The first decade of the twenty-first century had a complicated nostalgic relationship with the first decade of the Cold War. Sam Mendes’s adaptation of Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, released early in 2009, and Matthew Weiner’s award-winning television series Mad Men reveal our fascination with the long fifties. Bill Yenne calls the decade “a time when dreams came true”; in his Going Home to the Fifties, Yenne’s tone drips with fantasy and enchantment: “the fifties were a magical and wonderful time. The fifties were, for most people, the decade at the end of the rainbow” (21). Brian S. Alexander’s Atomic Kitchen: Gadgets and Inventions for Yesterday’s Cook overflows with colorful pictures of smiling housewives, happy children, jubilant husbands returning from work, and the wonderful plastic, aluminum, and so-called “atomic” gadgets that enabled an unprecedented happiness.
While attractive, these images contribute more to a mythological fifties than to any historical reality, which would have to include a rigid bourgeois domesticity that sold peace and prosperity to the American consumer. Words like “magical and wonderful” disguise the contradictory realities of 1950s domesticity, and the Cold War American kitchen became a locus of this conflicted domestic identity; while the kitchen became more central in the physical space of the American house (see Betty Freidan and Elaine Tyler May), it also lost its ties to the less tangible markers of Home. As Americans began to build fallout shelters in their basements or back yards, they began to relocate the Platonic ideals of Home, like love, sustenance, togetherness, and the family’s relationship with its community. Literally, protecting these ideals from the physical threat of nuclear war meant storing them underground; therefore, the kitchen was left figuratively vulnerable to atomic anxieties.
To use Pierre Bourdieu’s term, the kitchen helped to rewrite the Cold War habitus, providing both a new setting and a new vocabulary for the story Americans told ourselves about ourselves. In texts from Arthur Miller and Ray Bradbury, kitchens function as the anchors for ships that are already sinking: they insist upon their weighty importance, even as their purpose is obviated. On the other hand, print ads and other cultural ephemera constructed an idealized narrative of modern kitchens. The result was a bifurcated habitus: the kitchen became defined by two mutually exclusive systems of structured expectations. As publications like Good Housekeeping -- with images of futuristic kitchens and articles on modern methods of family nourishment -- provided a homogenizing social force, literary texts used both traditional and modern kitchens to unveil a narrative of spiritual starvation. In the discussion below, literary analysis of Miller and Bradbury is presented alongside analysis of advertisements and articles from midcentury periodicals, namely Good Housekeeping and The Science News Letter, in order to demonstrate the severity and consequences of the chasm between two divergent ideations of the mid-century American kitchen.
The Dimensions of the Kitchen
Conventional examinations of the post-war years often begin with statistics, as if the quantity of Americans and their accoutrements might somehow speak to the quality of their lives. Yenne’s glossy text is no different. He writes for a popular audience, which lets him provide statistics without accounting for their sources, but his unbounded celebration provides a useful example of the mid-century habitus of modernization and consumption. Yenne explains, "Sales of electric appliances increased dramatically during the fifties, reaching a peak during 1955 and 1956. While sales of appliances had been virtually nil in 1945, wartime scarcity was followed by an appliance buying binge that crested in 1955. In that year alone 4.2 million refrigerators, 1.4 million electric ranges and 1.1 million home freezers were sold" (62). Yenne’s use of statistics within a popular text reveals that the mythology of the Cold War home is as much rooted in quantifiable consumption as it is in more intangible values, like love and togetherness. Americans’ happiness, financial stability, and technological progress are made tangible in those “4.2 million refrigerators, 1.4 million electric ranges and 1.1 million home freezers.” These symbols of American progress are themselves tools of consumption, meant to allow us to eat, or consume, more easily. In this way, the technological progress that contributed to U. S. superiority in World War II became associated with the push to modernize the American home, especially the kitchen, which itself was conflated with our roles as capitalist consumers (see Isenstadt). This conflation is most clear in a line from an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents: "You don't prepare breakfast...you launch it like a missile" (qtd. in Alexander 59).
Pierre Bourdieu uses the term “habitus” to refer to a widely accepted system of rules or expectations within a specific culture. He defines the term this way, in Outline of a Theory of Practice:
The structures constitutive of a particular type of environment (e.g. the material conditions of existence characteristic of a class condition) produce habitus, systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles of the generation and structuring of practices and representations which can be objectively “regulated” and “regular” without in any way being the product of obedience to rules, objectively adapted to their goals without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary to attain them and, being all this, collectively orchestrated without being the product of the orchestrating action of a conductor. (72)
In other words, habitus refers to the social nudges and reinforcements that reward idealized behavior and punish or marginalize less-than-ideal actions. That these reinforcements are “collectively orchestrated” suggests an unspoken or unconscious complicity among those who are themselves bound by these expectations to perpetuate them. Yenne’s list of statistics reveals the accepted mid-century narrative that equated the consumption of household appliances with the ideal performance of patriotism, which can be considered the modernizing habitus, generated and perpetuated by publications like Good Housekeeping, to promote the behavior of competitive capitalism.
