10 Reasons The Great Depression Actually Benefitted Single Women in New York
The 1929 stock market crash devastated many Americans. But for single women, the Great Depression that followed was not all a bad story. People put off marriage and, for the first time, many single women went to work, lived, and even traveled independently. Marjorie Hillis, a Vogue editor living a glam bachelorette life in New York, became that era’s guru to the single girl. She wrote several guidebooks, including Live Alone and Like It: A Guide for the Extra Woman.
Joanna Scutts recently published The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It. In a two-part interview on the Postcard Academy podcast, Joanna shares fascinating insight on Marjorie’s life and on the opportunities that opened up for single women in the 1930s. Here are the top 10 highlights.
Women could find work.
While many men struggled to find jobs during the Depression, a lot of offices wanted women, at least white, middle-class women, to file, take dictation, and perform other admin work. Back then, jobs were completely different for men and women — they even had their own ‘help wanted’ sections of the newspaper. “So, it was a time of great possibility for a lot of people,” Joanna says. “A lot of women found themselves independent, in a way that they hadn’t been, or hadn’t expected to be.”
As a magazine editor who understood her readers, Marjorie knew many single women wanted a life that went beyond nanny to niece and nephew. She also knew how society stigmatised and ignored these women, and she made it her job to change that. “She realized what made her happy was living by herself, living by her own rules, and she decided she wanted to share this with the world,” Joanna says.
Women could live alone and like it.
The Barbizon Hotel for Women offered safe, affordable, short- and long-term housing to single women moving to New York City. Famous residents throughout the decades included Joan Crawford, Grace Kelly, Sylvia Plath, Joan Didion, and Candice Bergen. They had curfews and couldn’t bring men upstairs, but they did have parlours downstairs for entertaining. Renting a room in the Barbizon was not easy — Joanna notes that women needed references and were judged by their family, appearance, demeanour, and wardrobe. But once you were in, you had a fantastic network of other aspiring women to hang out with, plus a gym, pool, and free afternoon tea.
Marjorie Hillis recommended the Barbizon to well-to-do women visiting New York for a week or two. But if you planned on making the city your home, she advocated the pleasures of living alone, without roommates (New York was much cheaper then).
Marjorie “was a great believer in treating your evenings at home alone as a treat, and not a failing,” Joanna says, “using an evening at home to take a long bath, and cover yourself in all kinds of lotions and perfumes.”
Women learned the art of mixology.
It’s hard to imagine now, but Prohibition, when America banned alcohol, lasted from 1920–1933. Women from Marjorie’s mother’s generation didn’t drink and a woman who kept liquor in her cupboard “was referred to in hushed tones as a woman with an affliction, like insanity or epilepsy,” Marjorie wrote in 1939’s Live Alone and Like It. But by the time that book came out, the booze was flowing again in restaurants and clubs, such as the Rainbow Room and Stork Club.
Even if you abstained from alcohol, most likely you’d still mix drinks for guests in your home. Marjorie said you didn’t have to serve drinks at all, but if you did, do it right. She had little patience for women who didn’t know their liquor.
“You see them in bars, looking vague when their escorts ask them what they want,” Marjorie wrote, “But why should men be the only ones to know their drinks? If you’re going to serve them, as apparently you are, why not serve the right ones at the right time and know how to mix them? It’s not an asset to be known as that woman who serves the terrible apple-jack cocktails.”
She spelled out the ABCs of alcohol, including recipes, in Live Alone and Like It, starting from the beginning: “The seven essential bottles contain sherry, gin, Scotch, rye, French and Italian vermouth, and bitters.”
Women could go to the hottest clubs — if they rented a gent.
After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, nightlife became much more glamourous in New York City, with ballrooms, dinner, drinks, big band music, and jazz. But women weren’t allowed in alone. Bouncers, often ex-bootlegger gangsters, were hired to keep the gender ratio balanced, and turned away solo and groups of women. But there were clever workarounds.
In her Guide to New York, Marjorie recommended you ‘rent-a-gent’ through Guide Escort Service, founded by Midwestern transplant Ted Peckham. As Joanna notes in her book, Ted thought it unjust that underemployed men and wealthy women had to sit home alone during the Great Depression, so he created an agency to unite them for nights out on the town.
“He got restaurant managers and hotel managers to recommend his service to their guests, and he supplied men, who he always claimed were the cream of the crop,” Joanna says. “They’d all gone to Ivy League colleges, they were all smart and presentable, and, you know, impeccable morals. They would take you out for the evening, and that was all there was to it.”
Not believing him, New York City’s vice squad shut him down after a few years, but from Marjorie’s point of view, this was a practical solution to a problem for single women. “Once he was shut down, nothing quite like that arose in his place,” Joanna says.
Women became more than just ‘wife’ or ‘mother’ demographics.
During the Great Depression, department stores capitalized on a new market — single women. Thanks in part to Marjorie’s books, they realized they didn’t have to wait for women to become wives and mothers before they became loyal customers.
In the 1930s, in-store displays of Marjorie’s books were surrounded by “elegant negligees, cocktail shakers, and all kinds of, stylish, single-lady accoutrements,” Joanna says.
