Was any real-life mother ever as perfect as the Moms who appeared in TV sit-coms during the 1950s and early ‘60s? Could any real woman be perfectly groomed, never flustered, always wise and contented to be confined to the life of a housewife, happy in her immaculate house? Not likely. Certainly not today. But in the decades after World War II, a woman’s role was redefined by television.
Women had shouldered wartime burdens, yet when the men came marching home, wives retreated to the kitchen and the nursery. Postwar affluence meant women didn’t have to work outside the home and motherhood became the focus of most women’s lives. It’s not surprising that television reflected the life most American’s wanted...a happily married couple with two or three children, living in a nice house in the suburbs of a small town and never facing a problem that could not be solved in a half-hour show.
There were several very popular TV shows that featured the idealized family and they were on the air for many years. In some shows, the Dad was the focal character. Ozzie Nelson, Jim Anderson (as portrayed by Robert Young on “Father Knows Best”) and Danny Thomas benignly dominated their TV families. Beaver Cleaver and his brother anchored their sit-com. Usually, the Mom was more of a symbol of domestic solidarity than the star. Only Donna Reed was a big enough name to make Mom the center of attention in her long running series that premiered in 1958 and ended in 1966.
TV’s most popular Moms, Harriet Nelson, Margaret Anderson (played by Jane Wyatt), June Cleaver (Barbara Billingsley) and Donna Reed were almost interchangeable. They were housewives but seldom seen doing housework (although they often wore cute but ineffectual aprons.) Their grooming was impeccable; never a hair out of place. Their wardrobes of smart sportswear and elegant dresses hardly seemed appropriate attire for the lifestyles they were supposed to embody. They spent a lot of time in the kitchen yet never seemed to actually be cooking. Their main function was to offer sensible counseling for confused children and to calm Dad down when things got out of control, ensuring that every half hour ended with all problems solved and the family chuckling happily together.
Although the families and situations were similar from show to show, each had its own identity.
“The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” premiered on TV in 1952. Previously, the show had been heard on radio where enterprising Ozzie, a bandleader, concepted the idea of forsaking music with his vocalist wife and switching to comedy. The Nelson sons, David and Ricky were supporting players at first but as they grew to teens, their popularity overshadowed their parents, especially when Rick Nelson become a rock ‘n roll music idol. When the sons married, their real life wives were incorporated into the show that finally went off the air in 1966 after 435 episodes on ABC.
“Father Knows Best” also began as a radio show, debuting in 1949 and then moving to television in 1954 where it ran until 1963, 203 episodes later. The Anderson family lived in the archetypal Midwestern small town where Jim sold insurance. Movie star Robert Young was father to Betty, Bud and Kathy and he often didn’t know best. But Mom, played by film actress Jane Wyatt, usually did. She was the salt of the earth. However, her East Coast “lock-jaw” upper class accent defied explanation.
“Leave it to Beaver” first aired in 1957 and continued until 1963. At the time it was considered cutting edge situation comedy because seven year old Theodore “Beaver” and his 12-year-old brother, Wally, were more realistic than TV kids had been before and they were definitely the stars. They were played by Jerry Mathers and Tony Dow. Ward (Hugh Beaumont) and June, (Barbara Billingsley) as their parents, were supporting players. The shows scripts were witty and realistic even though the situations were still saccharine by today’s standards.
“The Donna Reed Show” boasted a popular movie star as its leading lady, an Academy Award winner in fact. In “From Here to Eternity” she had portrayed a somewhat shady lady, but is better known today for her role in the legendary Christmas favorite, Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In her long running TV show (1958-1966), Donna Reed was Donna Stone, the epitome of motherly perfection. She was married to a handsome pediatrician (Carl Betz) and Mom to Mary and Jeff. Her saintly wisdom and serene nature and general loveliness ensured her children’s little problems were readily solved.
There were other Moms on early TV, and not all of them were so typically idealized. Lucy Ricardo was usually more interested in wacky schemes to break into show biz than being a Mom to Little Ricky. Good thing Mrs. Trumbull was always available to baby-sit. Perhaps the most heartfelt mother ever on TV was Peggy Wood’s sensitive portrayal of a Norwegian immigrant in “I Remember Mama.” The Hansen family, living in turn of the century San Francisco, had three children, Nels, Katrin and Dagmar. The problems and situations on this early show (1949-1957) were more dramatic than comedic.
From the memorable Mama Hansen to the glossy glamour of Donna Reed, the unforgettable TV Moms of the ‘50s and early ‘60s were followed by generation after generation of Moms from “The Brady Bunch” to “Roseanne.” Television is ever a timely reflection of the world and changing attitudes. Never again will Moms be as perfect (and as bland) as they were during televisions Golden Age, and this paper doll book celebrates those unrealistic icons of American motherhood.
We love you, Mom!