What Changed and What Didn't: Women in Coffee Advertisements, During and After World War II

by Caroline Burns

In 1920, only five million women were in the workforce. By 1944, over 19 million women were working; 37 percent of women were in the civilian workforce (Lewis and Neville 1995, 217). Despite this drastic change, society’s expectations largely remained unchanged, and this was especially true in advertisements (Lewis and Neville 1995, 223). Coffee’s ability to give us energy leads us to relate it to work and productivity. Work and productivity, especially in the mid-20th century, were associated with men and masculinity. So, while advertisements are not a mirror image of society, they can provide insight into what was expected of women especially during this transformational time. Our associations with coffee can help frame our thinking around the significance of women’s consumption and serving of coffee. Furthermore, women’s magazines specifically played an instrumental role in understanding women’s domestic role during this time (Walker 2000, 66). In this exhibit, I will be looking at coffee advertisements from women’s magazines from during and directly following World War II. 

How do the representations of women in coffee advertisements in women’s magazines during and directly following World War II portray the expected labor of women? During the war, women’s obligations on the homefront changed. They were expected to volunteer, ration, and buy war bonds (Walker 2000). Advertisers portrayed coffee as a good that could help further those responsibilities. Women shown as servers of coffee (both during and after the war) are portrayed as subservient to men, usually their husbands, and as responsible for pleasing them. After the war, there is also a notably different pattern found in their portrayals as consumers, but overall we will see that there is a visual return to normalcy, where women’s portrayals in advertising are back to where they were prior to World War II. This return to normalcy entails a more traditional image of women, either serving coffee or beautified and focused on domestic duties. This has been argued in other research for advertisements more generally, but I will present that this is also a trend amongst coffee advertisements as well.

In this exhibit, I will provide a handful of advertisements from during the war and directly following the war. Each page will represent women during the war as coffee consumers and servers, and after the war as consumers and servers. I will primarily focus on women as consumers of coffee during the war, as this is where I feel I am able to uncover the most untapped information.

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