Family Life in the 1940s-50s: A Black/white Comparison

Family life in the 1950s is the stuff of myth: rolling suburban lawns, practical housewives, Cadillacs, and tuna casserole. A lot of that is based in fact. Flush with postwar freedom and cash, life looked pretty good to most Americans. They got married earlier than at any other time in the century (women at 21 and men at 24). Incomes more than doubled from 1935 to 1950, and 59 percent of American households owned a car. Still, day-to-day life could be a slog.

We decided to imagine what a typical day might have been like for your grandparents at age 30, circa 1950. We’ll give them the most popular male and female names of babies born in 1920, Robert and Mary. A marriage search on Ancestry shows this isn’t a hypothetical pairing: There are millions of records for Robert-Mary couples in the early 1940s, when our 30 year-olds would have gotten hitched. We’ll start with the white version.

6 a.m. [#wp]

Mary wakes up early because there’s a lot to pack into the morning. Before her two kids go to school at 8 a.m., she needs to iron Linda’s dress and John’s shirt, make their lunches, and get breakfast ready. She’s in a rush, so it will probably just be cereal: Grape Nuts for her and Sugar Frosted Flakes for the kids. Sugar cereal was still a novelty and they’d begged her for Sugar Frosted Flakes after hearing Tony the Tiger say they were “Grrrreat!”

Robert has coffee and cereal with the kids and skims the morning paper. He gives the kids the comics page. Then he hops in the car and drives to work (“Goodnight Irene” on the radio). Their house is in an urban metropolitan area just outside the city, in a nascent ring of suburbs. Like a third of American workers, he has a job in manufacturing, at an automobile factory.

5:00 a.m. [Black version]

Jim Crow laws of segregation were in full force. The NAACP was just founded in 1940 and wasn’t fully operational, nor helpful to the daily lives of the average Black person.

May-May wakes up extra early to prepare for the day. She has five kids who need to get to school at 8:00 a.m., and some share classes with (white) Mary’s kids.

May-May’s kids are crammed into a 2-bedroom flat in government housing because she and Big Junior aren’t allowed to buy the home of their choice, which happens to be near the white people’s homes. Big Junior had served time in the segregated army, but was not allowed housing benefits when he mustered out. They’re one of thousands who have been red-lined for housing.

Since the mandatory bussing laws were passed, May-May no longer has time to iron clothes so she invests in wash-‘n-wear clothes. She goes outside in the cold, dark weather and removes the stiff clothes off the clothesline (that she was too tired to do the day before, and tosses them on the bunkbeds where her kids are sleeping. Breakfast is not cereal, which is quite a luxury, but toasted white bread with margarine spread (and sometimes jelly), and powdered milk, all of which are government issued because, in spite of their college educations, they cannot get jobs that pay more than minimum wage and need a supplement, because… Jim Crow.

There is no coffee and cereal with Big Junior and his kids because he’s working third shift and only arrives home when they’re in school. Big Junior, like May-May, takes the public transportation to and from work because they cannot get a car loan because they have no assets… because… minimum wage, redlined, no savings, because… Jim Crow.


7:00 a.m. [#POC]

Dishes are piled into the sink with a daily promise to wash them after school, because outside forces control their lives through the schedules of mass transportation. Four of Big Junior and May-May’s five kids are on the bus on their way to their segregated school because they live farther out and it takes longer to get to school—and back; it is usually dark in the mornings and dark in the evenings while they ride the busses to-and-from home. The baby went next door to the neighbor, Miss Jefferies, who gets government aid because of some health issues, but she takes care of all the kids of working parents in the block.

The dirty clothes are stacked in the corner of the respective bedrooms to be taken to the laundromat on Saturday, which is national Black people’s wash day at the wash-o-teria (in some places).

May-May left the house before her latchkey kids because she has to take the bus to make it to work as an expert seamstress in a sweatshop in the downtown of the city. She’s good enough to have her own clothing line, but no one will finance her business; she is paid $1.25/hour more than other workers because the manager doesn’t want her to leave, even though he berates her and her work constantly—keeps her humble, he says.

8 a.m. [#wp]

Having put the kids on the school bus, Mary cleans up the kitchen. Then she throws a load of laundry into the washing machine. Before marrying Robert, she had worked briefly as a secretary (the most common job for women at the time) but now runs the house. Most of her friends do the same: only 33 percent of women work, while 86 percent of men do. Yet the 20 hours a week she spends cooking certainly feels like a job.

Robert clocks in and takes his place on the factory floor. He supervises the new machines that the company is experimenting with to cut and install parts. Automation is just beginning at car factories, but there were still a lot of human operators on the noisy floor. It’s a boom time in the industry.

8:00 a.m. [#POC]

Big Junior, like his wife, is an exceptional and skilled factory worker. He works graveyard shift because there is a $.50/hour pay differential over day workers. He misses his kids, but knows sacrifices have to be made to provide for them.

