Open up a vintage LIFE Magazine and you’ll find ads for cigarettes, cold cream, TV dinners: all the accoutrements of midcentury modern life, served up by chipper, attractive housewives. But among the advertisements are something else: ugly documents that bear witness to lives of the women who labored under stereotypes. The magazine’s famously stylish slice-of-life photojournalism often turned its lens on the American woman, and in the era of Howdy Doody and the space race, that woman could often be found dragging her feet (and her children) through her local grocery store.
Take Virginia Newcome, a housewife heralded as “the world’s busiest short-order cook” in a 1962 issue of the magazine. The spread documents the brief highs (a cup of coffee at the dinette, a moment at a candlelit dinner) and the gritty lows (rescuing her 18-month-old son from choking on a peanut shell, cleaning up a bowl an unseen child threw on the kitchen floor) of her life in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Newcome’s epic struggle to feed her family—50 hours a week in her kitchen—is framed as a heroic act that just so happens to make her the perfect supermarket shopper. “Every vegetable has been cultivated to make Virginia reach out for it, every package designed to make her pluck it off the supermarket shelf,” the writer says. Newcome, according to LIFE, is the consumer equivalent of the chosen one, but she comes across as a frantic servant to her family’s endless, repetitive needs.
Then there’s Gloria Tweten, a housewife whose 80-hour work week was documented in an August 1955 edition of LIFE. Housewives like Tweten are praised as “the largest, hardest-working, least-paid occupational group in the country,” and her struggles bear witness to the drudgery expected of a woman in the Atomic Age.
In every picture, Tweten is beset by screaming, twitching children or by her husband. In one photo, her husband snaps her into her girdle while her toddler writhes between them; in another, she stoops near the floor, mainlining coffee and smoking a cigarette while a neighbor’s child literally climbs up the wall behind her. Perhaps the most sobering photos in the story are a series of images showing Tweten attempting to subdue her children at the grocery store. As she shops with her small children, anguish, frustration, and humiliation are frozen on her face. “When I go marketing with the kids on Friday,” she tells the interviewer, “it’s a three-ring circus.”
This reality doesn’t exactly square with what we think of the 1950s and 1960s today—or with the lives LIFE sold American women. In advertising’s alternate reality, the supermarket wasn’t the site of an epic battle between mother and child. It was a place of consumption as sensual as it was satisfying.
Tweten, Newcome, and LIFE’s readership, however, lived in the real world—one that, by the 1950s, was largely defined by suburban landscapes. Supermarkets were one of the midcentury suburbs’ most important sites—structures as aspirational as they were practical.
In the organized, well-lit aisles of America’s supermarkets, women could get lost in the color and splendor of perfectly merchandised fruits and an endless parade of brand names. And as historians like Tracey Deutsch and Adam Mack have documented, supermarkets were places where sexuality and gender strictures collided for American women.
Supermarkets weren’t always the massive retail destinations they are today. Until the 1930s, after all, they didn’t even exist. Before then, grocery shopping meant traveling from butcher to baker to greengrocer. Though there were some packaged goods, people bought most items in their original form and prepared them at home. If it sounds complicated, it was. Without modern conveniences like microwaves, dishwashers or even electric stoves, turning all of those raw products into food was exhausting and time-consuming.
It was also women’s work. Many, if not most, men never cooked a meal or shopped for a family’s food. Poor women were the nation’s home cooks—both for themselves and for the more affluent women whose lifestyles they enabled. Cooking was hot, tedious work, shopping a seemingly endless task, albeit one mediated by male clerks.
Inside general stores and at grocery stalls, women handed shopping lists to men, who sought out the necessary products behind the counter and inside their stalls. Food was meted out by men and paid for with money meted out by men.
There was nothing sexy about this early shopping experience. Food was often unseen, haggled for in a sloppy market. Whole animals, lumpy fruit, cartons filled with splinters, paper packaging that hid the contents within—shopping wasn’t exactly glamorous.
Then, just as the world turned upside-down, so did grocery shopping. First, markets morphed into a kind of omnibus farmer’s market-style setup. Then, in 1916, an entrepreneur named Clarence Saunders did away with almost everything his contemporaries thought of when they thought of shopping for food.
Piggly Wiggly—now thought of as the first supermarket—was different than anything else of its age. Instead of clerks who doled out food, it had carefully organized shelves on which shoppers could find food for themselves. No haggling was necessary; like five-and-dime stores like Woolworth’s, Piggly Wiggly’s products were clearly marked with non-negotiable prices. The store’s fixtures were designed to make food appealing not just for its nutritional value, but its looks—a real innovation for the time.