And there was much to consume. In addition to the kitchen basics, these years saw an upsurge of production and sales of innovative new gadgets. Brian Alexander’s Atomic Kitchen celebrates the spectacle of the Cold War kitchen, presenting a parade of images, from Reed’s Rocket Nut Cracker to the “Miracle Kitchen” showcased by Whirlpool in 1957 (Alexander 140, 33), promoting the monolithic misperception that all kitchens were stocked to the brim, that all housewives had access to such frivolous gadgets, and that all women were June Cleaver. Social historian Stephanie Coontz calls this the “nostalgia trap,” and reminds us that, “A full 25 percent of Americans, forty to fifty million people, were poor in the mid-1950s, and in the absence of food stamps and housing programs, this poverty was searing” (Coontz 29). When compared to the ideal kitchens presented to average Americans in the early Cold War, including the one showcased in the American exhibit in Moscow in 1959, Americans’ kitchen realities communicated not superiority, hope, and faith in technology, but disappointment, failure, and atomic anxieties.
Willy Loman struggles to provide an ideal life for his family in Arthur Miller’s 1949 play, Death of a Salesman. The play’s audience watches as Willy’s refrigerator, and his dreams, malfunction. The McClellan family home, in Ray Bradbury’s 1950 story “August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains,” seems equipped with every imaginable technological innovation, but it fails to provide more human qualities like love. These two fictional spaces demarcate the range of Americans’ imagined kitchen experiences following World War II, from meager and basic to impossibly mechanized and modern; moreover, each kitchen serves as the setting for family tragedy, suggesting that the modernizing habitus that prioritizes commodities over relationships is doomed, insufficient, and inhuman, but not un-American.
"Just Like a War-Plant Assembly Line":
The Fiction of Cold War Kitchen Advertisements
That modernizing habitus was generated primarily by advertisers. Before American soldiers returned home, manufacturers of domestic goods like soap and kitchen appliances began to market their products with the united discourses of domestic modernization and military victory. An advertisement for Crosley’s new kitchen in September 1945 exemplifies this trend. Published in Good Housekeeping, Crosley’s full-page ad insists that a modern kitchen is a wife’s responsibility even as it remains a shared space. The ad reveals some important trends in both mid-1940s kitchen modernization and the symbolic significance of a modern kitchen to Americans at the end of World War II. Crosley boasts a kitchen planned easily, using measurements the housewife marks on a string. She can plan the locations of the three major pieces (“refrigerator, sink, range -- each with matching floor and wall cabinets”), and the units can be bought all at once or separately, depending on the purchaser’s budget. This simplicity of planning is a major selling point for Crosley; since the narrative of the ad explains that the husband will “[come] home to me at last,” we assume that the wife is waiting for her soldier husband to return from war so that they can “have [their] dream kitchen -- truly the heart of [their] home." Since the man of the house is away, the new kitchen must be simple enough for women to plan on their own. In mid-size font at the top of the page is the exuberant declaration: “This string is all I need to plan my NEW kitchen!” To the right of this announcement is an illustration of a young woman, her hair wrapped in a bandeau and her sleeves rolled up to her elbows, holding up a length of string for examination by an older, smiling woman. The younger woman, in addition to her work dress, is fully made up, with eye shadow, blush, lipstick, and perfectly groomed eyebrows. Her expression, especially her eyes peering out sideways, gave the impression that she’s sharing a secret.
In smaller font beneath the initial headline, the voice of the young housewife continues: “Mother couldn’t believe her ears until I proved that a piece of string was all I needed to measure for my new kitchen -- our kitchen -- for Jack and me.” Note the emphasis of ownership and the speaker’s self-correction; having initially considered the kitchen hers, she quickly admits that her husband has equal rights to the space. In this way, the kitchen represents the marriage between the nameless housewife and her husband, Jack, even though Jack is away and only women are shown working in the illustrations of Crosley’s “NEW kitchen.” That the kitchen is the woman’s domain is, ironically, further substantiated by the ad’s explanations of “string measurements.” Crosley has taken mathematics out of the kitchen, assuring the housewife that “There is no ‘catch’ in this easy Crosley way to plan your kitchen [...] You, yourself, can plan it. Virtually no bother, upset, or troubles generally considered necessary in kitchen modernizing.” The final illustrated frame, which shows the husband in a business suit and the wife in an apron, bowing before the open oven, is captioned with the promise that this shiny new kitchen was planned “ALL WITHOUT exact measuring, cutting or fitting!” The implied message to readers of Good Housekeeping is that readers can do it without a husband’s help. While he is away, fulfilling his duty outside the home (either fighting for democracy or winning the proverbial bread), your duty is to modernize the kitchen, your kitchen (plural), yours and your husband’s.
