children at home and found that by reducing the number of farm chores they could do, they could take jobs in town, sometimes teaching school, sometimes working as a clerk or an accountant in a town business. And that changes the dynamics of the family when not all the income is coming from one person. Now it's a dual income family and gives the farm wife a certain discretionary spending, that she may not have had, and also makes her more of an partner in economic decisions of the family than she was before.
Debra Herbold: How did the men feel about that? OK -- struggle?
Tom Morain: Having a wife who is working off the farm and has an independent income does create a different dynamic in the farm family. The ISU Extension Service was dealing with that as an issue in giving leadership training. In helping farm families develop the models and the accommodations to this new -- new pattern of farm living. Again you couldn't go to your parents and say how did you do it? Or tell us about how to do this because we're having to create models as we go along. So, it was a time of transition and there were institutions that were attempting to guide the families in how to make decisions jointly or how to respond to this situation, but it was -- it was new. Families responded differently. Yes to some males it was a challenge to their authority but on the other hand the idea of having a wife with adding to the family income isn't an all together bad thing.
There were some that said yeah -- I could - I can get used to this.
Debra Herbold: Describe the use of windmills in relation to water in rural homes at the time.
Tom Morain: Changes in farm technology -- the field operations although that was -- tended to be a male world had an impact on the farm wife as well. As the farmer bought machinery by which he could handle the operation all by himself, a corn picker and a combine, etc. As we see fewer threshing rings, because we're not harvesting as many oats and having to put them through the thresher. Those threshing rings that were once a tradition of all the neighborhood families coming together, we're seeing fewer of those. Each farm is becoming more of an independent unit on its own.
One of the big changes for the farm wife was that she no longer had to prepare to feed 20 men on a threshing ring when it came through. There would be other times that the farmers might get together and they might do something and they might have a picnic to come together but all of them showing up at her house at one time and expecting to be fed a big farm dinner -- those were diminishing during the 50s, in part because we don't have the oats production that we had before. And the other is that most farm families are now getting the equipment that they can handle their operations on their own.
Debra Herbold: Telephone party lines?
Tom Morain: Many rural telephone companies existed during the 1950s. They were small operations. They had an operator whom you called and gave the number. In some rural party lines, everybody had a distinctive ring. So, if ours was two long and a short when we heard two long and a short we would go and answer the phone. If anyone wanted to listen in to the conversation they could. But we knew that that was our particular call. As technology increased and you went to a dial tone or dial phones in the 1960s, the operators were gradually removed. More often these small rural telephone companies were absorbed into units that could operate more efficiently and we would see a decrease in the number of party lines which wouldn't disappear through the 50s. Certainly there were many but they began to disappear as the telephone systems began to be integrated into the larger nationally and then even international circuits. It would be I think distinctive to point out a long distance call in the 50s was still quite an event. That was often bad news or it was big news when someone decided to do a long distance call.
In the early days a long distance call was done by this telephone company calling the next town over who called the next town over and it took a series of operators to make that call happen. But as that became automated that could happen if you have the integrated systems but the integrated systems had to overcome the -- the local system of of 50 phone on on one on one system divided into a couple party lines. So, you saw in the 50s probably more in the 1960s the big of the demise of the small rural phone company.
The party line was still a function of rural life in the 1950s with many tales about what you heard and what you shouldn't have heard on party lines. The way they worked often was that each family on the party line had a distinctive ring. So, that if I heard two longs and a short then I knew someone was calling me as opposed to three shorts they were calling the family down the road. That doesn't mean I couldn't get on the phone and listen to what the conversation was that the family down the road was having. So, you had to be a little careful.
But the party line was often the function of a small rural phone company that had 50/60 subscribers or so and it was pretty much an in-house operation. As dial phones became more common in the 1960s, they replaced that operator who sat there and you told her, I want to speak to such and such a family and then she would manually plug you into that telephone line. As the operators began to be replaced by a technologically more sophisticated system, then those rural phone systems began to be integrated into the larger patterns. And we see the demise of the party line - which was a real loss in some ways and certainly the source of many rural stories and probably a great deal of our rural community if the truth were known.
Debra Herbold: What are some big differences between now and the 1950s?
