‘It is important not to make too much of a fuss about a dinner party…. Better to use the tin-opener than to be hot and flustered.’ A War Bride’s Guide to the U.S.A. (1945)
So you’ve snagged your hunky American G. I. and now you’re looking at a future across the Atlantic. What did you get yourself into and, more to the point, what are you to do about it?
A Guide for the G. I. Bride
‘You have undertaken to become an American — just as millions of other people have done before you….’
So begins the introduction to A War Bride’s Guide to the U.S.A., a little handbook published in June 1945 by Good Housekeeping Magazine at the request of the US Office of War Information. ‘This short guide cannot answer all your questions,’ wrote the author, ‘but it may help you in making plans and in adjusting yourself to American ways of living.’
Just what does she mean by those ‘American ways of living’? That, new G. I. bride, is what I have endeavoured to find out for you.
Americans basically all want to be good housekeepers
Americans, you will find despite what your flyboy has let on, are not a very adventurous people. Most, you should know, ‘want more than anything else to settle down and have a home with children in it.’ With what money, you may well wonder, when I tell you that fewer than 20% of all American families make more than £500 – a year. Food, your greatest expense, will set you back £175 annually. Our threepenny and sixpenny store is to them a ‘five and ten’. Everything is so dear in America that they call the first floor of the home the second floor just to make themselves feel better.
And your husband’s idea of ‘home’ may be, well, somewhat more ‘mobile’ than yours. ‘Americans move often and may’ – I love that may – ‘attach their home feeling almost entirely to their furniture and car. This lifestyle, let the G.I. bride be warned, will make you homesick but ‘you may as well like it.’ You really have no choice.
What to take – and leave behind
Furthermore, your social position is of no interest to Americans. ‘If they like you, they like you, and if they don’t like you, a good address in London is no help.’ Your neighbours will not care to ‘dig into your past’ and will not ‘place’ you by your accent. It is what you are – your own personality no less than your husband’s job – that is important. ‘You and your husband will be judged not so much by what you spend, as by whether you are pleasant company and seem to be on the way up.’
‘Don’t try to outfit yourself on this side of the ocean’ for you may find yourself anywhere between New England and New Mexico. Because of American technology (i.e., ‘central heating’) you will need to experiment with your wardrobe. ‘You may find central heating difficult to get used to – but remember Americans like it, so bear it cheerfully.’ The only clothes worth buying before your journey are British-made sweaters and tweeds: ‘still the best in quality and price.’
Another thing to bring with you is your accent, provided it doesn’t cause misunderstanding. ‘Most English accents, especially when spoken by a girl, are regarded in America as charming.’ But pretty much every other sort of accent is not. ‘Americans believe in a friendly attitude to all kinds of people,’ but (‘just as in all countries’), the practice tends to be something else. In the chapter ‘Americans Are No Angels’ you’ll learn about American ‘unfriendliness’ towards people ‘who seem “different”‘ – like Black Americans, Jews, Catholics, the Japanese, as well as anyone with other political views and, possibly, the British.
That said, an insult from an American can be a form of flattery, just as an American who kids with you may be expressing affection. (But you knew that.) Don’t kid back, not at least ’till you know how’. Also worth mentioning is that Americans ‘use insults as a sign of anger’ – how odd!
If you wish to learn the subtleties of American talk, the ‘best way to start is by reading. Go to the Public Library and talk with the librarian.’ (I’m not making this up.) ‘The best and most painless way to learn about your new home from books is to read novels about your state and region, and then about America. Some books are suggested in the list at the back.’ And – those Good Housekeeping editors being rather business-savvy – ‘look over the women’s household magazines. Subscribe to one of them to help you on styles and ways of doing things about the house.’ Now, which magazine might fit that description?
It’s a hard life ahead of you on the frontier. But luckily we carry some of those back-page book recommendations at the Memorial Library. Namely:
Cather, Willa. My Antonia. ‘Bohemian settlers in Nebraska.’
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. House of the Seven Gables. ‘Stories of New England.’
Mitchell, Margaret. Gone with the Wind. ‘The South, civil war and reconstruction.’
Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. ‘California migrant workers.’
Wister, Owen. The Virginian. ‘The western cattle country.’