This shift to modern housekeeping, away from the traditional kitchen represented by “Mother,” informs the entire ad copy. The speaker asserts that Mother was skeptical of a kitchen design based on “string measurements,” but that once the younger housewife “proved” it, Mother decided to “believe her ears” after all. Beneath this copy appears a hand-drawn blueprint of a kitchen workspace and a caption that develops the theme of modernization. The traditional modes of housekeeping are still respected (her “thirty years” experience gives Mother the authority to pass such judgments), but modern techniques prevail (“work flows along just like a war-plant assembly line”).
Also of note here is the promissory tone. Immediately below the words “our dream kitchen—truly the heart of our home” is the following disclaimer: “(Crosley is still 100% in war production. But we’re planning new marvels for you in the finest Crosley Home Appliances ever! That’s a promise.)” The company aligns itself with the patriotic husband, who “one wonderful day” will “come home […] at last.” Moreover, the ad encourages its viewers to dream, imagine, and plan; it also encourages buying in stages if a new kitchen is not affordable “all at once!” The modern kitchen is hereby associated with optimism, military victory, and spending beyond one’s means.
An ad for a shiny modern kitchen like this one triggers Lutie Johnson’s memories of familial façades and disintegration in Ann Petry’s The Street. Published in 1946, The Street examines life on 116th Street in New York City. Lutie struggles to raise her son to be a responsible young man, though the novel lacks any models of such masculinity. The naturalistic plot ends with Lutie killing a man in self-defense, and abandoning her son within the Juvenile Corrections system as she escapes to Chicago, apparently unaware of (or ineligible for) her legal rights. While on a train early in the novel, Lutie sees an ad for “a miracle of a kitchen”:
it pictured a girl with incredible blond hair. The girl leaned close to a dark-haired, smiling man in a navy uniform. They were standing in front of a kitchen sink -- a sink whose white porcelain surface gleamed under the train lights. The faucets looked like silver. The linoleum floor of the kitchen was a crisp black-and-white pattern that pointed up the sparkle of the room. Casement windows. Red geraniums in yellow pots. (Petry 28)
Lutie stares at the ad, recognizing that it was “[c]ompletely different from the kitchen of the 116th Street apartment she had moved into just two weeks ago. But almost exactly like the one she had worked in in Connecticut” (Petry 28). Her job with the Chandlers in Lyme allowed her to send money home to her then-husband and their son, but it removed her from her own kitchen and from being a regular presence in their lives. As a result, her domestic management in a white family’s house ultimately destroyed her own home. Her husband began having an affair, and the family crumbled. Framing her observations in the language of spectacle, Lutie learns that the Chandlers have “a miracle” of a house, but that their home is just as dysfunctional as hers: “Mr. Chandler drank too much,” “Mrs. Chandler never noticed anything about Mr. Chandler,” and Mr. Chandler discovers his wife in an act of infidelity (Petry 37, 39, 40, 44). When Mr. Chandler’s brother’s suicide, which Lutie witnesses, “ended up as an accident with a gun on the death certificate” (Petry 49), Lutie finally realizes the illusion of the American correlation of happiness and wealth, and the advertisers’ correlation of modern kitchens with happy marriages.
And yet, Lutie sees the lure of that miracle kitchen advertised on the train, a kitchen so inherently perfect that “red geraniums in yellow pots” is a complete sentence, both subject and verb; the geraniums in their pots are simultaneously object and action, something to own and something to do. Significant in The Street is that Lutie does not leave her meager apartment for Chicago until the relationships of home, namely with her son, are irreparably damaged. She leaves not because the kitchen itself failed them, but because “[her son] didn’t have the ghost of a chance on that street. The best [Lutie] could give him [the apartment on 116th Street] wasn’t good enough” (Petry 435). Ads like Crosley’s, and the one taunting Lutie on the train, encourage consumers to believe that happiness and stability can be purchased, even on an installment plan. The kitchens pictured in these ads are spotlessly clean and appear to be perfect models of efficiency, capitalizing on America’s technological advancements and the so-called “superior” processes of war-time production. Lutie Johnson eventually recognized their emptiness; unfortunately, Willy Loman never did.
