"Traditional" Family Values Were Invented in the 1950s

Think of the American "traditional family," and you probably imagine the Cleavers from the 1950s sitcom "Leave it to Beaver" — or at least the Drapers in the early seasons of "Mad Men." This nostalgic view of family life colors virtually every social issue that affects modern society. There's just one problem: The traditional family of the 1950s was a brand-new and short-lived phenomenon. We can't return to the days of the "traditional" family because they hardly existed in the first place.

The Cleaver family from the TV program, "Leave it to Beaver."

We Never Were the Way We Were

In her 1992 book "The Way We Never Were: American Families And The Nostalgia Trap," Stephanie Coontz explains that society was gung-ho about marriage and the nuclear family in the 1950s precisely because it was the opposite of what life had been like in decades past. The Great Depression and World War II had spurred austerity and housing shortages that forced people to live with extended family members and even other families under the same roof.

By the end of the 1940s, millions of American families were sharing housing, and family counselors were worried that the intergenerational conflicts that would arise might lead to marital crisis. Yet movie and sitcom families in the '30s and '40s are indistinguishable from those in later decades. As Coontz quotes one child of the Depression as saying, "It wasn't a big family sitting around a table radio and everybody saying good night while Bing Crosby crooned 'Pennies from Heaven.'"

But as prosperity returned to the United States, people wanted to do all the things they couldn't during the war years: marry, have kids, buy a car, and move into a single-family home. The portion of the population earning a middle-class income rose to nearly 60 percent from the 31 percent of the "prosperous" pre-Depression years. By 1960, 87 percent of families had a television, and 75 percent had a car. And for the first time in a century, the average age of marriage and motherhood fell, as did the rate of divorce. Women's educational achievement dropped, too.

50s Bell Telephone Featuring the Earnest Hesse Family.

The Good Old Days, Starting Today

Even before those lean years, family life was different. In the 19th century, middle-class women left housework to servants; in the 1950s, advertisers reported a growing tendency for women to consider housework as an expression of their femininity. Even the 1950 meaning of marriage was new. "In fact, the most common purpose of marriage in history was not to ensure children access to both their mother and father, but to acquire advantageous in-laws and expand the family labor force," Coontz wrote in The New Republic.

Dr. Eli Finkel, social psychology professor and relationship expert, expanded on this in our discussion on the Curiosity Podcast: "The idea that there would be a man who kissed his wife and then went off to the office and a woman who said 'love you, honey, see you when you're back' and took care of the home ... that was an eye blink in history. Before the industrial revolution in the mid-1800s, people didn't go 'off' to work. The individual farmhouse was the unit of economic production. This was how people made ends meet. Both men and women contributed hugely to economic production, and it wasn't until industrialization and this specialization that you got these highly gendered social roles. So that was unusual right from the start."

The wishes of the young people getting married and their children's well-being were a lower priority; go against your family's wishes and decide not to marry, and your children would be "illegitimate" and entitled to nothing.

Lamenting society's loss of "traditional family values" today isn't just about wishing for a time that never was, however. It also ignores how much better things are now. Women and ethnic and sexual minorities have it much better today than they did in the 50s. A changing family structure isn't to blame for poverty, either: As Coontz notes, a 2015 study found that in the last 30 years, income equality was more than four times as important as family structure in explaining the growth of poverty.

The back cover of Coontz's book puts it bluntly: "'Leave It to Beaver' was not a documentary, a man's home has never been his castle, the 'male breadwinner marriage' is the least traditional family in history." No need to pine for the good old days — they never existed in the first place.

Are marriages today better or worse than they used to be? Hear Dr. Eli Finkel, relationship expert, explain how the best marriages work on the Curiosity Podcast. Stream or download the episode using the player below, or find it everywhere podcasts are found, including iTunes, Stitcher, and Gretta.

The Surprising Reason Married Women Are Called Mrs.

Written by Ashley Hamer September 18, 2017

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