The Other American Kitchen:
Alternative Domesticity in 1950s
Design, Politics, and Fiction

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2004, Volume 3, Issue 2
http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/fall_2004/hellman.htm





Caroline Hellman
The Graduate Center, The City University of New York


Today, Levittown is a model of diversity, McDonald’s promotes salads, Kay Thompson’s Eloise turns Disney in a TV movie, Ford reissues the Thunderbird, and Playboy celebrates its fifty-year anniversary in good taste. The Senate exhumes McCarthy’s papers, Elvis impersonators roam wild, Ozzy Osbourne and family replace Ozzie and Harriet, American Idol replaces The Ed Sullivan Show, and the Mr. Rogers era is sadly over. With each nostalgic tribute, reissue, and revision of a bygone era, the American 1950s looms ever larger than life. The images of this era are icons of American prosperity and success, particularly within the context of the home. After all, some of the most significant events of the 1950s occurred literally in the home, broadcasted into each family room, living room, or den across the nation. The living room, to be sure, was a weighted locale—developers and architects as diverse and as diametrically opposite as William Levitt and Frank Lloyd Wright marketed their home designs with emphasis on the central living space, on togetherness.

But let us walk out of the living room, Mr. Rogers’ semi-public domain, into a seemingly benign space, the American kitchen. The kitchen can be seen as epitomizing the sacred sustenance of the family unit. But it can also be considered as the most political space in the entire home—itself a microcosm of society—in its relevance to social function and its aesthetics of creation, preservation, and waste. This paper traces the physical development of the American kitchen, the significant role of the kitchen in national and international politics, and the portrayal of kitchens in various examples of period literature. Ironically, but not surprisingly, more than just a repository for Jell-O molds and Lipton’s onion dip, the 1950s kitchen plays a significant role on both private and public levels, in terms of both national identity and politics of the marginalized. Assorted historic records testify to the dogged presence of an alternative kitchen, in which traditional, stereotypical semiotics of wife, mother, maid, and Other are subverted.

Figure 1

The kitchen of the 1950s was, of course, part and parcel of the home as a whole. Conflicting styles of architecture and the philosophies behind them during the period introduced the idea of the home—the private—as political and public. “The house of moderate cost is not only America’s major problem but the problem most difficult for her major architects,” Frank Lloyd Wright stated in The Natural House (qtd. Rosenbaum 17). In Levittown, Long Island, in 1947, developer William Levitt sought to solve this “problem.” Synthetic shingles, plastics, and adhesives were components of Cape Cod cottages and Ranch houses, the two categories of houses from which prospective homeowners could choose. House after house was constructed in uniform, tight grid format in this new concept of homogeneous American suburbia (see figure 1). Houses came with televisions already installed, and furniture arrangement suggestions. Levittown was immediately billed as the suburban democratic ideal for everybody. But as Gwendolyn Wright notes in Building the Dream, “Although dense, multi-use communities clearly represented changes in the traditional American way of life, they did not, as yet, suggest the idea that people themselves could direct these changes” (261). Indeed, as Herbert Gans notes in The Levittowners, a sociological study of American middle class ways of life, the town and its contents were planned down to the last detail—from residents not being allowed to hang particular clotheslines in their yards, to the initial ban against fences, to racial discrimination. William Levitt commented:

The Negroes in America are trying to do in sixty years what the Jews in the world have not wholly accomplished in six hundred years. As a Jew I have no room in my mind or heart for racial prejudice. But…I have come to know that if we sell one house to a Negro family, then ninety to ninety-five percent of our white customers will not buy into the community. That is their attitude, not ours…As a company our position is simply this: We can solve a housing problem, or we can try to solve a racial problem, but we cannot combine the two. (qtd. in Halberstam 141)

Here Levitt articulates a disturbing link between politics and domesticity. He states that Blacks expect too much from society and should wait their turn for equal rights. The ultimate message is one of clear discrimination and racism—one subsidized by the federal government through the GI Bill.