"The Kitchen at Center Seems Actual Enough":
Arthur Miller and Kitchen Realities
The centrality of the kitchen in the Loman family identity, Willy’s insistent correlation of success with consumerism, and the play’s appearance at the dawn of the postwar consumer boom, make the Loman home a key example of Cold War domesticity. The Loman kitchen in particular becomes an important literary representation of the consequences of the push to modernize that informs Crosley’s ad. When the Loman home first appears on the stage, the audience immediately recognizes its fragility, smallness, and insufficiency. This place is no suburban refuge, but instead a beleaguered little house intimidated by the structures and shapes of modernization towering over it. The stage direction opening Act One establishes both the thematic importance and the physical insignificance of the house. As the curtain rises, the juxtaposition of “towering, angular shapes” glowing “an angry [...] orange” against the blue-lit, “small, fragile” house helps to emphasize its nearly ephemeral nature; the house is so insubstantial that not a dream, but only the “air of the dream” can cling to it (Miller 11).
While most of the house maintains this subjectivity throughout the play, Miller asserts: “The kitchen at center seems actual enough, for there is a kitchen table with three chairs, and a refrigerator. But no other fixtures are seen” (11). In this way, the kitchen becomes the anchor, the room that grounds the house to its foundations, linking dream and reality. Later, when Biff “whips the rubber tube out of his pocket and puts it on the table,” he forces an unspoken, unacknowledged reality into the family’s collective consciousness. Willy has to admit to his suicide attempts and to acknowledge that the entire family is aware of them (Miller 130). The tube disrupts the Loman habitus; dysfunctional though they may be, the Loman family operates under a shared set of expectations: forcing them to acknowledge the distasteful truth, Biff breaks the rules, acting in a way that challenges the family’s expectations of an overarching, placating dishonesty.
In addition to the rubber tube, the refrigerator becomes the most tangible representation of the more subjective aspects of Willy’s reality. In his first daydream, Willy is swept away by his own idealized memories, and believes he is in the past; the refrigerator and the foodstuffs through which Willy “searches” trigger Willy’s experiential memory of a simpler, more ideal time, one as magical and false as the glossy images of advertisers and nostalgia peddlers. Sandy Isendstadt examines the correlation in print ads of modern refrigerators and an Edenic vision of agricultural abundance. This association sheds an interesting light on Willy’s nostalgic fridge-peering and his anxiety to plant seeds when he realizes that he doesn’t “have a thing in the ground” (Miller 122).
Though he does not apply his study toward literary connections, Isenstadt’s correlation of the refrigerator and modernization with “pastoral abundance” helps us to illuminate the complex relationship between Willy’s oversimplified past, his barren future, and the broken-down ice box of his here-and-now. Isenstadt asserts that the refrigerator embodied everything admirable about American ingenuity: abundant food, brought to the home via a series of agricultural machines, locomotives and automobiles, and preserved in an appliance that ran on either electricity or gas. Willy’s relationship with his refrigerator reveals an antagonism between technology and nature. His nostalgia for the past is situated in his pastoral ideal, when the trees around his house had not yet been replaced by angry, orange-lit apartment buildings; his anxieties for the future are symbolically contained within the packets of seeds he frantically plants in Act Two.
Willy’s refrigerator represents a way to maintain the freshness of his outmoded pastoral ideals -- it represents a way to preserve something so that it will not spoil too quickly. But the refrigerator is perpetually broken. Willy cannot afford the new, modern, post-war model. When he looks in the icebox in Act One, he sees not just milk and cheese. He sees the dream Itself. But because it is the wrong refrigerator, Willy’s are “the wrong dreams” (Miller 138). The familiar narrative of Home for Willy, or what we might call the traditional habitus, has been preserved in this outdated appliance, but it cannot offer him the sustenance he needs in order to move forward in a changing world. Willy’s panicked, insistent embrace of the traditional habitus leaves no room for the modernizing habitus, so Willy is excluded from a society that, in Bourdieu’s construction, has accepted a newer “[mode] of generation” (78).
