Not Just Innocent Additions: Children in 1940s-1950s U.S. Coffee Advertisements

Many advertisements feature children. These advertisements may be trying to sell toys, candy, or tickets to an amusement park. One item that usually does not include children is coffee. In the 1940s and 1950s, however, a number of American coffee advertisements featured children. Because the beverage was not consumed by many children due to advertising campaigns claiming that coffee stunts children’s growth, their presence in these advertisements is notable (Schley).

This poses the question: what is the purpose of including children in an advertisement that is not meant for them? Upon noticing that most of the children included are girls, however, it starts to become clear. Several advertisements from this time period feature children present within the image while a woman prepares or serves coffee (what I refer to as passive participants in this project). In other advertisements, a young girl prepares or serves coffee to her family members herself (active participants). By using these two categories of images, I will be investigating the following research question: How were children used as a tool to further domesticate and feminize the production and serving of coffee in the household, and how did these advertisements instill the expectation that girls would follow in their mother’s footsteps?

These advertisements were most likely placed in women’s magazines, meaning they were meant for women to see. As scholar Nancy A. Walker summarizes, these magazines often celebrated women’s primary role as homemaker (Walker ix). Therefore, their incorporation of children may be part of a larger structural barrier keeping women in the kitchen. On a greater scale, I am interested in how these advertisements upheld the patriarchy through their suggestions on who makes the coffee in the house, as well as power—if children are capable enough to make coffee, what does that say about the power that a woman has in her own domestic duties? Overall, I will argue that children were not simply innocent additions to coffee advertisements and instead were part of a patriarchal advertising framework keeping women and girls in the kitchen.

This project consists of two parts: 1) advertisements where children are present while a woman makes or serves coffee and 2) advertisements featuring young girls making or serving coffee for their family members. Each section focuses on three U.S. advertisements from the 1940s or 1950s. Before these sections begin, I will provide an overview of the history of food advertising at this time.

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