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright, however, conceived very different notions for Americans’ new quality, cost-effective housing. Wright applied to the problem his own core principles of architecture: strong relationship between building and site, simplification of form, horizontal emphasis, organic architecture, and central living space. Like Levitt, Wright advertised his idea in terms of American democratic ideals. He combined the words “utopia” and “USA” to coin the term “Usonia,” his vision for moderately priced small houses in suburban American communities (see figure 2). Usonian houses featured one-story horizontal plans, open kitchens, central hearths, and window walls. Flat roofs with large overhangs, unit system walls, and radiant heat were important components of the Usonian house, which was typically private and closed to the street, while open to the garden in the rear of the house. Inexpensive standardized natural materials were utilized, such as wood, brick, concrete, and glass, while unnecessary extras like trim, paint, plaster, and decorative objects were eliminated. Warm tones such as red and gold were often used on the interiors where built-in furniture coordinated and conserved space, and freestanding tables, chairs, and stools had multiple functions. Indirect lighting and simple textiles contributed to minimal decoration. The extension of the house to the garden outside through rear open architecture and windowed walls resulted in the strong interplay of exterior light with interior space. An additional key to the concept of Usonia was cooperative community, with shared facilities. Although many Usonian homes were built, Wright’s larger vision of widespread Usonian communities was never realized. Only two such cooperative communities were formed, in Michigan and New York State during the 1940s and 1950s.

Figure 2

In 1947, at the same time Levittown was under construction, Taliesin apprentice David Henken located a ninety-seven acre site in Pleasantville, Westchester County, New York, for a cooperative housing project. His vision was based on Frank Lloyd Wright’s idea of Usonia, a community of inexpensive, non-elaborate, but tasteful and functional single-family homes built on circular one acre plots (see figure 3). The Pleasantville community was given the name Usonian Homes II, with three houses designed by Wright, the majority designed by Henken himself, and a few designed by other architects. As Wright declared in The Natural House, “The Usonian dwelling seems a thing loving the ground with a new sense of space, light, and freedom—to which our USA is entitled” (qtd. Rosenbaum 185). Although cooperative land ownership and houses for fifty families proved unrealistic, a group mortgage with ninety-nine year leases for the owners, granted by a progressive bank president, was established in 1947. Usonian Homes II thus became one of the only applications of Wright’s utopian vision for America, including design review with shared ownership of property and democratic community government in a suburb. Usonian Homes II was the work of a dedicated group of middle-class citizens who had no formal political agenda but who promoted ethnic and racial diversity and were interested in an idealized American community—one that still exists today.

Figure 3

In 1959, in another example of the powerful connotations of domesticity, the American kitchen burst forth from containment to go on the road. Conflicting ideas of the domestic and the democratic were epitomized in 1959 at the Moscow Kitchen Debate during the height of the Cold War. As Amy Kaplan argues, “The homeland may contract borders around a fixed space of nation and nativity, while it simultaneously expands the capacity of the United States to move unilaterally across the borders of other nations” (61). Bringing the American home with him, Vice President Richard Nixon traveled to Russia to debate issues of interior design and domestic gadgetry with Khrushchev. Nixon declared, “We don’t think this fair will astound the Russian people, but it will interest them. To us, diversity, the right to choose, the fact that we have a thousand different builders, that’s the spice of life. We don’t want to have a decision made at the top by one government official, saying we will have one kind of house. That’s the difference” (qtd. in Halberstam 724). Levitt claimed, “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a Communist. He has too much to do” (qtd. in Marling 253). When Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev visited the United States during the 1950s, Eisenhower wanted him to visit Levittown.

The American exhibition in Moscow included model homes and kitchens with the latest technology, American supermarket displays, and even fashion shows with vignettes from life in the United States. There were multiple models of sewing machines, hi-fi sets, convenience foods, twenty-two cars, and a Disney movie theater. Fashion models enacted American rituals such as weddings, honeymoons, and barbeques. All of these components, in addition to American corporate buildings in miniature, advertised the American way of life. There were emblems of Cold War propaganda and the success of capitalism. Khrushchev deemed the American exhibition excessive, indicative of vacuous consumerism. Indeed, American prosperity was extremely hyperbolized, further so by Russians hungrily ingesting (literally and figuratively) each icon. Visitors consumed food and free Pepsis from the supermarket display at the rate of nineteen thousand per hour for the entire forty-two days of the show. More than aesthetics, the kitchens represented social values. But if all aspects of American life could be so easily replicated, including supposedly meaningful rituals, the authenticity of the original was doubtful.

