Symbols of Success

November 1959 cover of Ebony

In Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow, Jacqueline Jones briefly contrasted the treatment of women’s work in Ebony, the “nation’s largest-circulation black magazine,” to that in Life, its white counterpart.  [1]  Jones asserted that while both magazines spoke to traditional, middle class values, Ebony promoted black civil rights and emphasized “intelligence and diversity in women,” while Life confined women to the home through its “unidimensional image of women’s work.” [2]

November 16, 1959 cover of Life

This description and the lack of supporting images left me curious about the actual content of each magazine.  Did it hold up to Jones’ analysis?  Luckily, complete copies of both are available on Google Books.  While there’s great content in both issues, I chose to compare just the advertisements from the November 1959 issue of Ebony to the November 16, 1959 issue of Life. [3] (Since Life was published weekly and Ebony monthly, I chose the Life issue from the middle of the month).   Even just the ads in these particular issues upheld Jones’ assertion of Ebony as a more progressive and leftist magazine that encouraged black women to work.

Advertisements in Ebony urged women to seek job training and become a “symbol of success” while ads in Life placed women safely within the domestic sphere.  An ad placed at the very beginning of this issue of Ebony encouraged women to “Enjoy steady pay every day as a nurse!” and sign up for a “home study course” whose completion would guarantee $65 per week. [4]  Although the ad is for a teaching program, it still promotes work outside of both the home and the service industry, and this training implies getting an education in a certain skill.

A Life ad for Farberware cookware, in contrast, stated that, “A woman’s life, it would seem, is fraught with the problems of raising children to maturity, husbands to affluence, and omelets to perfection.” [5]  The word choice of “fraught” suggested that these tasks were so important, so time and energy consuming, that all proper women needn’t bother with anything else.  A woman was failing in her duty as a woman if she neglected these things.  Another Life ad for the Hartford Insurance Group enforced this vision, declared that “Hartford’s weekly check kept us going all through my husband’s slow, costly recovery” – it was better for the wife to support her family through remaining home to care for her husband than joining the workforce to earn an extra income. [6]

Ebony did also run an ad for Aladdin Vacuum Bottles that read “Smart Wife, Hot Lunch, Happy Husband!”, but the inclusion of ads promoting women at work offered a more nuanced image of black women than was presented for white women in Life.  [7]

Most telling, Ebony ran advertisements featuring whites as well as blacks, although never together.  One ad for Martin’s V. V. O. depicted a clearly Scottish man with a wispy, white fairy in the background, images completely separate from 1950s black culture.  Life‘s ads did not picture a single African American, even in service positions.  It’s as though they don’t exist.  This discrepancy contributes to Ebony‘s progressiveness and highlights Jones’ assertion that blacks had “created a culture shaped by values that were not necessarily shared by the people with whom they were struggling to become equal,” of which the differences between the ads in Ebony and Life clearly illustrate. [8]

[1] Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present (New York: Basic Books, 1985), 269.

[2] Jones, 269, 270, 274.

[3] Ebony, November 1959. Volume XV, No. 1.  Accessed on Google Books, April 17, 2010.  Life, November 16, 1959.  Volume 47, No. 20.  Accessed on Google Books, April 17, 2010.

[4] Ebony, 9.

[5] Life, 27.

[6] Life, 131.

[7] Ebony, 42.

[8] Jones, 268.

6 thoughts on “Symbols of Success

  1. I really enjoyed the exploration of this topic that Jones mentions only briefly. While I read about the differences between the ads, I started to wonder if the prices of the magazines differed? The presence of both black and white marketing makes me wonder if the magazine was appealing to a class rather than a race which would most likely reflect itself in the prices of the magazines. This comparison would make an interesting paper topic.

    1. Based on article content, Ebony definitely appealed to black audiences, publishing pieces like “Harry Truman and the Negro,” “South African Colored Beauty Contest,” and “Six Ways to Stop Negro Crime.”

      Ebony was $.35 per monthly issue, proudly displayed on the cover, while Life was $.25 per weekly issue, on the cover until May of 1959 when it was removed. (I thought about getting into this, but it seemed too broad for the scope of my post.) I wonder what was the cost of advertising space in each magazine, and how/if that had any effect on who choose to advertise in these racially divided spaces.

  2. I loved your exploration of comparative issues of Ebony and LIFE! Particularly because it seems to enforce what Evans says in Personal Politics–that media designed for White audiences offered them a no-win alternative (the myth of domesticity PLUS the fact that no ads exist for an alternative source of income). I have to wonder, though, what Ebony’s audience was? A quick glance of the issue on Google Books seems to suggest that they were gearing their advertising and stories toward middle-class Blacks. I wonder what the class stratification of Ebony’s readers were? I also love that the Aladdin vacuum bottle ad seems to try and capitalize on White expectations of domesticity and family.

  3. Great post. Like the others I like that you explored an important issue that was only briefly touched upon in the readings. After reading your post I looked through about five more issues from the fall of 1959 and was amazed at the stark lack of African Americans in the magazine. I was also struck by the number of adds featuring women in domestic/subservient roles.

  4. I found the advertisements and magazine covers very interesting. It is important to remember that while the depiction of women in ads and magazines has changed, American women are still constantly bombarded by pictures of domesticity. Almost all commercials for cleaning products are directed at women, as are baby products and kids foods. It’s not the same as in the 1950s, but many media outlets still stress the importance of playing the domestic role.

  5. As it was one of a few magazines that reflected African American culture in general, Ebony enjoyed a wide African American readership that transcended class. I am willing to argue that Ebony was one of a few spaces that presented African Americans as multidimensional and did not conflate class and race. Also, Jones noted in her work that African American women had been in the workforce in large numbers always; Ebony’s efforts to get them to consider professional career training were geared to encouraging them to go beyond the domestic and agricultural work that the majority of black women did at the time.

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