Tom Morain: I think one of the things we would notice that was different about the 1950s if we were dropped back in, was often the sense of trust of the informal arrangements for economic transactions. You didn't get a bill at the end of the month for what you charged someplace. Quite often the idea of getting a bill was actually an insult. I can remember my grandmother when a new owner took over her grocery store and sent out bills to the customers, they were quite irate. What happened was at the start of the month you went around the square and you paid your bills that you would go in and find out what you owed and you would write a check and you would pay them. But you didn't wait at home to get a bill. The local merchants would carry an account for their respected customers and the customers would come in often on the first of the month and pay that bill. I think there was an awareness of how much you were spending. You knew that somebody at the other end knew how much you owed and because there was still this sense of community and who's who the idea of not paying a bill was something you simply didn't want to have your record.
It wasn't an issue between you and a far off credit company and no one else would know. If you got a reputation in town of someone who rang up accounts and then didn't pay them, that was known and it was sort of an informal collection agency all on its own. People knew who were good credits and who weren't and that was part of your community identity.
Debra Herbold: How was food and food prep viewed back in the 50s?
Tom Morain: Women spent more time in the kitchen for a couple reasons. One is they did not have the labor saving devices that we have today - the microwave ovens or the quick cooking things or the prepared foods. There was not that convenience and many community occasions were focused around a food activity. It was a potluck or there would be an expected dessert and the event was shared around the food table. So, preparation for those events required time in the kitchen that I think would be would be amazing to current farm families.
In the 1950s the fad was how little time could you spend in the kitchen. Science and technology were going to relieve the wife, farm, or town of the drudgery of cooking. And cooking was seen more and more as a task that wouldn't it be nice if we could get rid of? You've got TV dinners. You just buy them and freeze them and put them in the oven. Cake mixes were coming in. There's an interesting story about cake mixes. At first the recipes were so simple that they were almost guilty in how little time they spent so the recipes were made more and more complicated. Not because you had to divide your eggs and only put one in now and then stir it and then put another, but the more complicated recipe the woman a satisfaction of I have done something on this cake. But the fad was how little time you could spend in the kitchen.
Now, not everyone followed that and certainly you would not take a TV dinner to a potluck. There was still that emphasis that the wife was known by her cooking skills and still the pride in that that I think has diminished lately, where you pick up something from Kentucky Fried on your way to the school potluck. It was still home cooking was an expectation and many events were built around desserts and pie socials and church potlucks and so forth and those were -- those were homemade from scratch for the most part. But there was also a trend going on in how little time could we spend in the kitchen as the modern wife is going to move out into other activities.
Debra Herbold: Describe the integration of rural and town life as the 50s progressed.
Tom Morain: The feminine mystic has that business about companies deliberately complicating the recipe because there was no satisfaction -- it was guilt. The Pillsbury adds says Nothing say loving like something from the oven. What they were getting at was that ok I'm working outside home. I'm not home available to cook for my family. I'm depriving my family of home cooked meals. Ok here comes the cake mix. Nothing say loving like my making a cake but I have to do enough in there so that I feel I have done something other than just open it and pour into the bowl. There was a guilt factor as women were moving out of the home and not doing those traditional motherly things.
Debra Herbold: Would you agree that the kitchen was often the center of the house? If so, why?
Tom Morain: I would think for most farm homes the kitchen was the center, was the heart of the place. That's where mom is. And even with conveniences and even if she worked elsewhere, when the family was together it was in the kitchen. Mealtime was still a family time together and most families had three meals together every day. It was an occasion when someone was gone for mealtime. So, I think most families remembering the 50s probably think of the kitchen. Maybe the television, but the kitchen was still where the family got together.
Debra Herbold: Did mothers teach their daughters how to cook in that era?
Tom Morain: The 1950s was an era when most young women were trained and the expectation was you will be a housewife at sometime in your life. You need to know how to cook. Schools often had home economics courses. The home economic courses were for women, the boys or girls. The boys took shop classes and there was still that division. We were educating our children for particular gender role. Women learned to cook from their moms. Girls learned to cook at schools. Girls learned to cook from extension and 4-H. Boys never learned to cook because it was the expectation they wouldn't be cooking. Girls didn't know how to use table saws. Girls didn't learn how to fix cars because the expectation was that's what their husbands would be doing. So cooking for girls, often sewing, childcare courses, these were things that girls could be educated in and they could get increasingly more and more education. It could be scientific pursuits but it was scientific pursuits in gender specific areas.
