Classic feminine bonding activities?
February 20, 2021 1:19 PM   Subscribe

I'm writing a story about women in the 1930's. What are some stereotypically-feminine, friendship/bonding activities which two or more women would have done back then, that aren't specifically focused on men? Looking for activities more in the realm of leisurely intimacy than tedious-chores/housework. For example: plaiting someone's hair, or teaching a friend to dance.
posted by egeanin to Human Relations (35 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Knitting, quilting, embroidering, rolling out pie crusts. (Based on my maternal aunts.)
posted by BostonTerrier at 1:32 PM on February 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

You might take some inspiration from Little Women although that was set in the US civil war. The March sisters wrote and acted their own short plays at home, wrote songs and stories, read, mended, painted, went skating and walking.... and did some cooking/charity work for the neighbours.
posted by cranberrymonger at 1:38 PM on February 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

Go berry picking, apple picking, mushroom hunting. Preserve the results (though that’s much harder work).

One of my grandmothers who lived in engineering camps had to wait years, sometimes, until one of the other women was also a seamstress and they could fit tricky clothes on each other.

Before cheap recorded music, a lot more people were competent parlor musicians- duets were really popular.
posted by clew at 2:00 PM on February 20, 2021 [5 favorites]

What area of the world?

Where much of my family is from, one answer would be specific types of cooking or food processing that are traditionally done in female-family-and-friends groups.

Listening to the radio is another big one from the 30s. People would gather to listen to the radio at one person's house.

Having a cup of coffee or tea together is another one, but depends where you're at. Where much of my family is from it would be coffee.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 2:00 PM on February 20, 2021 [4 favorites]

Playing bridge or mahjong. Just plain old going over a friend’s house for coffee and gossip.
posted by tchemgrrl at 2:01 PM on February 20, 2021 [5 favorites]

Needlework patterns of the 1930s have lots of "lunch set" or "tea service" patterns, coördinated placemats and runners and doilies and what-all. Sometimes they’re described as being perfect specifically for gatherings of women. So there could be a lot of setting up a really lovely meal for two, or coffee in the children’s sturdy mugs on the back porch, either one!
posted by clew at 2:09 PM on February 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

They might also play golf or tennis together? (A lot of this might also depend on how much money/free time these characters have.)
posted by Countess Sandwich at 2:13 PM on February 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

My mom remembers her aunts buying the sheet music for whatever songs were in the hit parade that week and they and their girlfriends would hang out on the porch and sing together, often with people knitting or crocheting.
posted by corey flood at 2:22 PM on February 20, 2021 [3 favorites]

If it fits for your characters, dog shows are a great venue for female bonding. A shared obsession with dogs, lots of downtime sitting around talking and gossiping.
posted by HotToddy at 2:28 PM on February 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

My mom used to have friends over to listen to records.
posted by FencingGal at 2:33 PM on February 20, 2021

Rolling out thin sheets of dough for baklava, and other elaborate baking projects. In my town, the women at the Greek church start baking very early and fill freezers at the church for the annual Greek Festival, a big fundraiser.
posted by theora55 at 2:34 PM on February 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

A lot depends on their social and economic class.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 2:55 PM on February 20, 2021 [7 favorites]

A lot depends on where your characters are located, as well as their ages and economic class. Much of the 30s is Depression Era, and those details will greatly influence what your characters even can do.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:57 PM on February 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Middle-class Americans in their 20's and 30's! Thank you!
posted by egeanin at 2:58 PM on February 20, 2021

Check out The Group for some inspiration--middle- to upper-class female college students.
posted by chiefthe at 3:19 PM on February 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

It might also depend on marital status and family background. My grandmother went to the movies and the ice cream parlour with her friends when she was single because there were too many siblings crowded around to have friends over for activities at her parent's home. She was never in a position to move out and make new friends before marriage.
posted by bonobothegreat at 3:26 PM on February 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

going for a walk to collect wildflowers together, or four leaf clovers, and then press them in books
posted by cda at 3:34 PM on February 20, 2021

"Good works for the poor" has been coded as a middle-class feminine activity since the Victorian era at least. Perhaps volunteering at a soup kitchen or breadline.

Listening to the radio or to records together. Writing and acting out your own radio plays. Going to the county fair.