Figure 4

The environment of the Kitchen Debates was extremely politically charged (see figure 4). As Kaplan contends, “The notion of the nation as a home, as a domestic space, relies structurally on its intimate opposition to the notion of the foreign. ‘Domestic’ has a double meaning that links the space of the familial household to that of the nation, by imagining both in opposition to everything outside the geographic and conceptual border of the home” (59). While homes and kitchen preferences seemed more benign and pleasant to debate than nuclear war, they were actually lethal propaganda weapons. They were intrusion of the highest order, as they infiltrated the home. Karal Ann Marling writes, “The American kitchens in Moscow—today’s kitchen and tomorrow’s—provided a working demonstration of a culture that defined freedom as the capacity to change and to choose and dramatize its choices in the pink-with-pushbuttons aesthetic of everyday living” (283). The actual kitchen debate was only a few minutes long. Nixon claimed that the cameras happened to be rolling as he and Khrushchev had a tense exchange, and insisted their dialog was impetuous, though the lines seem scripted. The following is an excerpt from a toast that closed the event:

Khrushchev: We stand for peace [but] if you are not willing to eliminate bases than I won’t drink this toast.
Nixon: He doesn’t like American wine!
K: I like American wine, not its policy.
N: We’ll talk about that later. Let’s drink to talking, not fighting.
K: Let’s drink to the ladies!
N: We can all drink to the ladies. (qtd. Marling 280-81)

Here Khrushchev is force-fed American domestic politics in both senses of the word “domestic.” The political importance of the kitchen is evident. The men perform well, enacting a drama of domestic dispute. Ironically, even as women modeled the kitchens, the toast conveys the fact that women were only significant on the level of the domestic inside the home, clearly powerless and irrelevant on a national/international scale. So ended the debate, with the kitchen epitomizing conflicting philosophies of democracy vs. communism, choice vs. conformity, and their inversions.

As Ellen Lupton observes, “Although the built environment is designed largely by men, much of it’s constructed with female consumers in mind; design thus contributes to the ‘making’ of modern woman” (12). To understand the political intersection of women and the kitchen, one can examine its history, as well as its storytellers. In The Kitchen in History, Molly Harrison makes the following observation:

Social history is inevitably pieced together as a mosaic, and this story of the kitchen, particularly so. If it seems at some times a repetitive story, at others perhaps a somewhat contradictory one, the fault lies in ourselves—in those multitudes of housewives who, by habit or by improvisation, have worked and planned, laughed and cried and struggled, to feed, clothe, and bring up husbands and children, look after pets and entertain guests. We have not created a tidy story or a very logical one, but we know in our hearts that it has always been important. (2)

Even as Harrison presents her academic endeavor, she identifies herself with the “multitudes of housewives”—“ourselves”—who have functioned solely as mothers, wives, and caregivers in domestic roles. She apologizes for the lack of a “tidy” or “logical” story; in doing so she takes away all faculty of reasoning and analytical ability she (and women as a whole) may possess. It is unfortunate that a social history of the kitchen begins by both negating the toil and sweat associated with the room, as well as the intellectual capacity of the gender typically aligned with it. In a markedly different view regarding conventional domestic roles for women, Carolyn G. Heilbrun notes:

The threshold was never designed for permanent occupation…those of us who occupy thresholds, hover in doorways, and knock on doors, know that we are in between destinies. But this is where we choose to be, and must be, at this time, among the alternatives that present themselves. And homely or beautiful, real or surrogate mothers, married or unmarried…we are today, as Adrienne Rich expressed it, finding our way to read and to rewrite “the book of myths/ in which/ our names do not appear.” (101-102)

Heilbrun alludes to the historically liminal roles women play in the theater of advancement. Her use of Rich’s words from “Diving into the Wreck” illustrate the ambiguity and duality of the patriarchal myth, its power to historicize, its doubtful content, and the absence of women in both. The notion of the “threshold” speaks to the Janus ambiguity of the 1950s kitchen.