Using the same cliché Crosley used in their ad, Alexander argues that the “Atomic Kitchen” “was the heart of the home, much as the hearth had been in earlier times. No longer merely the meal preparation center, it was now a meeting place for daily activities. Any enterprising businessman on his way up would want to upgrade this area for the benefit of the lady of the house, making her life easier and transforming the outlook of the entire family” (Alexander 9, 12). But the drive to modernize the kitchen became motivated not by a desire to save time and ease household chores, but by a desire to keep up the appearance of success. Headlines like “Get the Best Things First...Get Kelvinator” encouraged competition between middle-class homemakers. I disagree with Alexander’s position, maintaining instead that making the kitchen a battle zone of Cold War ideologies like consumerism and technological superiority would mean that Americans would have to look elsewhere for their nourishment. The heart of the midcentury American home would instead be removed to an underground bunker, literally protected from the threat of atomic war, but also figuratively hidden from consciousness and from the modernizing habitus itself. If we apply Gaston Bachelard’s equation of the cellar with the depths of human “irrationality” (18), then our national impulse to collect and store our most valued domestic artifacts in a tiny home-within-a-home, a just-in-case house beneath the superficial appurtenances of our visible ones, reveals not just an architectural manifestation of panic, but also a restructuring of expected behaviors: if the refrigerator is preserving the “wrong dreams,” the right ones must be stored somewhere else.
The modernizing habitus placed substantial pressure on the breadwinner. In January 1947, Fels-Naptha ran a full-page ad in Good Housekeeping that not only reaffirms the husband’s role of “returning” to the home but also offers up a definition of “The Good Provider.” Those three words serve as headline to an illustration of a man carrying a bag of groceries, smiling and proud, because he found a hard-to-find box of Fels-Naptha soap for his wife. Though much of the shopping was actually performed by women, the ad copy here confirms this breadwinner’s masculinity by explaining that he had to “[go] a-hunting” (not a-shopping) to find it. The ad portrays a happy breadwinner, proud of his ability to provide his family with the best consumer goods and, in Fels-Naptha’s terms, “modern swag” available. But not every breadwinner enjoyed such a rewarding relationship with his job and with capitalism itself. In the following month’s issue of Good Housekeeping, Florence Howitt published a revealing article. Her headline, “has your man given up?” is followed by another question: “Whose fault is it today if he is depressed and discouraged and just about ready to quit?” (39). Behind the headline is the image of a white man in a business suit, his shoulders stooped, his head hanging down, exuding the depression and discouragement announced in the tagline and looking much like Willy Loman might when he first appears on the Salesman stage.
Howitt’s article illuminates not only the pressure on post-war breadwinners to keep up with the patriotic ideals of conspicuous consumption, but also the housewife’s role in keeping this pressure in check. With the Aesopian warning, “Possessions are the by-product, not the goal of ambition,” Howitt excoriates the housewife who expresses her jealousy of other housewives who can afford the “new mink coat (or set of dishes, or washing machine, or sofa)” that her husband just cannot afford (213). Never mind the fact that this issue of Good Housekeeping contains five ads for cooking utensils, nine for kitchen gadgets, and two images of women wearing minks. Never mind the competition inherent in headlines like “Get the Best things First...Get Kelvinator.” The housewife’s role, according to Howitt, is to acquire these goods without the jealousy of competition. Howitt’s message contradicts not only those of the advertisers and editors of Good Housekeeping but also the message of Nixon’s “kitchen debate” with Khrushchev, discussed below. Competition rooted in domestic consumerism may make world leaders feel better about their respective ideologies, but it destroys the ambition of the common working (American) man. However, Howitt also condemns the martyred housewife who acts like she does not want a new coat this year. The delicate balance Howitt prescribes is this one: Thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s refrigerator, but pretending that you do not is just as bad. Instead, Howitt calls for a different kind of performance: dependency. She suggests: “Consult him, ask his advice, depend on him, insist that he make decisions. Ask his opinion of everything you do, no matter how trivial. You used to do that and those were the days when he had self-confidence” (Howitt 214). Such dependency will, apparently, remind him of his importance as breadwinner. It will help him feel needed.
Though Howitt’s article presents itself as marital advice, it reveals the underlying destructive capacity of a society where patriotism is measured in kitchen gadgets. Is the modern kitchen more important than “the striving and reaching for something ahead” that motivated the young man? (Howitt 39). Linda Loman embodies Howitt’s target audience. She knows Willy has given up, but all she can do is note it: “Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person” (Miller 56). Miller dramatizes the pressure Howitt describes: modernization costs more than money. Though the normative narrative within cultural ephemera supported a full-fledged embrace of the modern kitchen, the actual realization of such spaces proved to be destabilizing and demoralizing. And yet the idea of the modern kitchen persisted; it would quickly graduate from Cold War battle ground to Cold War diplomat.
