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How to be a domestic goddess

February 25, 2013

Housewives, tranquilliser use and the nuclear family in Cold War America – by Tessa Johnson

1950s America: those were the good old days. Or were they? Viewing the past through rose-coloured spectacles – longing with a special kind of nostalgia for the white picket fences, home-baked cookies and families with a Mom, Dad and 2.5 children – makes misleading history. When contemporary critics bemoan today’s immoral society with its broken families and workaholic mothers, it is this era that they often hark back to. But postwar America was far from idyllic. Gazing historically inside the average suburban American house uncovers families still suffering from the economic fallout of the Depression, and a culture alarmed by the shadow of a constant threat of nuclear war and communism. The ‘domestic goddess’ cooking the family’s meal had a dark secret too. Everyday drug use for depression was very common among American mothers.

My research delves deeper into this darker side of American family life and gender history, analysing data from a long-term study of married suburban couples.

From Woman’s Day magazine, 1957. clotho98 on Flickr

From Woman’s Day magazine, 1957. clotho98 on Flickr

In 1955, the first tranquilliser, Miltown, burst onto the American drug market. It was the first medicine to be marketed to the public in a manner similar to other popular consumer products, and was soon in huge demand. Within a year, a staggering 1 in 20 Americans were regularly prescribed it. Pharmacies frequently ran out of stocks, having to hang window signs declaring “Out Of Miltown – More Tomorrow!” Shops lucky enough to have secured supplies assured their customers “We Have Miltown!” At the peak of its popularity, La Roche, the producer of the drug, took out a full-page spread in the LA Times: “Attention physicians: just arrived by air, another shipment of MILTOWN. Your prescriptions can now be filled.”

The drug was a potent and prescription-only tranquilliser, most often used by women. Among American housewives, it became as fashionable as the latest style of dress or car. It was discussed at dinner parties and written about in lifestyle magazines. Miltown was, from its birth, bound up with ideas of glamour, framed as part of an aspirational lifestyle choice which Hollywood starlets and suburban housewives alike could indulge in. Celebrities promoted its benefits, and bowls of Miltown were even rumoured to be passed around like canapés at Hollywood parties.

Such anecdotes spawned a flurry of Miltown cocktail recipes for star-struck housewives to copy. There was the ‘Militini’, a martini with a pill replacing the olive. Or those more daring drinkers could try a ‘Guided Missile’ – a double vodka and two Miltowns. The jewellers Tiffany’s even produced ruby- and diamond-studded pill-cases, while Cartier advertised a silver charm bracelet with a convenient holder designed for a single Miltown pill. This was a medicine like no other – until it was surpassed by its descendant, Valium. By 1974, an astonishing total of 53.4 million Americans were taking Valium – a quarter of the whole population.

American women were the biggest consumers of the new tranquillisers. A 1963 study found that 21 per cent of women had taken some kind of tranquillising drug, compared with just 9 per cent of men. These patients, moreover, tended to be middle-class, well-educated, WASP housewives.

With this in mind, I began my analysis of Kelly’s Longitudinal Study, a long- term survey between 1935 and 1955 into the everyday lives of 300 initially engaged couples. The form included questions about the participants’ mental health – how happy they were, whether they experienced emotional disturbances, whether they consulted a medical professional about their mental health – and how much alcohol they consumed. The participants were the suburban middle class, and the women tended to be well-educated; most were employed before their wedding but 70 per cent intended to give up work when they were married. They were all living the all-American suburban dream, the personification of the domestic goddess – but on drugs.

The results of my research have been illuminating: women consistently rated themselves less mentally ‘well’ than their husbands, reported being less happy, and were far more willing to seek help. They preferred to see their doctor rather than a mental health professional, perhaps unwilling to expose themselves to gossip and rumour. This was an important trend since general practitioners and other medical professionals such as gynaecologists actually prescribed tranquilliser drugs more than mental health specialists – distributing up to 70 per cent of the total prescriptions. This was because they were often pressed for time, offering appointments of only around ten minutes, and they did not fully understand either the symptoms of the patient or the drug they were prescribing. Their husbands, although reporting themselves to be happier in general, still complained of emotional disturbances but were disposed to consume more alcohol than their wives as a release from stress – and when they did consult a professional, they were more likely to go straight to the top and speak to a psychologist rather than their GP. This helps to explain why women took so many more tranquillisers than men. Additionally, many husbands believed their wives were happier than they actually were, under-estimating their wives’ tendency to suffer from nervousness, anxiety and even severe depression. The lack of family sympathy for these women at home, coupled with feelings of isolation and loneliness in their marriages, seems to have encouraged them to seek relief elsewhere, especially at the doctor’s surgery.

