Friday, December 6, 2019

Motherhood in the Mid-Twentieth Century

Baby outside in baby carriage, 1952. By FOTO:FORTEPAN /
Vojnich Pál, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons.

by Kiersti Giron

This month marks the final installment (for now!) of my “motherhood through history” series. If you’re interested, you can click on these links to read about motherhood in ancient times, medieval times, colonial times, the 19th century, and in Navajo culture.

But today, we finish in the twentieth century, focusing on how the lives of mothers changed—and didn’t—in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. I hope you enjoy as we complete this time tour and appreciate how the most important facets of motherhood have always stayed the same!

Hygiene and Heart 

The first half of the twentieth century held huge technological and medical advances, and these innovations had a high impact on mothers and child care. Much higher standards of hygiene and medical advancements such as antibiotics drastically lowered infant mortality rates, so mothers turned more than ever to doctors and even the government for advice on other matters in caring for their babies. In 1914, the Children’s Bureau published the first ever government-distributed pamphlet on child care, titled simply Infant Care. It quickly became a bestseller and was published every year through 1999. 

Excerpts from the 1935 edition of Infant Care (the year Title V of Social Security was enacted) form an interesting compare and contrast to advice given by the government today in such leaflets as the 2008 Bright Futures. For example, in 1935 mothers were urged not to let their babies suck on a pacifier, to keep them in a separate bedroom, and to expose them to sunlight as much as possible. In fact, an illustration noted that, “By fall baby should be well tanned!” The pamphlet emphasized the importance of direct sunlight in preventing rickets, as well as cod liver oil. 
Nursing Mother, By ELEANORE ABBOTT. From Report on the Philadelphia
Baby-Saving Show and conference on infant hygiene of 1913.
Internet Archive Book Images - Flickr and Wikimedia Commons.

By contrast, current government advice recommends pacifiers and keeping baby’s bed in the parents’ room when the baby is young (both to help prevent SIDS), and avoiding much direct sunlight on baby’s skin at all. However, the pamphlets then and now agree on the benefits and importance of breastfeeding—in 1935, this was especially because the infant mortality rate was significantly higher for “artificially-fed” infants. This was a big emphasis at the 1913 "baby-saving" conference in Philadelphia as well, at which the above drawing was displayed.

While all the emphasis on hygiene and “expert” advice did help improve health outcomes for many babies, mothers in the early and mid-twentieth century also came to rely less on their instincts and the wisdom of other, older mothers and more on doctors and government advice, which often meant the advice of men, who of course never had been mothers. This unfortunately led to doubting of natural maternal instinct. Despite the official emphasis on breastfeeding, breastfeeding rates declined sharply in the twentieth century in favor of bottles and “scientific” formula. In fact, between 1946 and 1950, only 25% of mothers even initiated breastfeeding. And as in the late 19th century, many mothers began to strictly schedule their infants’ feeding and sleeping by the advice of books rather than, as had been traditional, listening to their babies’ cues and their hearts. 

Window Display of Wash Master washing machine, Sydney, Australia, 1939.
 By State Library of New South Wales collection, Flickr and Wikimedia Commons.

Modern Appliances

One development of the early to mid-twentieth century, at least in America, was one all of us women can rejoice in—the advent of labor-saving household appliances! These inventions for the home made women’s housekeeping chores less onerous than they had been for centuries, and have even been credited with enabling the movement of wives and mothers to work outside the home. These new appliances ranged from the advent of the vacuum cleaner in 1913 to the washing machine in 1916, the refrigerator in 1918, and in 1947 the freezer. Of course, it took time before the majority of housewives owned these marvelous inventions, but by mid-century most American women did. No more scrubbing clothes on a washboard or struggling to keep food cold enough not to spoil!

Women’s Roles

The rapid change of the twentieth century changed women’s roles also. The 1910s and 20s saw the rapid rise of feminism and women’s rights, and in the 1940s, women joined the workforce in droves—because, with World War II, they had to. In the 1950s, however, women were urged back into the home to make room for returning soldiers to get jobs, and college attendance for women dropped significantly from what it had been in the 1920s. 

Traditional Housewife, By JosephineRN28 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The "baby boom" burgeoned families. And now, expectations of housewives in the 1950s were, in some ways, even higher than in previous decades, since women were culturally expected not only to keep a tidy home, feed their families, and care for their children, but to look great while doing it—have a beautiful home, tasty nutritious and appealing meals, tidy, well-behaved children, and keep themselves in lipstick and a frilly apron all the while.

So, what stands out to you about the changes for mothers in the twentieth century? What has changed since then, and what has stayed the same? Feel free to comment and share!

Kiersti Giron holds a life-long passion for history and historical fiction. She loves to write stories that show the intersection of past and present, explore relationships that bridge cultural divides, and probe the healing Jesus can bring out of brokenness. Kiersti has been published in several magazine and won the 2013 and 2018 Genesis Awards – Historical for her novels Beneath a Turquoise Sky and Fire in My Heart. An English teacher and member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Kiersti loves learning and growing with other writers penning God's story into theirs, as well as blogging at She lives in California with her husband, Anthony, their two kitties, and their baby boy.


  1. No one in my family has had a conversation about this, but as you were detailing the decades I was thinking that maybe the 50's trend toward perfectionism in the home and appearance may have been a direct response to women having to step out of traditional roles during the war. I may be wrong in my thinking, but isn't that the way these things go? We swing rather wildly from one extreme to another....women having to step up to traditional "men's jobs" then when the need was over all that energy went back into the home. Thanks for the post and Merry Christmas to your family.

    1. That's so true, Connie...the way our society (and humanity in general) swing from one extreme to another! Seems to depict a lot of history, and what a good point about the 1950s. Thanks so much for reading and sharing, and Merry Christmas to you too!