On 5 October 2017, a Facebook page called “Pictures in History” shared a photograph supposedly depicting an American housewife in the 1930s who was committed to a psychiatric facility for the offense of failing to take “proper care of her husband”:
The caption, previously published by a Tumblr user in 2014, claimed that wives could be institutionalized and subjected to shock therapy for failing to smile often enough:
In the 1930s, if a woman was considered “depressed” or if she wasn’t “taking proper care of her husband” it was legal for her to be sent to a psych ward for a full attitude adjustment. This photo shows a smiling treatment used to condition a woman into always wearing a smile. Experts believed that if a woman saw herself smiling that it would become natural practice and she would be “cured.” This often went along with shock therapy.
There appears to be some historical revisionism at work here, however. As a critique of gender roles and expectations, the image of a woman with a paper smile attached to her face would seem more pertinent to the 1950s, a time frequently portrayed as the apex of the American household, than the during the 1930s and the Great Depression, when the main challenge faced by most people, regardless of gender, was just getting by.
For all its ubiquity, the post-World War II stereotype of the beaming homemaker in popular culture stood in sharp contrast to the plight of real women who had gotten a taste of freedom during the war, taking on jobs and responsibilities formerly held by men, only to be handed back their aprons and consigned to the kitchen when the troops returned home from overseas:
Women in uniform took office and clerical jobs in the armed forces in order to free men to fight. They also drove trucks, repaired airplanes, worked as laboratory technicians, rigged parachutes, served as radio operators, analyzed photographs, flew military aircraft across the country, test-flew newly repaired planes, and even trained anti-aircraft artillery gunners by acting as flying targets
At the war’s end, even though a majority of women surveyed reported wanted to keep their jobs, many were forced out by men returning home and by the downturn in demand for war materials. Women veterans encountered roadblocks when they tried to take advantage of benefit programs for veterans, like the G.I. Bill. The nation that needed their help in a time of crisis, it seems, was not yet ready for the greater social equality that would slowly come in the decades to follow.
Despite social expectations, then, many women in the post-war era, were not, in fact, the happy homemakers men wanted them to be, which ultimately gave rise to the counter-trope (most famously explored in Betty Friedan’s feminist manifesto The Feminine Mystique) of the dissatisfied housewife. Ironically, although this dissatisfaction undoubtedly pushed some women into psychiatric treatment, the growing acceptance of psychoanalytic theory during that period also, according to sociologist Jonathan Metzl, “enabled the perception — indeed, the misperception — that women’s unrest led to symptoms in men.”
That the dissatisfaction of women posed a threat to domestic tranquility during the 1950s and ’60s was clearly seen as a problem, then, though to the extent anyone proposed a medical solution — for sufferers of either gender — it tended to be in the form of drugs such as Valium (“Mother’s Little Helpers”), not institutionalization and shock therapy (though such was not unheard of).
But again, this all took place after World War II, not during the 1930s when the photograph in question was allegedly taken. Unhappiness wasn’t considered a gender issue during the Depression. Indeed, most people were too busy surviving to worry about whether they were happy or not. Historian Susan Ware writes:
“We didn’t go hungry, but we lived lean.” That expression sums up the experiences of many American families during the 1930s: they avoided stark deprivation but still struggled to get by. The typical woman in the 1930s had a husband who was still employed, although he had probably taken a pay cut to keep his job; if the man lost his job, the family often had enough resources to survive without going on relief or losing all its possessions. … Women “made do” by substituting their own labor for something that previously had been bought with cash or by practicing petty economies like buying day-old bread or warming several dishes in the oven to save gas. Living so close to the edge, women prayed that no catastrophic accident or illness would swamp their tight budgets. “We had no choice,” remembered one housewife. “We just did what had to be done one day at a time.”
In many ways men and women experienced the Depression differently. Men were socialized to think of themselves as breadwinners; when they lost their jobs or saw their incomes reduced, they felt like failures because they couldn’t take care of their families. Women, on the other hand, saw their roles in the household enhanced as they juggled to make ends meet. Sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd noticed this trend in a study of Muncie, Indiana, published in 1937: “The men, cut adrift from their usual routine, lost much of their sense of time and dawdled helplessly and dully about the streets; while in the homes the women’s world remained largely intact and the round of cooking, housecleaning, and mending became if anything more absorbing.” To put it another way, no housewife lost her job in the Depression.
In any case, we are left with a Facebook post alleging that a woman was institutionalized by her husband and forced to wear an illustrated grin taped to her face as “smile therapy” to make her a more agreeable caretaker for her husband. We are also told that such was a legal and common practice in the 1930s, yet not a single source is cited to support these claims, nor could we find external evidence to corroborate them.
The image, mysterious as it is, does not appear to depict a patient in an mental institution. On the contrary, the subject is wearing street clothes, jewelry, styled hair, and makeup. Far from clarifying the mystery, a reverse image search simply led us down a different rabbit hole to a 2014 article recounting a strange urban legend about an attempt to combat a suicide epidemic in 1930s Hungary by creating what was called a “smile club.” The photo was attributed (perhaps accurately, perhaps not) to an issue of a Dutch tabloid magazine called Het Levin published in 1937. We found no evidence suggesting that it was of American origin, or that it depicts a patient undergoing “smile therapy” in a mental institution.
We judge the claim that women were institutionalized and made to wear fake smiles to make them happier housewives in the 1930s as false. Exaggerated claims about past indignities visited upon the American housewife such as these are not uncommon in modern folklore. As we’ve had occasion to observe before, such stories are alluring partly because they allow us to feel morally superior to the generations that preceded us:
It has become fashionable to portray outdated societal behaviors and attitudes — ones we now consider desperately wrongheaded — to be worse than they really were as a way of making a point about how much we’ve improved. When we despair over the human condition and feel the need for a little pat on the back, a few startling comparisons between us modern enlightened folks and those terrible neanderthals of yesteryear give us that. We go away from such readings a bit proud of how we’ve pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps and with our halos a bit more brightly burnished.
The juxtaposition of wonderful modernity with a tawdry past also serves to reinforce the ‘rightness’ of current societal stances by making any other positions appear ludicrous. It reminds folks of the importance of holding on to these newer ways of thinking and to caution them against falling back into older patterns which may be more comfortable but less socially desirable. Such reinforcement works on the principle that if you won’t do a good thing just for its own sake, you’ll surely do it to avoid being laughed at and looked down upon by your peers.
To that we would simply add that exaggerating the wrongheadedness of our forebears can be taken to such extremes (case in point above) that it is we who end up looking ludicrous when we fall for it.
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