Debra Herbold: Why do you think radio homemaking shows diminished?
Tom Morain: As women began to move out of the home and they took jobs in retail establishments and industry and other jobs outside of the home, they weren't at home when the radio shows were coming on. The shows were targeted through the day when the husband theoretically was gone and the wife was at home. And as women moved out of the homes into the workforce the audience for the home show was diminishing.
Debra Herbold: How do you think radio home makers had in that overall integration?
Tom Morain: In so many ways the 1950s were a new horizon for American society. The threat of the cold war was looming over everything but on the other hand, in day to day activities, so many opportunities were opening up. It was a time the emphasis was on family, happy families. Eisenhower was president and he was sort of the grandfather of us all. America had faith that it was on God's side fighting ruthless, godless, communism, that we had defeated our enemies. We were concerned about nuclear threat but yet there was a sense of let's enjoy the prosperity that is in which America is leading the rest of the world. There was a confidence in our ability to and almost the
Dwight Eisenhower was elected president in 1953 and his terms in office represented a real emphasis on family values at least for middle class white families. This is what we were focusing on and this is what the ideal was suppose to be - mom and dad and two kids -- dad goes to work, mom stays home, even if that wasn't the reality that was the ideal. There was an emphasis the family and returning to a period of prosperity that we now had earned the right to enjoy. We were done with the Depression. We had fought America's enemies and we had won and now it's time to enjoy the fruits of our labors and of our struggling. We didn't want to confront world problems. The cold war was there but on a daily basis we wanted to have it about mom and dad and the kids. And those voices on the radio that could give us the quiet assurance that baking a cake was the sign that's God is in his heaven and all is right with the world with the idea that we could listen to someone tell us how to handle a problem with the kids or how we could keep them healthy and give them the right kind of food. Sometimes when we couldn't look back and ask our parents how do you do it because it was different world in which they'd grown up, here comes that quiet comforting voice day after day that says I can help. I'm your friend. I know what you're going through. And it's like a cup of coffee in the kitchen with someone that is reliable and familiar. And I think that familiarity in a world that you might not be quite sure what the rules were probably was a major factor in why the radio home maker was such a beloved figure in the in the world of the farm wife or the or the town wife.
Debra Herbold: What is the biggest lesson we can learn from life in the 1950s?
Tom Morain: Sometimes technology gives us more options than we're ready for or that maybe we don't understand the implications of the technology that we have. How is that going to change things in our lives? I come from a county in Iowa where we have Amish families all around us. And Amish are very deliberate in the choices of technology that they will use. They measure it against what is this going to do to our family and to our sense of community? If it means we won't use a tractor because if we use tractors we will need more land and pretty soon we're not living in face to face communities because we're too spread out. We won't use telephones because that would mean we wouldn't visit with each other in face to face in daily operations. But most Americans adopt whatever technology is available and think that this is going to be progress.
To say that it is progress or isn't -- is we have to balance what we gain versus what we loose. I like history and I like keeping alive the past because it gives us a mirror in which we can see ourselves. How would my life have been different had I lived in the 1950s? What would I have enjoyed more? What would I have found to be a challenge? I think many modern American families are feeling a vague loss on the sense of someplace that we belong. Yes, we can communicate so easily but do the people with whom we're communicating have that personal in-depth interest in us that a community once had or a family had. How many people on my Facebook sheet are going to bring me chicken soup when I've when I've got a cold? Who is really going to care if I'm ill or not? I think we need that sense of belonging, of being surrounded by people who would deeply interested and deeply concerned about your development and concerned about the opportunities and the environment in which our children were growing, physical environment, spiritual environment, educational environment. We've still got that but there is a difference. One of the things I like about history and I think that it really is a value is that it offers a mirror in which we could look at our lives and say if I had lived in a different time period what would be different and what would be significantly different? I think in many cases we look back at a past and long for a time when there were strong community ties when the family operated together and had a closeness, that our transportation technology, our communication technology, has undercut because it gives us personal options. Over the last half of the 20th century the opportunities to pursue individuals gains and individual fulfillment has rapidly increased. We can talk with people all around the world. Our kids are so used to getting on airplanes and flying where they want to go and that's wonderful.