A copy of Life magazine from July 26, 1948, landed in my lap the other day, and I read it with glee from cover to cover. It was a gift from my husband’s sister, a peek into life (with a small “l”) from the very week he was born. I was drawn first to the ads: Vaseline Cream Hair Tonic for that just combed look, Eye-Gene for relief of tired, smarting eyes, Kellogg’s Pep whole wheat flakes for all-day energy. I coveted the Hotpoint refrigerator with its Butter Conditioner, a special compartment with its own thermostat to keep the spread just the right consistency for table use. It would go so well with my 1950s Chambers stove!
Farther in, though, is a disquieting feature on “The American Family in Trouble.” It opens with a photo of a distraught father in divorce court who has just lost custody of his child. The caption reads, “In the picture above an American family is shown in the sad process of breaking up. In city after city scenes like it are being repeated every day, each opening its own small crack in our society, each a part of a cold statistical record which shows that last year 450,000 divorces were granted in U.S. courts, releasing a flood of children from these broken homes upon society. From such statistics emerges an unmistakable fact: the U.S. family, deep in the millrace of social and technological change, is itself deep in trouble.”
Not quite the picture you expected just two years before the cozy 50’s, is it? I thought once the war was over, the intact family reigned supreme, with Dad skipping happily off to work every weekday and Mom contentedly staying home to raise Sally and Bobby in the perfect security of the nuclear family.
Not so, says this 60-year-old magazine, which goes on to show in detail what it deems the three main types of American families back then, examining how they changed from the bucolic 19th century and turned into – well, something else.
The first type, they call “Trustee.” Their example is a closely knit farm family, the Russells of Belleview, Missouri, complete with an iconic photo I swear was taken by Walker Evans, with everbody from Great Grandma down to the littlest boy in short pants. Everybody lives together as trustees of the 125-year-old family farm, knuckling down to chores like making soap, mending shoes, and butchering hogs. Still, one grown son has a part-time job at a nearby ax handle factory, and another is studying for the ministry, sending out little feelers into the wider world. A daughter, heaven help her, has even moved to St. Louis to work in a store.
The next, “domestic-type” family is the Frantzes of Enid, Oklahoma, cohesive but far from the farm. As the magazine puts it, they are close because they work at it, not because circumstances require it. Like the Russells, they have a family business, but theirs is an insurance company, and the sons’ decision to join their father was much more of a choice; nobody was going to die of hunger if they opted out. Their mutual interests are all leisurely, from fishing to shopping to Sunday dinners. The only potential dark cloud reported is Mrs. Frantz’s worry, as a mother-in-law, about her family “spending too much time together for its own good.”
The third type of family is called not “nuclear” but “atomistic,” as if each member is constantly bouncing away from the others. The headline is “This Family Shows Today’s Problems,” which probably didn’t please the Parker family too much. Honestly, their problems don’t seem much more serious than the scrapes on “Leave it Beaver.” Here is Mrs. Parker, off at her church club (instead of doing housework?). Here’s Martha Anne, baby-sitting the children of a neighbor (earning her own money?) There’s a suggestive photo of “restless son Cary” walking the dog at night, pausing to talk to a pal and a classmate (a girl!). Oh, and here’s Mr. Parker, entertaining other businessmen in the city at night (straight out of “Mad Men”!) The caption I found most annoying describes a photo of mother, daughter, and son eating dinner “alone” while Mr. Parker is on a business trip. Since when does three equal “alone”?
Granted, the Parkers moved five times for Dad’s job. Sometimes both kids are off at lessons or practice, leaving Mom alone in the house long before she’s ready for an empty nest. No family gets it perfect, and who knows what kind of quiet desperation the Russells may have been experiencing as they hoed the weeds and fed the woodstove down in the Ozarks? Maybe the Frantz women’s belonging to the same social club and getting together to can vegetables was just a desperate attempt to look cheerful.
This time of year, it’s hard not to think about families in less than happy ways. Magazines dispense earnest advise on getting through the holidays with the in-laws, and movies like “Four Christmases” put all the agony up on the big screen. I can’t help but think that maybe articles like these, whether from 1948 or 2008, showing how very different families can be, bring more reassurance than angst. Despite many people’s belief that there is one perfect American Christmas – everybody gathered for Mom’s cookies, heaps of presents, a fresh-cut tree, and snow on the window pane – I’ll bet if you ask around, you’ll learn just how varied our families, and our holiday traditions, are.
Has the American family evolved since 1948? You bet. I’d love to know how the children of those profiled in Life made out. Do the Russells still tend the now 185-year-old family farm? How often do the Frantzes gather for Sunday dinner? And the Parkers, that family seeming most closely poised for dysfunction – how did their grandchildren fare in the 60’s counterculture? I like to think they’re all doing just fine. That’s what family is all about, after all. It’s home, and home is, to gently paraphrase Robert Frost, the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in.