"Is It Illegal To Kill A Woman?" These Are The Most Sexist Vintage Ads We've Ever Seen.
If watching Mad Men taught us anything, it's that sexism against women went totally unchecked in the mid-twentieth century. As these vintage ads show, any kind of woman-bashing was fair game, with common tactics including body shaming, discrimination, and fearmongering about what would happen to you didn't devote your entire life to making your husband happy. These are just a few examples of what women in the mid-twentieth century had to deal with on a daily basis.
It's important to point out that, while some of these brands are still around today, their advertising strategies have completely changed. It's no longer okay to openly declare that men are superior to women. However, many ads still do reinforce gender stereotypes, and these vintage ads can serve to remind us that there's a lot of progress still to be made.
[Sources at the end of article.]
Spanking your wife was a common form of household discipline in the 1950s. Although "wife beating" as it became known had been made illegal in all US states by 1920, police still tended to treat it as a private family matter throughout the twentieth century.
In August 1952, coffee company Chase & Sanborn ran a full-page ad in Life Magazine that showed a husband spanking his wife with a warning to women that read, "If he discovers you're still taking chances on getting flat, stale coffee... woe be unto you!"
This ad was only one of many examples of men spanking their wives in popular media. TV shows like I Love Lucy and the sitcom The People's Choice also showed "wife-beating" in a positive light, so this ad would not have seemed all that crazy at the time.
In the US Army during World War II, venereal diseases (VD) like syphilis and gonhorrea became an epidemic in the US Army. More soldiers were treated for VD than for gunshot and shell wounds.
Part of the Army's solution was to use advertising to promote abstinence. This ad from around 1943 tells soldiers to avoid "loose women," which probably referred to prostitutes as well as sexually active single women in general, because they were more likely to carry VD. The tagline is pretty hilarious: "VD is not Victory!"
This ad for Weyenberg Massagic Footwear originally ran in Playboy in 1974.
At that time, feminist magazine Ms. was well-known for their "No Comment" section, which challenged representations of women in popular advertisements. One writer reviewed this ad, remarking, "What can we make of the slogan, 'Keep her where she belongs…?' She belongs naked on the floor admiring your shoes?"
This 1970 ad for the DataComp 404 computer, essentially a word processor that also served as a calculator, uses sexism to sell the device to men for use in their offices.
The ad stereotypes women as being valuable only as sex objects for men and as typists, as well as insulting women as being too foolish to even figure out that the DataComp 404 is more than just a typewriter. No doubt male office employees were getting ready to mansplain it to her.
This ad is from 1968-69, and it's pretty unbelievable. It acknowledges that forcing women to perform the same household duties day after day amounts to "a mild form of torture."
While that may sound like a feminist message, the ad is for a brand of aspirin that it claims will treat "housewife headache." This makes it seem like it's the headache that's the problem, rather than the work itself. In other words, the ad is implying that this form of torture that only women have to go through is totally normal and okay. Not such a feminist message after all.
This ad from 1973 suggests that the car it's selling is like a "spirited woman who yearns to be tamed."
Not only does this imply that confident women are equivalent to animals, specifically wild horses, it also implies that buying this car will somehow give you ownership over one of these women.
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This ad was the brainchild of George Lois, the real 1960's advertising executive that Don Draper is based on. He writes in his autobiography:
"Chemstrand Nylons was stuck with a huge inventory of leotards. A double page ad was needed to run the next day in Womens Wear Daily. I got the idea, wrote the copy, had the photo taken, designed the spread and made the deadline. The ad ran and orders for leotards poured in--Chemstrands most successful trade ad ever..."
It's pretty sad that to know this ad was a huge success. It explains a lot to know that it was a last-minute, desperate attempt to sell tons of leotards created by the real Don Draper himself.
This ad for the Volkswagen Beetle tells men that their wives are naturally bad drivers, and that no matter what, they are going to crash whatever car their husband buys for them. So it recommends that men buy the Beetle, since it's not too expensive to replace the parts once your wife has crashed it.
"You can conveniently replace anything she uses to stop the car. Even the brakes," it reads. Are you kidding me?
This ad for luxury sweaters ran in Esquire, The Magazine For Men in 1959. It's headline, "Men are better than women!", is obviously the kind of sexist statement designed to grab the attention of male readers.
