“You know who June Cleaver is, right?” the library customer inquired, “You remind me of her, sort of put-together and calm.”
So, June–AKA Barbara Billingsley in vintage TV’s Leave it to Beaver—and I can both act. At the reference desk, anyone may inquire about potentially any topic, while printers, computers, and other technologies develop glitches and tics. Calmness would be the ideal mode, so if a low-simmering state of vigilance reads as such, all the better.
But who would aspire to June’s crisp pearl-adorned, high-heeled perfection, anyway? She dressed more elegantly to vacuum the carpet than most people currently do to attend weddings.
Pearls, spike heels, and shirtdresses are trendy now, and so is June (still). As shorthand for “unrealistic wifely/maternal role model in postwar America” Mrs. Cleaver has long served (as she did fresh-baked cookies for the boys and coffee for Ward) to instigate discussions of gender roles, consumer trends, historical accuracy. Searching Academic Search Complete or Masterfile with “June Cleaver” as keyword, you’ll find such articles as “And June Cleaver Seemed So Cheery” and “Shadows of Suburbia”.
As we mark the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, the end of Hilary Clinton’s term as Secretary of State, and the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, it’s useful to know that Ms. Billingsley (94 when she died in 2010) was in fact a divorced working mother at the time she portrayed June.
According to American Decades online, in 1959, “two out of five women with husbands and school-age children worked outside the home.” Audiences knew even then that those 50s and 60s serenely stereotypical TV families didn’t mirror reality. Still, wasn’t it agreeable to imagine, as parents increasingly juggled workplace and household, how it would be to live in houses that nice and have time to leisurely discuss a playground spat in the middle of the afternoon?
Laura Shapiro’s Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America entertainingly considers how the food industry, gender expectations, and emerging food celebrities both reflected and changed America. While one can’t picture June purchasing a cake mix or serving Spam, Shapiro reveals how iconic products like those (and Jell-O!) signified cultural evolution. You, too, may be prompted to get your hands on a copy of Peg Bracken‘s groundbreaking I Hate to Cook Book (which the library has–50th anniversary edition.)
All this household-level ferment occurred in tumultuous times chronicled by library resources, including The Fifties in America, The Sixties in America, Neil Sheehan’s Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, and Marabel Manning’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.
Getting back to June: what would she have read when she wasn’t dusting the living room suite? We guess that she’d choose some of the titles from the 1950s Fiction handout available at the Reference Desk. Dare we speculate whether she’d have borrowed one of those trendy steamy romance trilogies if they’d been around in 1959? Some shirtdresses featured nice paperback-sized pockets…