"Thank the Housewife for Letting Us Use Her Kitchen for Our Argument"
Caroline Hellman asserts that the kitchen “can [...] 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.” By 1959, the modern American kitchen had reached the peak of its politicization, establishing its own role in international diplomacy. That year, the United States and the Soviet Union exchanged cultural exhibits, and Vice President Richard Nixon traveled to Moscow for the opening of the American exhibition there. Both Nixon and Soviet Premier Khrushchev understood the event to be a prime stage for their own propagandizing, and each used the American exhibition in Moscow, specifically the model American home on display there, as the springboard for his own talking points on communism, capitalism, and their mutual incompatibility. Khrushchev's remark thanking "the housewife," which heads this section, complicates the joint ownership suggested in Crosley's ad. It may be "her kitchen" now, but the political argument situated there belongs to the men (qtd. in Nixon, Six Crises 258). This “kitchen debate” has become the exhibit’s most lasting legacy (see Whitfield, Halberstam, and Nixon RN).
Nixon used the familiar rhetoric of statistics to emphasize the benefits of capitalism. He felt that such conspicuous consumption demonstrated the superiority of American domestic technology and the capitalist market over the tenets of communism. But Nixon found a wily, unpredictable opponent in Khrushchev. According to Nixon’s memoirs, his week in Moscow was fraught with anxiety and improvisation as he struggled to stay on par with the Premier’s bluntness, grandstanding, and constant propagandizing.
Nixon credits some of Khrushchev's combativeness to "timing": Congress had passed the Captive Nations Resolution right before Nixon's visit (Six Crises 247). In Nixon’s words, the resolution “designat[ed] the third week in July as Captive Nations week, during which free people would rededicate themselves and pray for the liberation of ‘enslaved peoples’ behind the Iron Curtain” (Six Crises 250). Khrushchev accused Nixon of "think[ing] the Russians will be dumbfounded by this exhibit. But the fact is that all newly built Russian houses will have this equipment. You need dollars in the United States to get this house, but here all you need is to be born a citizen. If an American citizen does not have dollars, he has the right to buy this house or sleep on the pavement at night. And you say we are slaves of Communism!" (qtd. in Nixon, Six Crises 256). The image that begins the action of Miller’s play, in which Willy Loman staggers home burdened by the weight of his unsold goods, resonates with Khrushchev’s accusation, as does Willy’s indictment of the cycle of purchasing poorly made goods.
The controversial Captive Nations Resolution sought divine intervention to free people trapped inside Communist countries; Nixon never imagined that lucky American housewives may feel that same claustrophobia. In October 1945, a Spirella ad in Good Housekeeping portrayed a woman who announced, exhaustedly, “I’m sick of being a Prisoner in my own home!” The illustration shows her behind the vertical slats of a stairwell, resembling a prisoner behind bars. Her captor was not housework itself, but the corset she wore while housekeeping. She complains, “Meals and dishes, beds and laundry, by the time I got around to a little dusting, I was so tired I could cry. And I never had enough energy left to go out any more.” That all changed once her friend helped her see the benefits of Spirella corsets, which not only repositioned her digestive organs in more “healthful” ways (the ad includes X-rays to prove it), but also gives her “time and energy left over for the Book Club and Parent-Teacher’s works I’ve always wanted to do!”
By the time Nixon visited Moscow to debate with Khrushchev in the “model American home,” the ideal modernized kitchen had begun to offer labor-saving domesticity that could get women out of the kitchen and into the world of book clubs and PTAs. But Coontz points out that the reality was quite different: “The amount of time women spent doing housework actually increased during the 1950s, despite the advent of convenience foods and new, labor-saving appliances” (27). Nixon claimed to be motivated by making housewives’ chores easier, but the reality was that modernization only made their chores different.
"Don't You Have a Machine That Puts Food into the Mouth and Pushes It Down?"
A year after Death of a Salesman first appeared on the American stage, Ray Bradbury published a short story that followed the modernization habitus to its ultimate and extreme conclusion. “There Will Come Soft Rains,” which is collected in The Martian Chronicles, features a house that is entirely automated and computerized. It “runs” itself, performing all the traditional duties of a housewife. Paralleling the tragedy of Willy Loman, Bradbury’s short story follows the events in the last day of the house’s “life,” the story asking us what price we are willing to pay to have the most modern of conveniences. No domestic relationships exist within the house, so the miscommunications and deception of the Loman home have been replaced with a series of programmed instructions “keeping house” for a family that is dead.
