A Fun Peek into the ’50s via Atomic Kitchen

Atomic Kitchen

Atomic Kitchen by Brian S. Alexander is a fun look at how kitchens and kitchen wares changed during the ’50s in response to post-WII optimism.  I also think that there was societal pressure to get Rosie the Riveter back in the home so the returning soldiers could find work.  Being a homemaker had to be made more glamorous, more fulfilling, than working for a living, so housework had to be less houseworky.  Another factor was the idea of keeping up with the Joneses that became more prevalent in the ’50s.  Lots of folks wanted to have the best and most up-to-date home, cars, you name it; especially after all the deprivation of the war years.

Just so you can have an idea of kitchen evolution from the early twentieth century:

1920s kitchen

By the way, don’t be fooled–this is the updated kitchen.  Another thing, don’t you love that she is cooking in shoes with heels.  Those poor women had to be as glamorous as possible, no matter what they were doing.

On to the 1940s kitchen:

BH&G 1946 BH&G new kitchens

These pages from BH&G 1946 are helpful as they show an older kitchen in the left picture and the more updated kitchen on the right.  The previous three kitchen pictures are from my stash of pamphlets and old magazines, but they do support the ideas in Atomic Kitchen, namely that housework was hard work.

Okay, back to Atomic Kitchen.  The ads and pictures used are just priceless:

Atomic Kitchen 1

Any housewife worth her salt would be embarrassed to have her guests see her old-fashioned kitchen.  The crowd at the door of the new kitchen look ready to swoon at the new American Kitchen’s awesomeness!

Another reason to update the kitchen:

Steel kitchen atomic kitchen 5The copy reads:  “The all-steel kitchen brightens her eyes … because it’s beautiful.”  My goodness, my eyes would be bright if I had all those cupboards–they seem to stretch off into infinity.  Just think how many sets of dishes I could have!  Beloved Husband called it cabinet porn.

This picture shows the ’50s housewife just living the dream:

Living the Life Atomic Kitchen 2

She has her automatic, push-button appliances doing all the work so she can just lie around drinking coffee and reading.  For the love of Pete, where are the bonbons?

Just to insert some outside support for Atomic Kitchen’s ads, here’s some vintage copy from BH&G 1949:

BH&G1949

Its best feature is pushbutton cooking–“no groping, no guesswork”, yay?  I kind of like kitchen groping, and I always cook by guess and by golly.

Alexander says that these automatic houses and appliances have their roots in the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition of 1933:

House of Tomorrow Atomic Kitchen 4According to Alexander, “The House of Tomorrow with its twelve-sided shape, central support core, and first-floor airplane hangar was a magnet for fair goers. … The sleek kitchen included stainless steel counters and sinks and a wall of built-in metal cabinets.  The latest in electrical appliances and accessories were shown, including a built-in dishwasher and exhaust fan.”  The 1939 New York World’s Fair also demonstrated how we would be living in the future with an all-electric GE kitchen.

Obviously, the dreams of the 1930s were still in play with this ultra modern wall refrigerator:

Wall Refrigerator Atomic Kitchen 3The little lady is on the telephone, looking through her fridge, and going through her recipe box planning tonight’s big dinner.  Of course she is wearing pearls!  It’s the first thing I slap on in the a.m.; even before getting dressed!

Of course if a wall refrigerator doesn’t float your boat, look at these International Harvester fridges:

Atomic Kitchen7 refrigerator handle colorsWow, the handles can be any color!  This makes up for pay inequity!  Alexander talks about how color-crazy housewives were in the ’50s.  Atomic Kitchen also has a picture of an International Harvester refrigerator door that you could cover in fabric that matched your curtains.  It’s tucked in around the trim and you could change it whenever you wanted to.  The plaid refrigerator door has to be seen to be believed.

Now that you have your kitchen all updated, you need accessories:

Atomic Kitchen8 Lustro Ware

Wow, “plastic kitchenwares boost the morale of housewives.”  I bet that comment was thought up over a three-martini lunch, a la Mad Men.  There were also several ads featuring multicolored aluminum glasses, serving dishes, and cookware.  We still see a lot of that in thrift stores.

We have talked many times over the years about the entertaining that went on in the ’50s.  People might just drop in for a cocktail or snacks after playing bridge, going to the lodge, or a movie.  You had better be ready to wow them:

Buffet Atomic Kitchen 6

This wooden foldout serving thingie is sure to garner attention and probably salmonella.  I can’t imagine cleaning the buffet after using it to serve that fluffy salad or the meat.

I think that Atomic Kitchen captures the wants and needs of the ’50s pretty accurately.  There are tons of great ads, so it could be a source of information about thrift store/garage sales finds.  However, there are LOTS of pictures and not so much text, so I would categorize it as a window into a fifties kitchen, not an exhaustive catalog of products that were available.  Reading would be easier if he would keep related text closer to the pertinent picture.  I had to do lots of flipping back and forth while reading the book.  Overall, I would recommend this book as fun read.

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6 Responses to A Fun Peek into the ’50s via Atomic Kitchen

  1. Wow. Where do I start? I have always loved vintage pamphlets and ads that talk about a modern kitchen. I have ‘modern’ kitchen and housework pamphlets from just about every decade in the 20th century. Each decade thought they were better than the previous. But I do have to laugh at the idea of a cloth covered refrigerator. Can you imagine little grubby hands staining the fabric or even making it sticky? Both my mom and grandma were ready for company at a moments notice. (They must have read the same copy prepared by Madison Avenue.) There were always plates of cookies, some sort of fluffy salad, and assorted sandwiches that just magically appeared whenever guests walked through the front door (invited or not). Guess it is time for me to get out my strand of pearls, freshen my cup of coffee, and let the appliances do all the work.

    • kathy & deb says:

      Glad you enjoyed the book review; I hadn’t thought about all the sticky on the fabric–ick!! Guests are welcome, but I never have anything to feed them except nuts, rice cakes, and water. 😉

      • I just noticed that when I clicked on the image of the housewife ‘living the dream’, (so it would be a larger image to look at) that it looks as though she popped a couple of ‘mother’s little helpers’.

      • kathy & deb says:

        Well, her expression does support your hypothesis. 🙂

  2. Steph says:

    “Femineered!” *falls over laughing* I love it! That’s my new favorite word! I must get that book! My mother in law had turquoise everything. We escaped that, but had the dreaded Harvest Gold, which was more a product of the 70’s. And the ashtrays! Goodness, you could serve a salad in some of them, they were so large! Great post, ladies – and I’m sure you’re wearing your pearls!

    • kathy & deb says:

      Isn’t that a great word? Of course I wore my pearls to write the post–couldn’t have channelled my inner ’50s housewife without them. 😉 Thanks for reading!

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