Call the Midwife and the 1950s Housewife

By Ashley Yarbrough

I often feel I was born during the wrong time period. I really love the modern medicine and technology of today. It’s amazing in so many ways, and I don’t envy the struggles of those before us who are the reason we have these amazing luxuries. However, I can’t help but feel like we are missing some unnoticed luxuries now that women need to work more, sometimes causing a struggle for balance at home, and food processing is so rampantly causing more and more disease and sickness. I felt reminded of these ‘small luxuries’ when I watched Call the Midwife on Netflix. The show gives a great window into the past, showing the struggle of women and mothers of the time, but also the great qualities of the 1950s in England.

Women during this time period rarely went to university. Instead, the expectation was to get married, manage the home, and raise the children. This affected what teachers sought to teach them. Instead of today’s classes in school that focus on academics, schooling at the secondary level during this time also taught girls cookery, management of a household, sewing, ironing, and how to parent and support a husband. While these lessons were definitely valuable for helping women learn the skills to care and support their future families, the downside of this focus was women often could not support themselves if something happened to their husbands or if they needed to leave an abusive marriage. 

The houses and food during this time were also different from today. Central heating was not available, so they relied on coal and electric heat for their homes during the cold winters. Hot water bottles in the beds, heavy dressing gowns, and slippers were necessities. Clothing was often homemade. Women recycled the clothing for seasonal wear and to fit the children as they grew. They would unravel and re-knit or darn as needed, skills learned at home and through their schooling. Since freezers were not yet available for home use and food processing did not match today’s, women usually had to visit shops daily on foot (most families did not have cars yet, although motorbikes were becoming popular). However, there were regular deliveries of milk, bread, and meats from the local shops. They recycled bottles for a few pence. Men and boys would do the deliveries and buy old clothes, mend pots and pans, and sell lemonade and sodas. Today’s cleaning products far surpass the ability of the products during this time, so between the cleaning and walking women had to do, along with the lack of sweet and salty foods, they did not need to visit a gym. 

Overall, the women of the 1950s definitely had a busy and tough job in keeping house. I do not envy not having my modern washing machines, especially when women during this time had to wash diapers! I also don’t envy how trapped a woman could be because of culture, opportunity for work, and education. The medicine? Improving, but horrible! Call the Midwife looks into the thalidomide drug, and I spent episode after episode sobbing on my couch. It also depicts a character who struggles with polio.

I wish we could rethink our food system and our expectation for what family balance and preparation looks like. How important is focusing solely on academics vs. managing a family (for both men and women)? How many skills are we losing since the balance at home is so different? Should food processing and longevity really focus on the sugar and chemicals when we have so much access to household freezers and canning now? Also… the dresses. I would so wear those dresses. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ashley Yarbrough is a writer, mother, teacher, gardener, and many other things. She writes about it all here. Feel free to take a look!

5 thoughts on “Call the Midwife and the 1950s Housewife

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  1. My mother was a housewife of the fifties as she had all three of us in the fifties. She second world war encompassed her teens in a London suburb. She wanted to be a nurse, her father disapproved because he knew it would be hard work and poor pay, but wisely suggested she just wait a year. Mum got a good job in a bank and was having too much fun going out with her friends and nursing was forgotten. My mother wanted to get married because she wanted to have babies, not because it was expected, but of course it was still hard work. She and Dad rented the top half of a large old house and a ‘wicked old lady’ ( Mum’s words ) rented the ground floor. Mum had me, her first baby at home with just a midwife, all went well! With my brother she had what is now called pre-eclampsia and was booked in for a hospital birth, all free with the National Health Service. My little sister was born at home, but the afterbirth wouldn’t come and Mum had to be rushed to hospital and have eight pints of blood – saved again by the NHS. No washing machine, nappies boiled on the stove and no garden. Plenty of exercise walking me to school and pushing the pram with a baby and toddler. BUT she didn’t have to go to work and though money was tight, we always had good meals. I stayed at home with our children in the eighties, but started getting part time jobs when they were at school. My daughter works three days a week with her two little boys at a great ( expensive ) nursery. I think modern Mums have it harder if they have to work, because they still end up doing most of the housework, washing and cooking, then there is the stress every time a child isn’t well and can’t go to nursery or school – who’s going to look after them!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing! How interesting. My grandparents and my husband’s all stayed at home and graduated to part time work as the kids got older. My mom homeschooled me and did at home daycare, then real estate when we got older. I would love to stay at home with mine but am working so we dont have to worry about finances. Luckily, my schedule as a teacher offers the benefit of being on the same schedule as them, and because I work, I’m able to pay for their college and extracurriculars, which are all pretty much needed these days. Anyway, I love hearing what others are doing vs how their parents and grandparents did, so thanks again!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re welcome Ashley. Just about everybody is home with their children in the UK at the moment with the virus lockdown! Working from home/ or place of work closed and home schooling.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Same here! My family was pretty unaffected, so I’m quite enjoying the being at home. Mostly just miss my kids’ sports activities and church and the few activities I do with my own friends!

          Liked by 1 person

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