Today it seems startling to read that American women were prescribed tranquillisers twice as much as men even though they were not twice as likely to suffer from emotional disturbances. The housewives of the time were no more depressed or anxious than their modern counterparts, either. Instead, they were living in an era when these drugs were routinely celebrated and glamorised. Widespread prescription drugs were a reflection of general consumption trends by women determined to have the latest medical fashions, no different from wanting the newest television or washing machine. American cultural icons, beautiful images of the domestic goddess in so many contemporary adverts of the 1950s, seldom portray these females as regular drug users in a society whose darker medical side was the cultural norm.

Tessa Johnson has just completed her Master’s in the history of medicine at the University of Warwick. She is currently researching regular drug use in postwar America, and she welcomes enquiries from anyone who can make a contribution to her studies (tessa.johnson90@gmail.com).

15 Comments leave one →
  1. kate r permalink
    March 4, 2013 4:58 am

    It isn’t any different today. While happily writing me a prescription for a “prozac” at age 39; my family doctor said 40% of her female patients over 40 are on a low dose antidepressant.

    I’ve also heard Xanax is quite popular!

    • Niki S permalink
      April 2, 2013 4:26 pm

      Prozac is not in the same category as the drugs described here. It neither depresses nor makes you high, as these drugs of the 50’s did. Yes, I take Prozac. Without it I am deeply depressed, with it I feel normal and can do my daily activities.

  2. Elizabeth Hurren Editor Wellcome History permalink
    March 4, 2013 5:37 pm

    Dear Kate R
    Thank you for this interesting feedback. It is always thought-provking in the medical humanities to learn about how relevant historical parallels are across time.

    I hope you enjoyed the isse
    Regards
    Elizabeth Hurren
    Editor Wellcome History

  3. Amanda permalink
    March 10, 2013 11:24 pm

    When you think about it, the women of the 50s in were a terrible position. They had grown up in the 30’s, a period where deprivation and uncertainty were the norm. During the WWII years, they were sent to work in offices and factories, allowed to earn their own money, and told they could do anything – and they did. These were the Rosie the Riveters, and they were proud of it. But when the GIs returned home, they had to give up the jobs they’d been doing so the returning solders could have them, and were shoved into roles even more limited than what they had known before the war – and then were assured at every turn that they were happy about it! Is it any wonder they were scarfing up drugs like they were candy?

  4. March 17, 2013 3:11 am

    Keep in mind the postwar flight to suburbia also increased 1950s feeling of isolation. Frazzled wives and mothers in urban areas prewar had more immediate access to family, neighbors, that helpful maiden aunt, the woman upstairs, etc. That new car, garage, yard, and extra rec room came with a price…

  5. Bob permalink
    March 17, 2013 3:06 pm

    Was this “the little yellow pill” that the Rolling Stones sing of in their 1966 song “Mothers Little Helper”?

  6. March 17, 2013 5:27 pm

    Of course the postwar era was far from idyliic, anyone who watches Mad Men can see that.
    Betty is the perfect example of the depressed housewife. If you were a middle class white, hetersexual male these may have been the “good old days”, but for everyone else, not so much

  7. Niki S permalink
    April 2, 2013 4:38 pm

    I was born in ’51. The desire to be the perfect wife, entertainer, and mother was strong. It was expected by husbands, as well. My mother used alcohol to self-medicate. But I also remember the marketing of diet pills was equally as prevalent at the time. By the time I was 9 doctors even prescribed them for me!

    As a child of that time, having the 50’s role model, I and others expected I would follow suit, get married and stay home. Then the feminist movement change that and suddenly I was expected to get a job/career. It was real culture shock, though I consider myself a feminist.

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