Figure 5

Figure 6

With the mass migration to the suburbs, many new kitchens were built during the 1950s (see figures 5 and 6). The U- and L-shaped kitchen plans were popular, with smaller variations for smaller houses and apartments. Kitchen trends included movement away from bright, primary colors for appliances and décor towards pastels and softer colors, workspace “island” counters, and focus on the sink, stove and countertop triangle of convenience. 1950s stoves featured double ovens and high backsplashes (though washable wall materials were popular, too). Countertops were often constructed of linoleum. General Electric issued its spacemaker refrigerator in the early 1950s, a fridge with magnetic doors in 1956, and the first rectilinear fridge in 1957. Ninety-degree angles replaced the rounded curves of earlier refrigerator construction. Other popular kitchen components included Maytag’s matching automatic electric washer and dryer, otherwise known as the Supermatics. The steam iron, coordinated plastic tableware, the electric can opener, and the four-slice toaster enjoyed increasing favor (Plante 270-74). The planned obsolescence of coordinated kitchen products, developed in the early 1950s, encouraged women’s spending and linked design and consumerism. “As objects of emotional attachment, mechanical devices animate the scenes of daily life, stimulating feelings of love, possibility, and connection, as well as guilt, restriction, and isolation. The self emerges out of material things, which appear to take on lives of their own,” Ellen Lupton states in Mechanical Brides (8). Period advertisements for kitchen-related products often depicted the female body itself as a machine with detachable parts, working to please husband and children. One such example is the Sunbeam Coffeemaster ad from 1950, in which a disembodied manicured hand pours coffee for her husband, reflected in the coffee pot looking nauseatingly condescending (see figure 7). The advertised automatic features of the coffee machine ensure that the wife/mother does not have to reason how to make the best cup of coffee.

Figure 7

In a refreshing update to the social history of kitchens and their frequent inhabitants, Ellen M. Plante explores the relevance of the feminist movement. Plante notes that while the 1950s and ‘60s housewives are considered to express the first unified displeasure at their limited life pursuits, the evolution of the housewife began in the nineteenth century. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Women and Economics (1898), for example, argues that women should not exist to serve men and enable their hierarchical authority inside and outside the home. Gilman suggests that the large, commercial kitchens and laundry centers should take on what was traditionally women’s work, thereby emancipating women from the kitchen and home.

But fifty years later, American women convey dramatically different views on their roles as housewives. In an August 1950 article in The Atlantic Monthly, Agnes E. Meyer argues for housewives to be recognized as integral to the family unit as well as to society as a whole:

Instead of apologizing for being a mere housewife, as many women do, women should make society realize that upon the housewife now fall the combined tasks of economist, nutrition expert, sociologist, psychiatrist, and educator. Then society would confer upon the status of housewife the honor, recognition, and acclaim it deserves. Today, however, the duties of the homemaker have become so depreciated that many women feel impelled to work outside the home in order to retain the respect of the community. (qtd. Plante 283)

In direct contrast, in an article from the year before, “Women are Household Slaves,” author Edith M. Stern writes:

When a woman marries and has children, it is assumed that she will take to housewifery…Such regimentation, for professional or potentially professional women, is costly both for the individual and society. For the individual, it brings about conflicts and frustrations…The educated individual should have a community, a national, a world viewpoint; but that is pretty difficult to get and hold when you are continually involved with cleaning toilets, ironing shirts, peeling potatoes, darning socks, and minding children. (qtd. Plante 285)

The kitchen thereby becomes a battleground with both defensive and offensive players occupying it. Despite the authors’ distinct viewpoints, each alludes to the kitchen and its products—the elevated knowledge of “nutrition” vs. the menial task of “peeling potatoes”—as central to the role of women. Interestingly, the later article speaks of “women” and their domestic talents repeatedly, whereas the earlier article de-sexes the context and refers to the protagonist as the “individual.” Relevant to this opposition, in 1963, Betty Friedan compiled unwanted magazine pieces on the state of women in society to produce The Feminine Mystique. Friedan writes, “It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century…each suburban wife struggled with it all alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries…chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night, she was afraid to ask…the silent question, ‘Is this all?’” (7). Clearly, the kitchen has by this time become a problematic, political space that delineates male and female boundaries and, to many, symbolizes entrapment and containment. Food and its creation have ominous connotations.

