National Geographic News
1950s mother and daughter baking a cake

A mother and her daughter mix up a cake in the 1950s. The aspirational image of the idealized homemaker emerged post World War I.


Cathy Newman in Philadelphia

National Geographic

Published July 3, 2014

Shall we dish about dishes and, while we're at it, the women hovering over them?

We are talking about the idealized homemaker: white, married, middle class, perfect in every way, not a hair out of place, nails painted, impeccably made up—the hausfrau who can whip up a roast leg of lamb with parsnip mash and madeira sauce without breaking a sweat. The leftovers (if there are any) go neatly into the Tupperware container.

That not-yet-entirely-extinct species, seen presiding over vintage Frigidaire ads and in the persona of Mad Men's Betty Draper (minus the vodka gimlet, perhaps), is the thematic presence behind the beautifully designed kitchen cookware and tableware objects in "The Main Dish"—an exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art that opens on July 1 and runs through September 28.

The juxtaposition is intentional, says Erica Warren, curatorial fellow in European decorative arts, who conceived and curated the exhibit.

She's an ideal, a domestic goddess who emerged post World War I—an aspirational image that the how-to-be-a-homemaker books and Betty Crocker-style advertising insisted a woman could achieve on her own.

Image 1:
A stainless steel fruit bowl designed by Gijs Bakker (left), a steel-and-brass teakettle by Richard Sapper (center), and Kubus storage containers by Wilhelm Wagenfeld are on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

According to Warren, the ergonomically correct OXO cheese grater (designed 1989-90), the environmentally correct eco-plastic and bamboo-fiber cups by Tom Dixon (2004), and the alien-looking Philippe Starck lemon squeezer (1990-91) reflect characteristics of the modern woman, who, in the late 19th century, would have been reading the 1871 bestseller The Young Housewife's Counsellor and Friend: Containing Directions in Every Department of Housekeeping. Including the Duties of Wife and Mother.

The homemaker "exists as another object adorning the kitchen and, as such, must keep pace with changing fashions and concepts of modernity," writes Warren in the text accompanying the exhibit.

Though most people identify the image of the homemaker with the 1950s and '60s, Warren suggests that the idea originates in the 13th century with the Middle English word husewif. "Homemaker" comes into use in the second half of the 19th century—a term Warren prefers to "housewife" because, she says, it casts the labor of household duties in a creative light.

Image 1: Good Grips: Kitchen Scissors, Designed 1989-90. Made by OXO International, New York, 1989. Santoprene (processed rubber), stainless steel. Image 2: Anna G. corkscrew: Designed by Alessandro Mendini in 1931, Italian.  Chrome-plated zamak, polyamide. Image 3: Good Grip Grater: Made by OXO International, New York, 1989, Santoprene (processed rubber), stainless steel.
A porcelain dessert plate from Elizabeth Garouste's Étrange Végetation collection (left) and a porcelain teapot designed by Luigi Colani are also on display.

Tarnished Ideal

But there is a subtext of tarnish on the sleek, shiny silver of the Kay Fisker-designed pitcher (1927) and the silverplate salad servers by Richard Meier (1994) that suggests all is not as bright as it seems. Writes Warren, with a dash of irony: "These implements reflect ... literally the homemaker who uses them. She must take special care to maintain their untarnished appearance and ensure that they reveal no trace of the time or effort she invests in cooking and cleaning."

Likewise, Tupperware, Warren would argue, can be seen as a metaphor for being contained. The plastic bowls with their snap tops maintain order, keeping everything in the kitchen in its place—including the homemaker.

One of the pivotal objects for Warren—among objects like melamine stacking dinnerware (1964) and a Chemex glass coffeemaker (1941)—is Alessi's Anna G. corkscrew (1994), designed by Alessandro Mendini. "The Anna G. corkscrew is a tongue-in-cheek homage to a real woman," explains the text on the Alessi website. "Her smiling face has become something of a cult figure over the years, giving birth (so to speak) to a rich family of objects for the table and kitchen in a wide range of materials."

Tongue-in-cheek homage? Or is Anna G., as Warren suggests, a literal objectification of a woman? "She's got her smiling face. Always ready to open that bottle of wine for you." Whichever interpretation you buy, Warren hopes to provoke the viewer to think critically about the objects displayed.

The idea of an ideal homemaker hasn't disappeared. Warren believes nostalgia has created an updated, refurbished version of the homemaker as evinced by cooking blogs and home and design magazines. Consider, also, two of the "domestic goddesses" of our time, Martha Stewart and Nigella Lawson. (Stewart, of course, lost some of her gloss when she was sentenced to jail for insider trading in 2004. And Lawson's marriage turned out not to be so perfect; it ended in 2013, shortly after her husband, Charles Saatchi, was photographed outside a London restaurant with his hands around her throat.)

Image 1:
According to curator Erica Warren, these kitchen gadgets—including cooking scissors (left) and a grater (right) by OXO International, and the "Anna G." corkscrew by Alessandro Mendini (center)—reflect subtle characteristics of the modern woman.

Kitchen Coda

The coda is provided by Martha Rosler's 1975 feminist performance video Semiotics of the Kitchen. Rosler speaks directly into the camera and performs a "kitchen alphabet," her face utterly devoid of affect. "B is for bowl," she says, slamming one on the table. "C is for chopper" (more aggression), and the ender—Z—is portrayed by Rosler slashing the letter Z with a huge carving knife in the air above her kitchen workspace.

"Rosler's performance," Warren writes, "provokes us to consider the potentially frustrating, confined nature of kitchen labor that beautifully designed objects cannot necessarily ameliorate."

And what about the contents of Warren's kitchen? Is it full of design icons—a Georg Jensen sterling service, perhaps? A set of Eva Zeisel dinnerware?

"I have my grandmother's forget-me-not Franciscan china," she says, "and a set of mixed Oneida tableware I bought from a guy in Brooklyn for five dollars."

Pat Kittle
Pat Kittle

Pretty "subversive" all right -- another Jewish writer (my sincere apology if Cathy Newman is not Jewish) mocking non-Jewish white people -- gee, we never saw that before.

Of course a jab at Germans ("hausfrau") is always fun.

Even National Geographic is subject to this agenda.

Even though this comment will likely be censored, people are increasingly seeing through this relentless anti-Gentilism.

Sandy Brownell
Sandy Brownell

FYI:  Mad Men's Betty Draper, not Man Men's Betty Draper.


Popular Stories

The Future of Food

  • Why Food Matters

    Why Food Matters

    How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?

  • Download: Free iPad App

    Download: Free iPad App

    We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.

See more food news, photos, and videos »