In an urban environment: going to "the pictures", window-shopping, department store lunches. I feel like every novel I've read set in that era has at least one department store lunch showdown.
posted by basalganglia at 3:38 PM on February 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

Must it be "stereotypically" feminine? I have photos of my grandmother and her girlfriends partridge hunting. Late 1930s, northern USA. To hear her tell it, this was not an unusual activity for young women. They would have been in their twenties.
posted by evilmomlady at 3:53 PM on February 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Yes for story purposes it must be a "female" activity -- something men traditionally wouldn't do at that time period. So things like listening to records or the radio or hunting are unfortunately not going to work.
posted by egeanin at 4:04 PM on February 20, 2021

It's based on books written by English women in the 1920s-1950s but I would say possibly bringing your knitting over while listening to the radio or records (not just knitting but anything like embroidery, quilting etc). Scrapbooking seems to have been a popular pasttime but maybe for the younger set or people living in the same place.
posted by plonkee at 4:08 PM on February 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

Seconding card games such as bridge. My grandmother had a whole circle of friends in the late 1930s to mid 1940s who played cards together. It was a meaningful social group for her. When she moved away at age 30 to marry and start a family, it was these friends she missed the most.
posted by mochapickle at 4:18 PM on February 20, 2021 [9 favorites]

Women's civic and fraternal organizations were huge then, such as Rebekahs (my family) or Eastern Star, and ladies church groups.

I have some 1930s diaries by one of my Schoharie County, New York, great-grandmothers. Her town (she lived in the village, making it easier to go to meetings) had a Ladies Literary Circle (that started in the 1880s), and she also writes about going to "Study Club." For that, I assume that the members picked a yearly topic and presented a paper at meetings. These are similar to the long-running group depicted in the novel "And Ladies of the Club."

Card clubs were big, as noted above. The Civil War was still within living memory, and women would organize activities around taking flowers to cemeteries on "Decoration Day," as Memorial Day was called well into my childhood.

There were also programs by local Home Bureaus and Woman's Clubs.

Historic newspapers would give you a lot of information. Take a look at New York Historic Newspapers, for example.
posted by jgirl at 4:43 PM on February 20, 2021 [6 favorites]

Listening to the radio or to records together.

And practicing the latest dances.

Setting each other’s hair.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:12 PM on February 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

Just talking about the USA: women got the right to vote in 1920. There is no hard data I can cite but my strong suspicion is that they voted left.

My sources are all dead now but they talked politics while knitting and tuning the shortwave. They really did. They were alarmed about Hitler and had sons. They understood that a new war would be theirs.

My mom's oldest sister liked Nashville and then Chicago and died a pig farmer but she was totally into the Equal Rights Amendment.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 6:30 PM on February 20, 2021

Thirding bridge. My grandmother was part of two different bridge clubs starting in the late 30s, I think, that met for literally decades. It was her main social outlet for much of that time.
posted by charmedimsure at 7:32 PM on February 20, 2021 [3 favorites]

I don’t know if they had them in America, but Women’s Institutes were huge in Canada. The women would gather for education related to female spheres such a home food safety science, lobbying/activist opportunities related to women, and collecting local history- especially the women’s contributions.
posted by saucysault at 8:17 PM on February 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

Playing mahjong.
posted by mono blanco at 8:34 PM on February 20, 2021

see also The Decade American Went Mahjong Crazy.
posted by mono blanco at 8:37 PM on February 20, 2021

I did some research about the young women telephone operators who used to work in the telephone exchange building (central office) near where I lived. I found this amazing snippet in the employee news from the November 1926 issue of Pacific Telephone Magazine:

"The Ukelele Club of Mission office, San Francisco, gave another wiener roast at Fleishhacker's beach. After a swim at Sutro Baths they departed for the beach, where all enjoyed one of San Francisco's incomparable moonlight nights."
posted by dreamyshade at 8:57 PM on February 20, 2021 [6 favorites]

Gardening, growing and showing flowers, making flower arrangements for home or the church.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 10:27 PM on February 20, 2021

It is a decade earlier, but my grandma (b. 1906) and her female circle scrapbooked like crazy as teenagers and young women - like pages on each other, their favorite movie stars, quotes, poems, weird little sketches and paintings in watercolor and gouache, pictures of handsome boys, etc. Unlike modern scrapbooking, they were really scrounging for decorative materials - so you get a lot of innovation in the materials in them aside from the clippings and drawings. They'd pass them around and between each other and make comments and add things and pass them around again in person.

You could also get records for everything. So anyone could listen to music, but you could also get records on how to speak properly (like get rid of a regional accent), or lectures about this or that - sermons, politics, &c. For grandma and her family and friends, it was definitely a female group activity to listen to sermons or public lectures on the phonograph that replaced the "improving literature" of the generation before.
posted by Tchad at 5:57 AM on February 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

Shelling peas, processing veg from the garden, canning
posted by fancyoats at 10:38 AM on February 21, 2021

Bible study and church activities?
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 4:00 PM on February 21, 2021

Hunting might have been regional, but listening to records or the radio was completely "feminine" as a group activity in that era.
posted by cyndigo at 6:24 PM on February 21, 2021

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