How does art portray life in terms of 1950s domesticity and the kitchen? It is interesting to examine fictional representations of the kitchen in period literature. An influential precursor to 1950s fiction, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) toys with ideals of domestic stability, particularly in terms of the nuclear family. Holden Caulfield is never at ease for long within a domestic or surrogate domestic setting. He is at odds with his boarding school dorm mates, uncomfortable when a headmaster or teacher attempts to “adopt” him. Leevom Medovoi argues, “As the reception of The Catcher in the Rye reveals, cold war intellectual culture authorized dissent in youth culture by proclaiming—whether for better or for worse—the quintessentially American character of idealistic, adolescent rebellion and the fundamentally democratic character of commercial, mass-mediated forms” (282). The novel’s “rebellion” and “democratic character” can be framed in terms of the aversion to the domestic, which is interesting for two reasons: first, because Holden deems domesticity “phony;” second, because Salinger equates American youth with American democracy. Ultimately, in Holden’s eyes, both notions of “domestic” come up short. Salinger’s portrayal of the kitchen comes when Holden visits the Antolinis, old family friends. The Antolinis are initially presented as supposedly reassuring emblems of intelligence and successful partnership, but after Holden encounters them in their home, this perception is destroyed.

“Lillian! How’s the coffee coming?” Lillian was Mrs. Antolini’s first name.
“It’s all ready,” she yelled back. “Is that Holden? Hello, Holden!”
“Hello, Mrs. Antolini!”
You were always yelling when you were there. That’s because the both of them were never in the same room at the same time. It was sort of funny. (182-83)

Mr. Antolini, highball in hand, surrounded by used liquor glasses and dishes of peanuts in the living room as he discusses philosophy and literature with Holden, yells to his wife to check on her progress with food preparation. Mrs. Antolini, meanwhile, in curlers and prettifying night gear, remains in the kitchen until breezing by to go to bed. Before her eventual appearance, Mrs. Antolini becomes a disembodied voice of the kitchen. Salinger clearly emphasizes their distinct male and female spheres; Holden even notes that the couple rarely shares the same room. The Antolinis appear to be a fairly stereotypical 1950s couple. But the author debunks this myth when Holden wakes up in the middle of the night, alarmed, to find Mr. Antolini patting his head. Salinger establishes the conventional norm of domestic life only to undermine and subvert it.

Several years later, Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1955) offers a similar presentation of seemingly typical domestic life. The title of the novel suggests the anonymity of the protagonist, but beyond his marriage with children in a Connecticut suburb and his disheartened commute to New York City in search of a better job, better salary, and better happiness, his domestic life is bland, vacuous, and rushed—details that emerge in the context of the home.

Tom went downstairs and mixed a martini for Betsy and himself. When Betsy came down, they sat in the kitchen, sipping their drinks gratefully while the children played in the living room and watched television. The linoleum on the kitchen floor was beginning to wrinkle. Originally it had been what the builder described as a “bright, basket-weave pattern,” but now it was scuffed, and by the sink it was worn through to the wood underneath. “We ought to get some new linoleum,” Betsy said. “We could lay it ourselves.” (6)

Here there is an interesting departure from the kitchen as a simply female domain; both husband and wife enjoy their drinks in the space. The decay of the linoleum floor, however, represents the decay of their marriage, and the old question mark shaped crack in the wall serves as a reminder of a past fight and the consequential inaction to cover the crack. Betsy’s suggestion regarding the new linoleum recalls the lack of progress on the earlier proposed project.

Later, after Tom informs Betsy of his illegitimate child in Italy, they discuss the faults of their marriage, and proclaim their love for one another. In an amusing reassertion of the 1950s housewife, Betsy worries, “Do they have trouble getting enough food and medicine and clothes over there? We should find out what he needs and send it. We shouldn’t just send money” (272). Here ideals of femininity and domesticity take an odd turn, as Wilson inserts them in the context of extramarital sex and helping an illegitimate child. While the descriptions of kitchens in The Catcher in the Rye and The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit begin with male and female norms, they end with subversion of the those stereotypes, as they introduce, respectively, pedophilia and extramarital sex. Still, both novels concern Anglo-Saxon characters in middle to upper-middle class America anxious to ground themselves, to find comfort in “home.” In contrast, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) traces an African American protagonist’s travel around the periphery of domesticity, implying no place exists for him at the center. Benita Eisler notes, “It was no coincidence that the exciting new fiction of the fifties took as its subject the excluded: those outside that magic but elusive mainstream where we all wanted to be. Marginals, deviants, and subterraneans were the heroes and heroines of all my high school non-required reading” (97). The Invisible Man’s protagonist moves from place to place, confronted by façades of welcome that eventually crumble. One of the few positive domestically framed encounters occurs with Mary, his sympathetic landlord, who is often identified with the kitchen. Despite Mary’s presence, the kitchen is a poor, destitute environment and offers little nourishment to the Invisible Man. He describes the kitchen as reeking of cabbage, which he associates with childhood poverty. He often declines the food Mary offers, turning instead to cheap luncheonettes. He describes one of their exchanges:

She was sitting at the table drinking coffee when I went in, the battle hissing away on the stove, sending up jets of steam.
“Gee, but you slow this morning,” she said. “Take some of that water in the kettle and go wash your face. Though sleepy as you look, maybe you ought to just use cold water.”
“This’ll do,” I said flatly, feeling the steam drifting upon my face, growing swiftly damp and gold. The clock above the stove was slower than mine. (322)

The coffee steam offers neither warmth nor comfort as it instantly turns cold. The fact that the clock on the stove is slower than his own implies his feeling of entrapment and lack of progress in his present state. Indeed, his ingestion of the coffee is no better.

I took the cup and sipped it, black. It was bitter. She glanced from me to the sugar bowl and back again.
“Guess I’ll have to get some better filters,” she mused. “These I got just lets through the grounds along with the coffee, the good with the bad. I don’t know though, even with the best of filters you apt to find a ground or two at the bottom of your cup.” (323)

Here, food is a metonym for racial struggle, as the coffee is bitter. Ellison plays with the black and white imagery as the protagonist rejects the white sugar, but acknowledges its need. The coffee filters come to represent the protagonist’s inability to distinguish good from bad, truth from fiction. Eventually, the Invisible Man determines he cannot exist in any sort of socially acceptable domestic space; it conflicts with his ultimately transient, underground identity. He cannot coexist with gleaming kitchen appliances or fruit cocktails, so he retreats entirely from its culture and all it implies.

The navigation of the kitchen by the “Other” is also present in Richard Wright’s Savage Holiday (1954), in which the protagonist, Erskine Fowler, is a terminated insurance claims adjuster—a sinister precursor to Tom Rath. In an interview about the novel, Wright commented, “I picked a white American businessman to attempt a demonstration about a universal problem…the problem of freedom” (236). The fact that Wright addresses the problem of freedom for whites draws the reader in turn to question the problem of freedom for blacks, the binary opposition present in the novel through absentia.

Wright characterizes Fowler repeatedly as an Other, implying that he is not free. Like Bigger Thomas and Cross Damon, the protagonists of Native Son and The Outsider, respectively, Fowler finds himself an outsider in many ways, many of which are linked to his domestic space. Though Fowler is not persecuted because of his race, he is a foreigner in his own residence. Fowler’s apartment building implies community, a microcosm. But Fowler is out of place in his own home. Often described without clothes, he immediately becomes a savage, uncivilized other. He is often defined in contrast to light, whiteness and white spaces. “A cascade of shimmering yellow light showers down from crystal chandeliers” at an insurance dinner he attends (1). Fowler tries to retrieve his newspaper and is trapped outside his apartment in the “sun-flooded” (45), “brightly-lit hallway” (42). And as he cowers nude against the wall, his dark, hairy body stands out against the white background, “The hallway in which he stood was white, smooth, and modern; it held not Gothic recesses, no Victorian curves, no Byzantine incrustations in, or behind which, he could hide” (45). The architectural forms alluded to are all dark, or produce shadow. Fowler knows he can cower in darkness and not be seen, implying that he is not white, but black. His murder of Mabel occurs in his kitchen, which Wright clearly defines as a white space: Mabel stands nude “amid the white refrigerator, the white gas stove, the gleaming sink, the white topped table” (214). The light exists in contrast to Fowler’s blackness. It is also significant that the murder occurs in a spotless kitchen. The room becomes violent, ominous, a testimonial to Fowler’s demonization of the Mother.

A similarly ominous depiction of “other” domesticity can be found in Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place (1955). As Wini Breines observes regarding the presence of “dark others” in the 1950s, “Otherness was of interest to young white people and racial difference was part of the ‘other fifties’ many of them sought” (7). Nellie Cross, presented as an other through a combination of her dark skin and poverty, labors in the Mackenzies’ kitchen, loses her mind there, and ultimately commits suicide as a result:

Nellie Cross stepped away from the sink in the Mackenzie kitchen and sat down on the floor…Her head, she felt, had grown enormous, and she held it carefully on her neck so that it would not fall off and break into pieces on the clean linoleum. She leaned back against a cabinet, and it seemed perfectly natural to her to sit calmly on the kitchen floor…resting her feet which ached from standing too long in one place. (227)