The text reads, "Indoors, women are useful. On a mountain, they are somewhat of a drag. So don't go hauling them up a cliff just to show off your Drummond climbing sweaters." Even though these sweaters are designed for the outdoors, the ad has to make it clear that they can be worn indoors to show them off to women--because women belong indoors.
This 1952 article for Schlitz beer tells wives they can please a husband by serving him a bottle at the dinner table... even if they've already burned the dinner that, of course, the wife had to make.
The ad copy reads, "Anyway, you didn't burn the Schlitz!" and adds, "Theres hope for any young bride who knows her man well enough to serve him Schlitz Beer."
There's a whole hidden history of couples using household cleaning items as birth control throughout the twentieth century, since safe and effective birth control methods were illegal until the 1960s.
In this ad, cleaning wipes are being marketed as a feminine hygiene product, but in practice many women also used them for birth control. Hundreds of women were poisoned by them, and at least five deaths were reported. Pretty unbelievable.
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This 1947 ad for the Pitney-Bowes postage meter starts with what might be the most misogynistic headline we've seen yet: "Is it always illegal to kill a woman?"
What follows is a quaint short story about a disobedient female typist, who angers her male boss because she's distracted by gossip about other women. When he shows her his swanky new postage meter (a machine designed to quickly stamp envelopes before they are mailed), she's more interested in going to the "girls room" to dish with the other ladies in the office. Apparently that made it okay for him to joke about murdering her?
This is an ad for chain restaurant Hardee's from 1940. Once again we find a boldly sexist opening line, followed by ad copy where the writer connects that sexist statement to the actual thing being promoted.
"We all know a woman's place is in the home, cooking a man a delicious meal. But if you are still enjoying the bachelor's life and don't have a little miss waiting on you, then come on down to Hardee's for something sloppy and hastily prepared."
This local newspaper ad from the 1950s is just downright bizarre, showing a cartoon of a man spanking his wife while she smiles happily, with the caption, "Do You Still Beat Your Wife?"
The ad is selling a pamphlet on domestic discipline written by "an eminent practitioner of this manly art" who decided to remain anonymous. The strangely named "Co-Le Sales Company" of Chicago definitely isn't around anymore either, thankfully.
The creepiest thing about this ad? It tells husbands, "Maybe you should never have stopped," which implies that most husbands spanked their wives by default.
This 1959 ad is for Mornidine, a medication designed to treat morning sickness in pregnant women. It advertises that Mornidine allows a pregnant wife to go back to cooking breakfast for her husband, since she won't be sick anymore after taking it.
It just goes to show how obsessed men were with staying out of the kitchen and maintaining it as a place for women. Even with a pregnant wife dealing with morning sickness, the ad implies, the husband still stayed out of the kitchen. He must not have eaten breakfast for weeks!
This ad for Palm Olive soap is from way back in 1924. It reinforces the idea that women should value their physical appearance more than their intelligence, since good looks are more likely to attract a husband.
No wonder studies have shown that women are more likely to underestimate their own intelligence, while men tend to overestimate it, even though men and women have roughly the same IQ on average.
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This magazine ad from 1968 shows a man blowing cigarette smoke into a woman's face with the caption, "Blow in her face and she'll follow you anywhere." The man is a classic 1960's bachelor, and the woman could easily be the female love interest in a sixties-era James Bond film.
The text reads, "Hit her with tangy Tipalet Cherry. Or rich, grape-y Tipalet Burgundy.... A puff in her direction and she'll follow you anywhere." The Sixties were a strange time indeed...
This strange ad published in the Saturday Evening Post in May 1952 shows a girl who looks a heck of a lot like Marylin Monroe getting soaked with water by a "scientist."
It goes on to explain that this woman's dress will be wrinkle-free when it dries, thanks to Conoco's resin-treated cotton fibers. Weirdly enough, this ad is also trying to sell motor oil. I guess they only had the budget for one advertisement?
This ad for patterned neckties from 1951 shows a woman kneeling at her husband's bedside, with the caption, "Show her it's a man's world."
The text below claims the ties' "man-talking, power-packed patterns" will send a message to wives everywhere that "it's a man's world... and make her so happy it is!" Yup, it looks like so much fun to be somebody's personal servant.
This 1961 ad for the Kenwood Chef has a truly sexist tagline: "The Chef does everything but cook--that's what wives are for!"
In the 1960s, it was seen as every wife's duty to cook for her husband and never the other way around. This ad only reinforces that idea.
