A Trove of History As 1970s Housewives Lived It

Inside a 1976 issue of Good Housekeeping, when Betty Ford lauded homemakers and Henry Fonda did needlework.
The magazine's "seal of approval" for consumer products is one of history's most recognized, successful editorial features. (Good Housekeeping)

Years ago, a history teacher assigned me a report on a bygone year, and I dutifully consulted textbooks, encyclopedia entries, and even Billboard's archives to complete it. The exercise can't help but teach you something. In August of 1976, for example, the USSR tested a nuclear weapon; 8,000 died after an earthquake hit the Philippines; Liz Taylor divorced for the sixth time; "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" by Elton John and Kiki Dee topped the charts. Today these facts can be found on the first page of a Google search. Let's call them "available history."

Humans default to its 10,000 foot view. And marvels can be seen from that height! But I'd rather land in an obscure corner of the landscape and look around. An old man's diary. Yellowing land records preserved by a dutiful bureaucrat. Or take periodicals, my favorite window into America's past. Every forgotten magazine collecting dust on a shelf is a tiny window into a bygone moment. In this occasional series, I'll explore some of them, one glossy bundle at a time. The August 1976 issue of Good Housekeeping is as good a place to begin as any. It's got Betty Ford! A clip & save guide to home canning! A contest to win your own Benji puppy, just like in the movie! But first, an introduction to the magazine. 

The Background

Good Housekeeping debuted on May 2, 1885. Its founder hoped "to produce and perpetuate perfection as may be obtained in the household." A little more than a decade later, the moment for that mission arrived. Home electricity and early household appliances began to reach mass markets. "Little was known about the new machines, and questions about them began to pour in to Good Housekeeping," an official history states. "The editors soon discovered that to answer the questions satisfactorily, the magazine had to begin a program of intensive investigation and research to develop firsthand information to pass along."

Staffers tested products in a research laboratory built for that purpose. Solid performers were recommended to readers to spare them from the era's hucksters. As the final issue of 1909 went to press, editors made the contract between reader and publication explicit by introducing the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, one of the most successful editorial features in history. If a product with that seal turned out to be faulty, the magazine would issue readers a refund. 

Circa 1976, Good Housekeeping boasted a circulation of roughly 5 million readers. The issue we're perusing was edited by John Mack Carter, who spent 19 years at the top of the masthead. If you're musing to yourself about a man holding such a position you aren't the first: a few years prior, 100 feminists had staged a sit-in at Ladies Home Journal, his previous job, demanding that he resign his post. "During the meeting with group representatives, Carter said that they have a point, but that he did not plan to resign," the Associated Press reported. He went on to champion women's issues for the rest of his career, and was appointed to an International Women's Year commission by President Ford in 1976. 

The Cover

The Good Housekeeping cover that month featured Princess Grace of Monaco and her daughter, Princess Caroline. Inside the book are portraits of the whole family, alongside captions no more interesting than, "Even when they live in a palace, parents and teenagers can't always agree." I couldn't help thinking, Prince Rainier and family are just like US!

The most provocative feature teased on the cover is the interview-driven "What Betty Ford thinks about homemakers." The First Lady, "so outspoken in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment and legalized abortion," made her position clear. "We have to take the 'just' out of 'just a housewife' and show our pride in having made the home and family our life's work," she said. "A woman who is satisfied with her life at home is just as liberated as a woman with a career outside the home." She suggested that the word "homemaker" should replace "housewife," dubbed them "the backbone of our society," and avowed that while her career as a dancer, fashion model and fashion coordinator was fulfilling, "I would've missed something if I hadn't been a homemaker." She added that "there are women who can have fulfilling lives without being mothers. Some women aren't particularly suited to raising children."

Other parts of the interview struck me as different from anything that a First Lady would likely be asked or tell a reporter from a popular magazine today. For example, President Ford evidently went through a long stretch of neglecting his family: 

"The satisfaction of a happy marriage and raising children," she said, "is almost more fulfilling than a career." But didn't she find homemaking frustrating? Isn't it true that she was forced to seek help from a psychiatrist to pull her through many difficult years? The First Lady explains that it wasn't homemaking itself that caused her problems. It was having the home and raising four vivacious children almost singlehandedly. As a congressman with ambitions of becoming Speaker of the House, Jerry Ford spent as many as 200 nights a year away from home, making speeches and campaigning–for himself or other Republicans. Mrs. Ford was left at home to take care of everything. She didn't dislike doing it, she just didn't like doing it alone."*

Along the same lines:

The most exciting thing in our lives was when our first child, Mike, was born (in 1950). Both Jerry and I had been anxious to have a family, although I was apprehensive about him and how he would adjust to fatherhood. He'd been a bachelor for 35 years and I wasn't sure he was going to be able to take babies.

So little was expected of the era's men (in the family realm) that a politician's wife could muse about fearing he'd dislike his own baby and report years of putting political ambitions before family. More is expected of men now, though I fear the result, in the case of many political fathers, is just greater effort spent hiding the fact that they're putting political ambitions before family. I hope Im wrong.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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