An analysis of what gender roles were being pushed on girls in the 1950s through their toys.
Gender roles have been placed upon women by society for a very long time. However, how does society teach these roles to little girls? There are a few key ways, one of which is through the child’s toys. Toys for little girls are designed to appeal to them based on society’s expectation of what they should become. A historical height of gendering children’s toys was in the 1950s. So what gender roles were being communicated through the toys of the 1950s?
The source I will be using in order to analyze the gender roles of 1950s toys is a Give American Toys catalog from the November 1953 issue of LIFE Magazine.1 The catalog has a collection of toys, each accompanied by a brief marketing description. Several of these descriptions are explicitly gendered, which causes the toy to be gendered toward either girls or boys. The ads I present are cropped from a catalogue page in order to make identifying each ad I’m referring to easier. I will then analyze what gender roles of each toy is designed to enforce in children.
The advertisement description for our first toy reads:
“Little girls learn the art of make-up, feel so grown-up, with this 14” doll. Her face can be cleaned and made-up again and again! Comes with her own safe eight-piece cosmetic kit by famous Harriet Hubbard Ayer, dressing table, instruction booklet. For ages 5 to 10, it’s a wonderful toy - “it’s Ideal.” $11.98.”
The Harriet Hubbard Ayar Cosmetic Doll’s marketing description immediate uses the phrase “Little girls” when referring to what kids would enjoy this product. This doll then teaches said girls the societal expectation that women should know how to apply makeup and wear it regularly. Make-up was a way for women to conform more easily to the beauty standards of the 50s. It was an expectation for women to want to look good in public and around their beau. The only perceived way to “look good” was to align themselves as closely as possible to the standards of society at that time. And since women in the 50s were expected to wear makeup, it was important to teach them the art of makeup before they became women.2 Thus, toys such as the Harriet Hubbard Ayar Cosmetic Doll were produced to train little girls to start doing makeup at as young as five years old.3
Our second toy is a beauty kit who’s advertisement description is:
“She’ll love to play “grown-up” with her own pastel pink-and-blue beauty kit. Contains: plastic vanity with real mirror and removable drawer; plastic lipstick that really turns; dainty plastic compacts for powder, rouge; manicure set; cleansing tissues; play perfume and other safe, plastic beauty aids. $1.98. Others at $2.98, $1.00.”
For girls that are ready to start pretending to practice makeup on themselves, there is also a “Lady Lovely” Beauty Kit. This product misgenders the child it’s marketed towards using the pronoun “she” instead of explicitly referring to the child as a girl. While in the modern day pronouns don’t necessarily correlate preciously with someone’s gender (ex. someone who identifies as a girl but uses she/they pronouns), in the 50s this meant the toy was produced with only little girls in mind. This pale pink and blue box had every product and tool a little girl could need to practice her pretend makeup. Also, included on the inside lid of the box, was a depiction of what 50s society considered a beautiful girl doing her own makeup. While likely not intentional, this also served to teach girls what the standard of beauty was right on the container of their makeup.4 This toy further taught girls the importance of the art of makeup and helped train them to care about what appearance 1950s society expected they have by the time they grew up.
This baby-doll’s advertisement description says:
“Her arms and legs move like a real baby’s! She cries, she sleeps, she wets - and little girls, age 2 to 6, adore her! Babee-Bee wears matching diaper, knitted booties, and gay little coat to keep her warm. Has her own nursing bottle, too. 13” long, made of squeezable, huggable rubber (can’t break) with Vinyl plastic head. $3.98.”
A major genre of toys advertised towards little girls are dolls. Toy manufacturers strived to come up with as many ways as they could to make said dolls realistic. This next toy once again explicitly names “little girls” as their target market. The So Real! “Babee-Bee” Doll was capable of not only crying and sleeping, but also wetting its diaper. It also came with an assortment of accessories that would be necessary for basic infant care.5 Why would manufacturers want to produce such a realistic doll? These toys were produced in order to train young girls how to care for babies. There was no question of whether these little girls were going to have children of their own when they grew up, so they were provided was as many child-rearing simulation toys as possible.6 The more realistic the doll, the more prepared these children were for motherhood. Women in the 50s were charged with the care of the children while the men worked to provide for the family economically.7 Society expected white, nuclear families raising their children in suburbia. This was a massive shift that occurred following the end of World War II as America emersed itself into the Cold War. Communism drove women to work instead of staying in the home, so naturally the US wanted to keep women in the home to counter communist influences.8 and was emphasized through the popular culture of the time, including children’s toys.9
Our first stroller’s advertisement description is:
“When a dolly’s old enough to sit up by itself, it goes out with “mommy” in a stroller, of course! This faithful replica of a real stroller fits a 26” doll; folds up for storage. Shopping bag attached to the gay plaid body; frame is baked aluminum enamel. Even a foot rest - and rubber tires! For ages 2 to 6. $4.25.”