Simultaneously, a revolution began in women’s kitchens. As the economy changed, fewer and fewer women entered domestic service. Concurrently, cooking became easier thanks to convenience products like frozen and canned foods and innovations like the refrigerator and gas stove. And as more and more women began to cook, affluent women headed to supermarkets.
During the Great Depression, supermarkets grew in popularity because of their bargain prices. So did worries about women’s behavior in those stores. The new supermarkets encouraged spectacle and unrefined grabbing at deals; they brought in poor women who needed discount groceries.
They also encouraged what some retailers characterized as animal-like behavior. Retailers were shocked that women wanted to elbow one another for good deals, buy canned foods, and (gasp!) shop at night. “Depression weary housewives enjoyed visiting the… markets,” wrote one retailer, “for the circusy, bizarre atmosphere that prevailed provided release for the suppressed emotions piled up within many women by the dreary monotony of depression days.”
That simply wouldn’t do, decided grocers. Besides, the stores couldn’t sustain their price-cutting wars in the long-term. And so they turned on their own customers, assuming that women’s orderly, feminine natures could help subdue the monster of their own creation.
“A gendered order, not a price-shaving free-for-all, characterized these second-wave stores,” writes Deutsch. Stores began to pander to upper-class women to, in effect, create the customer they wanted to attract. They remade themselves in the model of the idealized woman—well-behaved, perky, submissive. Shopping became cleaner, brighter, and sexier.
This new aesthetic relied on psychological theories that women needed feminized spaces in which to shop—spaces that could titillate and fascinate them while teaching them how to carry out their role as America’s main consumers of food. Clean and efficient, these stores relied on things like fluorescent lighting, carefully selected colors, and sound-absorbing floors designed to keep women’s eyes and ears on the seductive wonders of the food within.
Adam Mack tracks the astonishing ways in which supermarkets worked sex appeal into everyday shopping—whether through Muzak, carefully placed aromas, or the suggestion that male grocery store employees were there to serve them. Ads, like one that represented a housewife as a bikini-clad model squeezing a juicy tomato, writes Mack, “held out the image of the postwar housewife as a highly sexual being, but one who happily contained her desires within the confines of an institution—the supermarket—that helped her fulfill a conservative domestic role.”
Mack notes that supermarkets were sites at which gender roles were reinforced, where women’s sexuality was contained and redirected. Midcentury supermarkets encouraged women to seek out sexual fulfillment not from their bodies, their partners, or their own lives, but from the subservient social roles to which they were bound.
Mack was not the first to pick up on the ways in which sex was used to fuel consumption. In 1963, Betty Friedan brilliantly broke down how American advertisers foisted restrictive gender roles on women in The Feminine Mystique. Using market research about American housewives, she revealed the tactics retailers used to shackle women through shopping.
“The manipulators have discovered that millions of supposedly happy American housewives have complex needs which home-and-family, love-and-children, cannot fill,” she wrote. “But by a morality that goes beyond the dollar, the manipulators are guilty of using their insights to sell women things which, no matter how ingenious, will never satisfy those increasingly desperate needs. They are guilty of persuading housewives to stay at home, mesmerized in front of a television set, their nonsexual human needs unnamed, unsatisfied, drained by the sexual sell into the buying of things.”
Even today, Friedan’s words are chilling. And even today, the supermarket is the place where women are expected to enact their “second shift”—a still-unequal gender distribution of child-rearing and familial obligations like cooking and shopping. And women are still characterized as society’s most important consumers, even if their supposed earning prowess is now expressed in terms like “she-EO” instead of the doting “little lady” language used in the 50s. And they still have less money to spend—for instance, white women make about 80 cents for every dollar earned by a white man. The women who shop at modern supermarkets are expected to manage their family’s money while earning less of it.
The gap is even larger for women of color, and the same supermarkets that were built to contain the sexual urges of white women were designed to lock out African-Americans, Latinas, and others. Supermarkets may seem like democratic bastions where all are welcome, but that wasn’t always the case. As the historian Lizabeth Cohen notes, chain stores took longer to root themselves among working-class shoppers—and to become welcoming for members of ethnic groups like Jews, Italians, and Poles. Ever since their creation, supermarkets have bypassed majority-black neighborhoods, creating a kind of de facto redlining that still affects African Americans’ ability to access nutritious, inexpensive food.
Women may yearn for a less oppressed future, but the piles of waxed apples, the orderly rows of boxes and bags, the muted music, and the fluorescent lights of modern grocery stores are all reminders that the structures in which we shop were built along strictly gendered lines. The surroundings may be sexy, but the reality is way closer to that of LIFE’s harried housewives than we might like to think.