In the 1950s and 60s the British Medical Association produced a monthly magazine for the general public rather than for doctors. With short, accessible medical articles on myriad themes, Family Doctor is a treasure trove for anyone wanting to understand the landscape of health advice in Britain at the time. It’s important not to skip the ads, though, as historian Fred Cooper makes clear.
In the 1950s and 1960s – like today – loneliness was surrounded by medical, political and cultural anxieties. Also like today, the way the feeling was understood had a complex and awkward relationship with capitalism and consumption. In this 1954 Unilever advert for Lifebuoy Toilet Soap, a young woman navigates the tensions of living away from home for the first time.
Appearing in Family Doctor magazine, the advert was aimed at a health-conscious readership drawn primarily from the middle classes. The first drawing in the story sets up the desired outcomes that could be made possible by using Lifebuoy: female friendship and shared domesticities. This was not a neutral topic: at the time there were visible and widespread fears for the health of single, working women in lonely flats.
Mary’s first thought is a profoundly personal questioning; this frame perfectly captures the familiar disquiet of friendship unreturned. Perhaps unavoidably, her instinct is to frame the interaction as the result of an individual failing, an inability to connect. While taking place at work, this rejection has followed her home, altering her relationship with that solitary, transitional space.
It’s clear how relieved she is here at discovering a cosmetic explanation with an obvious solution. There is no need for serious introspection: her workmate’s aversion is sensory and visceral, and the hygiene required is physical, not mental. In the gendered context of the time, only deodorised and clean female bodies are acceptable, so Mary’s loneliness is a product of the way others see her.
In her 1995 book ‘Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest’, Anne McClintock understands soap as a “technology of social purification”. It became a means of exerting bodily discipline bound up wholly with race, colonialism, gender and class. In this frame, we witness a ritualistic transformation from an unacceptable body to a pristine and regulated ideal. This advert should be understood as part of a deeper conflation between consumption and health; previous slogans for Lifebuoy included “Makes health infectious” and “For saving life”.
In the final image, the story concludes with social and sensory rehabilitation. Mary’s colleague agrees to move in with her; their positions are reversed, with Joan now seeking the friendship that she had previously spurned. Crucially, Joan has smelled the change wrought by Lifebuoy, overcoming her own sensory reservations, but has also witnessed the conspicuous new social currency that Mary enjoys. Signified here by relief from loneliness, health is cumulative; and, as earlier adverts promised, infectious.
In other adverts, loneliness is more deeply submerged. Paid for by the Gas Council and appearing in a 1960 edition of Family Doctor, this depiction of domestic harmony and consumption unwittingly lays bare the isolation and emptiness experienced by many middle-class housewives. Unhappiness was inextricably linked with the landscape of the home; the philosopher Mary Scrutton, for example, wrote in 1956 of the “dreadful drip of tears into a thousand sinks”.
Medical advice to the wives of business executives often emphasised the part they had to play in their husbands’ health and success. Women were instructed to keep a restorative home, to live up to feminine stereotypes of contented compliance and to do unseen work in pursuit of their husband’s career objectives. Particularly in unfamiliar new suburbs and housing estates, much of this work was undertaken in unbroken solitude.
In the 1950s and 60s there were serious concerns about the interwoven effects of working alone at home and living through the achievements of men. What the feminist writer Betty Friedan termed “the problem with no name” was frequently described and dissected in post-war Britain. This advert represents the narrative that Friedan and many others spoke out against: that women could be fulfilled by the modernisation of household technology and the ready availability of consumer goods.
If the preceding frames invite the present-day reader to reflect – through the prism of feminism in its various incarnations from the 1950s onwards – on the silent loneliness of the life depicted, how much worse will it be when this unnamed wife follows her husband to Rio, far away from friends or family?
About the author
Fred Cooper is a historian and research associate at the Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health, University of Exeter. He works on loneliness, solitude, alienation and estrangement, past and present.