“They pulled quotations from the book and blew them up and made posters out of them. It was this idea that the live-alone lifestyle was something that could be branded. It sounds sort of exploitative, but actually, I think it was refreshing. It was gratifying, to suddenly be considered a viable part of a consumer society where you actually have a role to play, and your money’s as good as a married woman’s.”
Women could call up Vogue for fashion advice.
Women visiting New York in the 1930s had many department stores to choose from. Marjorie also suggested they ring up Vogue, where she worked, and ask the women directly for fashion advice. Back then, the magazine was more accessible and Vogue made a lot of its money selling patterns to women so they could sew the fabulous fashions they saw in its pages.
In Live Alone and Like It and Orchids on Your Budget, Marjorie also offered fashion advice to help women maintain their single lady, glamourous lifestyle without breaking the bank. Joanna says Marjorie advised “‘don’t go shopping without knowing exactly what you’re looking for. Knowing what you’re looking for means knowing what you already have, knowing what you need, and not being seduced by whatever is the latest fashion.
“‘There are things you can compromise on, and things you can’t. Spend money on a good pair of shoes, but you can get an evening wrap or decorative accessories for an evening out as cheap as you like. Resist temptation, and just buy what you really need, what you really love, and take care of it.”
Women could have a man over, and if society didn’t like it, too bad.
When asked if it was proper for a woman living alone to entertain a man (and, if so, how and when do you get rid of him), Marjorie replied:
“As far as propriety goes, a man might come for dinner and stay long enough to take the milk in, and no offense to anyone. (This, we admit, is improbable.) Or it might be time for him to go after the first highball. How to get rid of him depends entirely on your type.
“However, before making the attack, it’s a good idea to decide whether you want him to go for good or merely for the occasion. In the first instance, it’s a simple matter. Just tell him so in good plain English. (This will sometimes work in the second instance; but you must be sure of your man.)
“If you want him to come again soon, a little tact is usually wiser. You might begin with, ‘Let me get you a glass of water (nothing stronger) — it’s hours since you had that highball.’ This will get you both up and give you the advantage. You can keep on standing, which will eventually wear down any man (if you don’t drop first).”
Joanna says Marjorie’s advice on men is consistent with the rest of her advice, meaning “you have to make your own decision. She’s not here to tell you that it’s okay, or not okay, to have a relationship, ‘have an affair,’ as she calls it. She says it’s up to you, it’s not your family’s business, it’s not her business, it’s your business. She does say that she thinks it’s not wise to enter into an affair before you’re 30.”
Women could dine solo without it being weird.
OK, it was still novel for women to eat alone in the 1930s. However, a chain of restaurants called Schrafft’s became a sensation by offering women a relaxed place to have lunch during a work or shopping break (Mad Men fans, Betty Draper ate here). As an alternative, the Algonquin offered ‘both an affordable lunch and the opportunity to gawk at the celebrities who gathered in the dining room,’ Joanna notes in her book, The Extra Woman.
Women could treat themselves and not feel guilty.
Marjorie believed that pleasure and happiness were connected. “Which sounds very obvious,” Joanna says, “but I think we still have puritanical reservations about pleasure. We talk far more about guilty pleasures than we do about actual pleasure.”
Marjorie loved elegant loungewear and a garment called a ‘bed jacket,’ something you wear to keep your shoulders warm while sitting up to read or have breakfast in bed, which was one of her great delights.
“She really emphasised that the clothes you wear around the house by yourself should be beautiful, should be something that makes you feel good. It shouldn’t just be your ratty sweatpants, but something you wouldn’t feel embarrassed by if somebody showed up unexpectedly at your doorstep.
“She believed that material things could bring a real pleasure, and real happiness, and I think that still feels revolutionary. We talk about these things, always, as though ‘they’re never going to fill the hole in your life,’ and she said, ‘You know what? Maybe they can!’”
Women had permission to be happy on their own. At least from Marjorie, their live-aloner guru.
Marjorie Hillis lived alone and loved it, at least until her 50s, when she got married. Of course people gave her grief about this, but she never proclaimed that solo-living was the best and only lifestyle. Rather, she pointed out that it’s probable that everyone will be alone at some point, through choice or divorce, or some other life event. It’s up to you to make life a glorious adventure or a horrible misery, whatever your circumstance.
“You have to decide what kind of a life you want, and then make it for yourself,” Joanna says on what we should take from Marjorie’s legacy. “It’s very easy, especially for women, to put everyone else’s happiness ahead of their own. Happiness is something that you deserve, no matter what your romantic situation is.”
Considering the books that publishers have bombarded women with over the decades: Sex and the Single Girl, The Rules, Why Men Love Bitches… Marjorie Hillis’ advice on self-love and happiness still seems revolutionary.
If you liked this article, you might enjoy the Postcard Academy travel podcast. Each week, expats and adventurers share their insider travel tips on the best food, nightlife, and cultural experiences in the most interesting places around the globe. I’m your host, Sarah Mikutel, an American who’s spent the last 7 years living in, and traveling around, Europe.
Originally published at postcardacademy.co.