At that time about 60 percent of Black women worked compared to 30 percent of white women, but with both parents working together they still earned 13 percent less than whites. <;

Arriving to work five minutes late because of the bus and traffic, May-May is docked 15 minutes, the default rate. She works through lunch to make up for it.

12 p.m. [#wp]

Robert and his co-workers have an hour for lunch and go to the diner a block from the factory. They scan a menu of toasted club sandwiches, burgers, and milkshakes — though they could also treat themselves to veal cutlets or crab cakes.

Mary goes to the supermarket, which has recently opened and was more convenient going to multiple mom-and-pops. The number of supermarkets in America doubled between 1948 and 1958, offering shoppers plenty of parking, wide aisles, bright lights, and air conditioning.

12:00 p.m. [#POC]

May-May works through lunch to make up for the bus (she has no control over AND she left on time) getting her to work late. She has a greasy fried boloney sandwich and stale potato chips which she eats between stretch breaks at her sewing machine. Big Junior sleeps a sleep of exhaustion while day workers and women of leisure are having their lunches.

3 p.m. [#wp]

With the kids home from school, Mary keeps them entertained. John watches a slinky climb down the stairs and Linda blows bubbles. Other popular toys are Legos and a new Fisher-Price fire truck. The decade would later produce classics like Mr. Potato Head and Play-Doh.

3:00 p.m. [#POC]

Big Junior is home sleeping when the kids arrive and let themselves in. They quietly make snacks of government issued processed meats (which were linked to cancer studies). They made sandwiches with cheese, mayonnaise and logs of bologna that they had to slice themselves. The upside is that Big Junior is able to have dinner with his kids and see May-May briefly. <;

The younger children played on the stairs trying to make a mangled Slinky roll down the stairway, and try to keep the noise down so Big Junior can prepare for work that night.

5 p.m. [#wp]

Robert leaves work after an 8-hour day, as set by the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. He makes about $13 a day, which makes his annual income around the national median of $3,216 per year (about $32,00 today).

Mary has Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook open on the counter. The family is tired of casserole so she’s trying a new ham meatloaf, made in a ring pan for visual interest, with a side of canned pineapple. She is often tempted to pull out a frozen TV dinner — the important thing is that they all eat together, right? — but Good Housekeeping says you should take pride in your cooking. (And always makes it sound so easy.)


5:00 p.m. [#POC]

According to Carruthers and Wanamaker, (2016), ‘” ‘The discriminatory preferences of white southerners were powerful in limiting black public-school quality and reducing the wages of young black men through the human capital channel,’ the authors write. The persistent inequality of educational opportunities, they found, singlehandedly cut earnings of black Southern workers by as much as 50 percent.” <;

Therefore, using this study of income analysis, Big Junior and May-May worked more than the average yet still only earned about $1,500 (or $15,000 current year figures).

May-May arrives home in time to check the kids’ homework, eat mac ‘n cheese with (processed) hot dogs cut up in it prepared by Big Junior, fuss at the kids for not getting their things ready for the next day, and kiss Big Junior before he leaves so that he can put in overtime at the factory.

May-May and Big Junior’s family might possibly get a canned ham for the holidays, but not for average meals, and frozen TV dinners (cheap store-brands, which were never filling) would also have been a possibility, but May-May has never had a cookbook because her mother and grandmother made sure she learned to cook by the time she was in elementary school. 


7 p.m. [#wp]

After dinner, the family plays a game of Monopoly. In the years before TVs were common, board games were a popular form of entertainment. Only 9 percent of American households had TVs in 1950, but everybody wanted one. If the family went to a bar or a friend’s house, they might catch Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater. A variety series filled with gags and jokes, it was the most popular show on television in 1950-1951.

7:00 p.m. [#POC]

After doing homework where the older kids help the younger ones, if they can’t watch the neighbor’s television, the older children play stick ball in the streets in from of the apartment building. There is only one television in the neighborhood and the mother of the house is kind enough to let nearly 15 kids pile into her living room to watch The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, and Jackie Gleason before it got late enough to evict them all so they could get some sleep.

8 p.m. [#wp]

Mary gets the kids ready to bed while Robert reads. Following the advice of Dr. Spock, whose child-care Bible came out in 1946, she tries to make bedtime pleasant, with stories or songs. Unlike her parents, who thought too much affection could make a child spoiled, Mary makes them feel loved. Sometimes, she dozes off with them. It’s been a long day.

8:00 p.m. [#POC]

The kids come in from playing stick ball covered in a day’s worth of sweat, sharing the same tub of ever-cooling bath water until they are all bathed. The kids get themselves ready for bed while May-May helps Big Junior get ready for work and sneaks in a few rare moments of intimacy. They work hard to keep their relationship together while dealing with the outside forces of racism, prejudice, and social injustices every time they try to do better for themselves and their kids.

Yep, the white-icized version of American history does make it sound so easy.

—Original [#wp] portion by Rebecca Dalzell from

One thought on “Family Life in the 1940s-50s: A Black/white Comparison”

  1. The Good ole days were good for who? Trump talks about the good ole days, yes for his family. For African Americans they were the Worst of Days.


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