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Radio entered American homes about a century ago. It changed life everywhere. It transformed rural life most of all, giving listeners a tenuous, vital connection to the wider world. At first it offered morning farm market prices, news, prayer, and a separate evening session of music before signoff, which in most of the country came early. Once most local stations were wired into national networks, big advertisers made more lavish programs possible, and what we now call old time radio flourished. Relatively few women worked outside the home in those days, so the afternoon became the traditional time for radio sponsors to reach and entertain them. Women, generally being more sociable than men, were especially glad to have radio’s substitute companionship during long hours of housework. Serial dramas with appealing and/or hissable characters instantly became popular.
Being a homemaker has always been a tough job, but 70-100 years ago it required physical labor to a degree that few of us lucky moderns realize. Hanging the wash, keeping an anxious eye on the clouds, and bringing it in were tiring enough, but the washing was also done by hand, scrubbing on a washboard. Variety had a once-amusing, condescending 1920s term for daytime drama, which it continued to use for three decades: “women’s washboard weepers.” That general line of midcentury wit is where the term “soap opera” comes from.