In 1956, The Science News Letter, which kept its readers abreast of important trends and discoveries in scientific technology, published an article that provides cultural context for Bradbury’s story. Describing a model kitchen created by General Motors (who owned Frigidaire), the article predicts that “TODAY’S HOUSEWIFE may need a road map to find her way in the pushbutton kitchen her daughter or granddaughter will have 20 years from now” (Society for Science & the Public 231). A remarkable array of conveniences are tallied, including “a marble counter top that heats to roast the meat or bake the pie and then, in a moment or two, is cold enough to touch and use as a counter or table,” and the ability to use “[u]ltrasonics, silent sound waves,” to “wash dishes” (231). This kitchen will boast “a serving cart with self-contained motor that runs by itself into the dining room with food and returns with the empty dishes,” and “[a] kind of electronic ‘brain’ [that] will produce the day’s menus, the housewife merely pushing button two or five or whatever she feels like” (231). But the optimism with which these pushbutton kitchens are described almost disguises the nearly complete obsolescence of the housewife. One wonders how she would spend her time now that she is little more than a button pusher in her own kitchen. Will she establish her own career to supplement the breadwinner’s income? Will she socialize more? Volunteer more? Or just find more housework to do in some other part of the house? Her new role is not explained, only the elimination of the old one. She, like the “heart of the home,” is being displaced. Khrushchev's question for Nixon, "Don't you have a machine that puts food into the mouth and pushes it down?, was certainly sarcastic, but was nonetheless a justfied mockery of the American obsession with new appliances (qtd. in May 145-146; qtd. in Halberstam 724).
Bradbury examines the possibilities of such a "pushbutton kitchen," especially if this technology is also applied to the rest of the house. The automated house in “August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains” carries on without a housewife – without any humans around at all – and the post-apocalyptic setting reinforces the connection between domestic and military technology: the house is the only “survivor” of an atomic war. On the surface, Bradbury’s automated house seems to suggest an imperviousness to nuclear catastrophe; the house survives when humans cannot. But the details of the house’s eventual destruction, and the personification of both the house and the fire that destroys it, warn readers against such modernization, symbolically destroying a spectacularly modern house in order to represent the destruction of the spectacularly modernized American family. The plot pits the house against a fire that starts when a tree branch crashes through the kitchen window. Since the house is unoccupied, the fire becomes its last resident, destroying it room by room, defiling it the way an intruder would; in fact, the fire seems to inhabit the house much the way the glowing stove asserted itself as a constant presence in the Loman home. Bradbury succeeds at dramatizing the conflict between house and nature by personifying the house, turning its automation into animation, and garnering the reader’s sympathy.
Bradbury’s personification of the house also contributes to its attempts to completely replace the housewife who used to live there, Mrs. McClellan. On the last day of its “life,” “The morning house lay empty,” announcing the usual wake-up call with an unusual urgency, “as if it were afraid that nobody would” heed its message (Bradbury, “August” 166). The home’s façade greets the world vocally (“the weather box on the front door sang”); and the house has a recognizable command center and skeleton in its “attic brain” and “oak bone[s]” (167, 171). These characteristics give the house a voice, a mind, and the internal subjectivity of emotions (it was “afraid”). When a tree falls through the window, the personified structure not only “[begins] to die,” but it also “trie[s] to save itself,” demonstrating a survival instinct (170). The resulting fire violates the house in a deeply (and disturbingly) personal way, as the structure “cring[es] from the heat, its wire, its nerves revealed as if a surgeon had torn the skin off to let the red veins and capillaries quiver in the scalded air” (171). It thinks, speaks, feels, bleeds, and clings to life.
Before this catastrophe, the kitchen seems to benefit tremendously from the modern automation. The sink resembles “a metal throat which digested and flushed [table scraps] away to the distant sea” (Bradbury, “August” 167); the oven, exasperated, “gave a hissing sigh [as it] ejected from its warm interior eight pieces of perfectly browned toast, eight eggs sunnyside up, sixteen slices of bacon, two coffees, and two cool glasses of milk” (166). Though this kitchen would certainly qualify as someone’s ideal kitchen, a model of technology’s capacity to make housework less tedious, we cannot compare the late Mrs. McClellan with the happy housewives in print advertisements, much less with Linda Loman. The McClellans may have bought “the best things first,” but it was a meaningless victory, liberating Mrs. McClellan from a defined role, yet presenting nothing new in its stead.
We can only know about the McClellan family through the house’s programmed activities, or what might be called the technological habitus of modern life. We know that Mrs. McClellan entertained with bridge games on the patio, because the house sets everything up and prepares refreshments. The ease of the McClellans’ life asserts itself in the language of fantasy here: tables “sprout,” cards “flutter,” martinis “manifest” themselves, all accompanied by music from a mysterious source; card tables are majestic “butterflies” (Bradbury, “August” 169). One is reminded of the deceptive nostalgia of Alexander and Yenne and the optimistic kitchen ads; the McClellans appear to have lived a magical life, enabled by their modernized, automated house.
