10 Reasons The Great Depression Actually Benefitted Single Women in New York

Marjorie Hillis taught women how to live alone and love it.
Life for women in NYC today vs the 1930s.
I’ve got this.

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.”

Dance party at my place. Men optional.

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.

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.

I’ll be your rent-a-gent this evening.

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.

Too much is never enough.

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.

Oh, hi, Vogue. What should I wear?

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.

What? You’re still here?

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:

Best. Lunch. Ever.

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.

Yes, I will take that sequin spacesuit, thank you.

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 Hillis wrote several guides for women, including Live Alone and Like It, Orchids on Your Budget, and New York, Fair or No Fair: A Guide for the Woman Vacationist. Her books attracted both male and female readers, single and married. Even President Roosevelt was photographed reading her work.

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.

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