Disguised Racism?: A Very Brief Analysis of a Postwar Image


This postwar image and ones like it regularly appear in textbooks. Scholars use such images to make arguments about how new technologies made housework less time-consuming and advertising made these appealing necessities.

Other arguments focus on the sexism of having a Woman use the vacuum in this advertisement – a Woman who is wearing an apron and presumably also cooking lunch and dinner.

Still other arguments rest of the implied harmony and peace and content for this Woman and her implied husband and children, and such argument focus on the corresponding problems with this rhetoric, specifically what it ignores. 

Additionally, such images served to reinforce that with World War II over, the Women who had taken jobs needed to go back home. In the later years of the war, about 35% of Women were employed, up about 10% from before. 

But, I have never seen an argument or analysis point out that in reality in the vast majority of cases, the Woman depicted in this picture and all the Women for which she becomes a historical stand-in would seldom, if ever, actually vacuum their own home. White families hired Black Women (and immigrant Women) to do their cooking, cleaning, and frequently, childcare, too, and they paid them far below any kind of reasonable wage and generally offered little respect and thanks in return. 

Regardless, though, this image–and the countless parallel ones–delete and ignore Black Women and their work and their agency. That’s the true take-home message here. 

Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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5 replies

  1. The contrast of acceptable public appearance (the heels, necklace, skirt, hair done, etc.) within private space (living room, doing manual labor) has always intrigued me. Of course, the lens of the camera, the magazine advertisements, the television commercials intrude into private space, but the charade had to be maintained for some reason I — a denizen of the 21st century — just don’t get. I’m sure it had much to do with the ideal woman in post-war America, the woman the implied husband wanted to present to his associates, shs [note: I’m erasing French etc. when I can and now am using OE swā hwæt swā].

    Of course, there are/were white domestics in the US as well, but except for TV portrayals of Hazel, they are largely invisible. Imagine if Hazel were Black. The humor [if] would have been so different.

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  2. In such images, you are right, the Women are very dressed up – frequently more so than in this image.


  3. Re the White domestic Hazel: Museum of Broadcast Communications (http://www.museum.tv/eotv/hazel.htm)

    “Hazel presents stories of Hazel’s humorous involvement in both the professional and household business of George Baxter. In the television version, Hazel becomes the figure that, though seemingly innocuous, ultimately holds the household together: The servant, though in a marginalized position, is at the same time, central to marking the well-being of the nuclear family. George, the father figure, competes with Hazel, who often ending up being “right.” And Dorothy, described by one critic as “dressing like and striking the poses of a high fashion model,” follows in the tradition of glamorous TV moms whose work often gets done by the maid.

    “Throughout television history (as well as the history of film), the representation of the American family is often made “complete” by the presence of the family housekeeper figure. Generally, the “American” family is specifically white American, although a few exceptions have existed such as The Jeffersons and Fresh Prince of Bel Air, in which African American families employ an African American maid and an African American butler, respectively. For the most part, however, “family” has been portrayed as white and therefore the ideology of the family has also been in terms of dominant, white social values. The presence of a household servant therefore, serves to reinforce the status (i.e., both economic and racial) of the family within society.”

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  4. What percentage of White families could afford a maid in the time that this ad ran?

    This white family had a vacuum like that and it was either me or my mom who was vacuuming the house. We never had a maid.

    In India, however, maids are far more common then in the U.S.

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    • Thanks for your comment, as always!

      I’m working on finding some specific stats.

      I found one for an earlier period: In Jackson, MS, in 1930s, 81% of White families had Black Women working for them

      What I have always read and heard from other historians is that the cost of having a Black Women working in your family, especially in the Deep South, was so low that anyone could afford it and it was quasi “required.”

      I do know that 90%+ of Black Women (and children) in the South worked as domestics, sometimes working more than one job.


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