Notice that the tagline in the corner reads "I'm giving my wife a Kenwood Chef." Even though women were the only ones preparing food, it was still the husband's choice what kitchen appliances to buy for her to cook with. Now that doesn't seem fair, does it?
This ad for Captain Morgan rum bears the headline, "Go up to a girl and whisper, 'Yo-Ho-Ho.'"
The "instructions" tell you to then move in close to the girl, presumably at a party, and pour her a glass of rum. Then start whispering to her about the "palm trees and sunswept beaches" of the Caribbean while you pour her another round. Maybe try respecting her personal space next time?
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This 1967 poster for Warner's undergarments advertises bras and girdles for "girls with too much bottom and too little top."
Once you've bought Warner's bra and girdle combo and slimmed down your waistline, the ad reads, "All of a sudden you've got a proportioned body, and your clothes fit better." Wow, dreams do come true.
Why did this man bury his wife up to her head in sand? Because she was too affectionate.
This ad was published in Playboy in October 1962. The ad copy reads, "A display of affection is great... but enough is enough... It all began when he wore his first pair of Mr. Leggs Slacks."
In other words, he started wearing clothing that got his wife's attention, only to punish her when she started showing more affection for him. And he's supposed to be our hero?
This 1938 ad for Pep Cereal was targeted towards both married men and women.
It hopes to convince them that once a housewife gets her vitamins, "The harder a wife works, the cuter she looks!" On top of completing her household chores, a wife was expected to look cute while she was scrubbing floors and dusting shelves. Seems like a lot of pressure, doesn't it?
This ad from the 1930s is designed to play on the fears of young women that they might not find a husband to take care of them.
At the time, it was socially unacceptable for a woman to be single past her mid-twenties. Maybe this is part of why the pressure for women to get married young still exists today.
The caption reads: "Isn't it natural for every girl to want popularity, romance, a devoted husband? What a pity, then, to see lovely girls like these losing out because they are careless about perspiration odor in underthings."
In this ad from the late 1960s, a female driver wearing heavy makeup, nail polish and jewelry is pictured in front of a steering wheel with a bewildered look on her face.
"The Mini Automatic. For Simple Driving," reads the caption, suggesting that a manual transmission car would be too complicated for a woman to drive. The Mini Automatic had an automatic transmission--hence the name--and it was marketed to men as a car that they could let their wives drive as well.
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The idea of colonizing the moon became popular during the Space Race in the 1960s, and many Americans believed it would become a reality within the coming decades.
This 1968 ad for cleaning agent Lestoil implies that, even in the future when humans had built a colony on the moon, women would still be cleaning the floors. Really??
This ad for dijon mustard from 1964 tries to pressure housewives into buying a sharper brand of mustard than the regular kind sold in stores.
Strangely, it plays on men's fears of not being masculine enough, but is directed towards women. The idea is that, if you want your husband to feel "like a man," it's your job as his wife to buy him mustard that makes him feel that way. Why can't we just buy mustard because it tastes good?
This 1969 cigarette ad tries to draw a comparison between cigarettes and women, with the hook, "Cigarettes are like women. The best ones are thin and rich." The caption in the corner says Silva Thins are "thin and rich... thin so they taste light. Rich because--well, because rich is better."
Not only does this imply that women who are wealthy are inherently better than other women, there's also no clear indication of how the cigarettes actually taste. "Rich" means full-bodied and heavy, but the caption said they were "thin so they taste light." So they're both full-bodied and thin-bodied, heavy and light at the same time? Smh.
This 1932 ad implies that women should use a specific kind of soap to keep their skin soft--otherwise, your husband will leave you!
The tagline reads, "I learned from a beauty expert how to hold my husband--and why so many women fail."
This ad was published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1973. Even as late as the 1970s, it's plain to see that advertisers assumed that only women would use kitchen products.
While I always appreciate a good pun, ads like this definitely reinforced the commonly held idea that women belonged in the kitchen, and men belonged outside of it. Personally, I think people should be able to use a self-cleaning oven regardless of their gender.
Looking at these is a good reminder of how much progress we have made since these ads were created. But of course, there are still plenty of ads out their that reinforce gender stereotypes. Maybe now that we've looked at this snapshot of history, we can be more aware the next time we see an ad with sexist undertones.
What do you think these advertisements can tell us about society today?