Nellie rests on the kitchen floor rather than on a couch in the living room, indicating her marginalized class status. The “clean linoleum” renders her head dirty by contrast. Metalious compares her head to errant tableware falling off the counter. Likewise, when Constance Mackenzie returns to the house that evening, the kitchen’s disarray represents Nellie:

There were plates, caked with dried egg yolk, sitting on the table, and dirty dishes in the sink. The garbage had not been taken out, and the glass coffee maker, still half full, sat on one of the burners on the electric stove. "That damned Nellie," muttered Constance angrily, forgetting all the times when she had come home from work to find her house spotless. (231)

Metalious aligns Nellie with stale coffee and day-old dirty plates, in direct contrast to the “frosty cocktail shaker” and cigarette that represent Constance. In Peyton Place, the author problematizes maternity, femininity, and domesticity in the context of small town, seemingly benign and traditional 1950s America.

In 1958, Lorraine Hansberry offered a less ominous, more optimistic portrayal of racial and class struggle in the play A Raisin in the Sun, in which the principal action occurs in the kitchen of a small apartment. The first scene between Walter and Ruth, an exchange concerning life’s dreams and scrambled eggs, recalls the stereotypical, separate (if crowded, here) male and female spheres presented in The Catcher in the Rye. Walter declares, “Man say to his woman: I got me a dream. His woman say: Eat your eggs. Man say: I got to take hold of this here world, baby! And a woman will say: Eat your eggs and go to work. Man say: I gotta change my life, I’m choking to death, baby! And his woman say—Your eggs is getting cold!” (3). The dialog conveys the depressing monotony of their lives in close quarters, what Ruth deems “this cramped little closet which ain’t now or never was no kitchen” (49). Even the dawning of a new day is bleak, as the majority of the play takes place in the “cramped little closet.”

A tension exists between the domestic interior and its alternative. Walter gambles away family savings in unsuccessful financial ventures he hopes will result in a better home, while Beneatha discusses the homeland—Africa—as superior. Each character dreams of the potential of the world outside, but action is limited to the apartment’s interior, with the focus on the meager kitchen. As trapped as the family may seem to be, however, the sole natural light in the apartment streams in through the kitchen window and enables Mama’s plant, a metaphor for the family, to struggle along. By the end of the play, the family has not only survived on meager light but it has also been reinvigorated. They are optimistic about the move to Clybourne Park to a new house, a new kitchen. Far from representing 1950s conformity, this kitchen represents upward mobility, civil rights, and resistance against racial injustice.

In many ways, the 1950s kitchen will perhaps always elicit images of a stationary, immobile 1950s of white bread, baked beans, shrimp gelatin concoctions, outdoor barbeques, cheerful cocktails, and most of all, an appealingly aproned subservient, beautiful, and maternal housewife. The philosophies of kitchens and domestic space proclaimed by Wright and Levitt, the political weight of kitchens advertised by Nixon in the Moscow Kitchen Debates, the double entendre of “domestic,” and the representation of kitchens and cookeries in period literature such as The Catcher in the Rye, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, Invisible Man, Savage Holiday, Peyton Place, and A Raisin in the Sun speak for the Other 1950s not only in terms of the feminist movement and civil rights activism, but in the pervasive undercurrents of rebellion, transgression, and power.

Tracing the trajectory of kitchens both fictional and non- proves useful in documenting the revolution of the Other Fifties. The nostalgic idea of Jell-O mold and spam lovingly, blandly, and happily served by the wife and mother every night does not do justice to the upheaval, subversion, and contravention clearly coming to a boil on private and public, personal and political fronts. The top-loading dishwasher, the rectilinear fridge, and the linoleum counter ultimately take on a greater semiotics of the marginalized. Instead of sealing the supposedly atypical narratives in Tupperware, they are brought to the table and served. Their contents even touch and color other food, altering its appearance and taste. Kitchens represented protection from the Cold War, repression of the housewife, advertisement of democracy. However, this kitchen, deemed so insular, was a remarkably effective space for architects, developers, politicians, and writers interested in exploding the canned formula of domesticity in the American 1950s.


Works Cited

Breines, Wini. “Postwar White Girls’ Dark Others.” The Other Fifties: Interrogating
Midcentury American Icons
. Ed. Joel Foreman. Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1997.

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