But the house’s technology replaces the family that lives there, and the house goes on living even after the McClellans die, forcing readers to question the emotional quality of such a magical life. For instance, the house has taken over even the most traditional family moments, like story time. “[T]he children’s hour” each day is little more than an elaborate television show: “The nursery walls glowed” with fantastical images of nature. “[Y]ellow giraffes, blue lions, pink antelopes, lilac panthers cavorting in crystal substance” (Bradbury, “August” 169). The nursery takes on the appearance of an African veldt, and the children are occupied without parental supervision. (Compare this scene to Bradbury’s “The Veldt,” a short story in which the wall-sized interactive televisions in the nursery ultimately murder the parents.) The house cooks dinner, lights Mr. McClellan’s cigar, and reads Mrs. McClellan her evening poetry. The house identifies the family dog and lets him in, but cannot recognize that he is starving. The kitchen goes on “making pancakes which filled the house with a rich baked odor and the scent of maple syrup” without realizing the dog’s desperate hunger (168).
The cumulative effect of these events is the suggestion not just that the McClellan family is dead, but that The Family itself is obsolete. There is no room for a housewife in this house; the recognizable activities defining her familial position have been obviated by the programmed activities of the house’s computerized “brain.” The troubling incident with the dog, however, makes it clear that the house can provide material goods -- food, cigar, audiovisual entertainment -- but not emotional sustenance. As the kitchen insists on its pancakes, “The dog frothed at the mouth, lying at the door, sniffing, its eyes turned to fire. It ran wildly in circles, biting at its tail, spun in a frenzy, and died. It lay in the parlor for an hour” before the house sweeps its carcass away to the “incinerator” in the “cellar” (Bradbury, “August” 168, 169). The house is modern and efficient, but it has no soul.
The kitchen is a technological marvel, but it tortures the sick dog in disturbing ways. Ostensibly, the house has fully incorporated the modern technology that would have marked the McClellan family as successful Americans with considerable consumer power. The pushbutton automation that defined the most modern kitchens imagined by Crosley or Nixon has not only been developed to its fullest potential but also applied to the entire house. As a result, the house becomes a paean to the very science and technology that produced the bomb in the first place, and the apocalyptic balance is skewed: the space is all cataclysm and no salvation. The McClellan family dies in an atomic blast that occurs before the story begins. Their shadows are burned into the exterior wall; when the house eventually succumbs to fire, its death reenacts, in slow motion, the incineration of the McClellan family. The death of the house becomes the death of The Home, the destruction of a family too reliant on modern mechanization and automation.
Because Bradbury personifies the fire that destroys the house, the fire violently and permanently supplants the family that once rightfully lived there. In this way, Bradbury demonstrates the extent to which atomic technology, man’s ability to harness the “power of the sun,” has invaded our most private spaces. The fire displaces the McClellan family just as the bomb, and its accompanying technology, has displaced the traditional habitus of The American Family, encouraging them to place their faith not in emotional progress but in science and the pushbutton technology of the future. The collapse of the McClellan and Loman homes suggests that such a society is doomed to fail.
The modernized mid-century kitchen equated American military superiority with improved domestic technology. As such, winning the war meant new and improved “miracle” kitchens. At the same time, however, this modernization introduced complicated new realities into the definition of the American Family. Not only did such kitchens bring the atom into the Home, as seen in the push-button fiction of Bradbury, but they also relied on the financial inequities of the capitalism that separated Americans from the communists. They encouraged Americans to live beyond their means, becoming trapped in cycles of debt. Miller’s play reminds us that surrounding ourselves with domestic goods, even if they’re the best, most advertised goods, is tantamount to having, like Willy, “the wrong dreams” (Miller 138). The literary authors described here point out the truth behind the shiny new gadgets: that the modernizing habitus is itself a fiction. Instead of nurturing the family and anchoring the house, it destroys the Family and leads the Home to collapse.
As private fallout shelters began to appear in American suburbs, homeowners were faced with the terrifying reality that their houses could not protect them from the new atomic wilderness. So the ideals of Home – those essentials to our American Way of Life that were most worth preserving – were moved underground, buried both literally and figuratively out the reach of the modernizing habitus. The kitchens discussed here reveal the consequences of modernizing the traditional heart of a home, especially when such modernization is so closely associated with the military technology of the atomic age.
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