In 1950s suburbia, mothers were encouraged to take their infants on walks outside around the neighborhood.10 Que the onslaught of toys that enabled little girls to do the same thing. In just this catalog, there are four separate doll stroller advertisements. These are actually the least explicit that they’re marketing towards little girls. They refer to the intended child as a young mommy or mother, which could leave interpretation open for little boys pretending to take on the gender roles of a mother. However, that was not the intention of the advertisement. The first stroller, Playtime’s #304 Folding Doll Stroller, places its appeal in its ability to collapse so it takes up less space when not in use.11
The second stroller is described as:
“For every proud “mommy” age 3 to 9 - to take dolly out for a daily airing. It’s a carbon copy of a real baby’s coach - big enough for a 22” doll. Folds up for easy storage. Has maroon vinyl-leatherette body, white trim; visor-hood to shade the sun; foot brake; rubber tires; sturdy baked aluminum enamel frame. $8.00.”
Playtime’s #308 Folding Doll Coach is gendered similarly to the previous stroller. This advertisement description refers to the child as a “mommy” too.12
The third stroller’s advertisement description reads:
“Just like a real baby’s carriage - right down to the foot brake and rubber tires! Big enough to hold an 18” doll -folds up neatly when not in use. The body is powder-blue vinyl-plastic film, trimmed with red; frame is sturdy baked aluminum enamel. For pint-sized “mothers,” ages 3 to 7. $5.00.”
Playtime’s #305 Folding Doll Coach is once again genders the intended child be referring the kids as “mothers.”13
The final stroller I’m examining’s advertisement description is:
“For your tot’s favorite doll or teddy bear. Beautifully lithographed stroller has shiny, ringing gongs in all four wheels. Stroller in 22” high and 8’ wide with enameled foot rest and tubular steel handle. Strongly built for years of happy play. 1 to 6 year olds. $3.00.”
The Jingle Stroller Chime, interestingly does not specify the gender of the child. It only refers to the intended child as a “tot.”14 I almost didn’t include it because of that fact, but I felt it was significant to note that some products that may have been thought of as gendered, weren’t. Now this may have been because The Going Bell Mfg. Co. felt it was so obviously a toy for girls that they didn’t bother specifying, but it could also be because they didn’t care what child played with this product. Who knows, the Jingle Stroller Chime was very unique in this case compared to the rest of not only the strollers but the catalogue.
A jewelry making kit has the advertisement description:
“She’ll make her own jewelry … and love it! Set contains many sizes and shapes of simulated pearls, pearlized jewels, earring backs, clasps, pins, thread, wire, bead-needles, etc. With simple instructions for making lovely necklaces, earrings, brooches, rings and apparel decorations. For young ladies from 8 to 80. About $3.00.”
Women were also expected to have hobbies that were feminine. Walco PEARL Jewelry Craft is a jewelry craft kit that its marketing description using not only the pronoun “she” but also by referring to its target market as “young ladies.”15 Jewelry making was encouraged as hobby for little girls because it served a duel purpose. Women in the 50s were expected to wear makeup, but also jewelry. This cause jewelry in 1950s America to be labeled as feminine. So because jewelry was something expected of women, little girls were encouraged to participate in jewelry making as a feminine hobby.16 It both taught them the importance of wearing jewelry and provided them a feminine hobby they could develop and maintain into adulthood, as demonstrated by the advertisements stated age range being “from 8 to 80.”17
The final toy product we’re looking at reads:
“A new “twist” to the lovely art of tapestry, needle-point, embroidery! Easy instructions show how to make Christmas socks, purses and many useful items. For girls age 5 to 10 … especially fine as a rainy day or sickroom pastime. Complete with frame, patterns, netting, yarn, needles. $3.50.”
Little girls were also encouraged to learn sewing. Needle and thread arts have been considered by American society to be female hobbies since the nation’s founding. Thus, the Domestic Art! Bodkin Art Frame educated “girls age 5 to 10” on how to practice different kinds of needle-point, tapestry, and embroidery.18 That way, by the time these girls have families of their own they’ll be able to use their hobby for homemaking. This includes embroidering pillows, making wall hangings, and mending clothes.19
The 1950s was an era that especially segregated the gender roles of men and women. Which toys were advertised towards little girls reflects this. Toys for girls were centered around feminine hobbies and training them to be housewives and mothers. These were useful skills they would need in order to further propagate the societal expectation that the women should be in the home raising families. That’s why toys marketed towards little girls were typically centered around child rearing, women’s beauty/style, and feminine hobbies. These toys were designed to prepare children for the societal expectations of the 50s.