August seems to be “Atomic” Month here on Taking Up Room, only this year we’re not talking about the atomic bomb. Oh no. In the nineteen-fifties, the term “atomic” could be applied to anything, from cereal to drinks to cars to TVs.
Today, however, we’re only interested in that haven of culinary concoction and homely conviviality, the kitchen. Architect and collector Brian S. Alexander takes us there in his splashy, colorful volume, Atomic Kitchen: Gadgets and Inventions For Yesterday’s Cook.
During the Second World War, there was a lot of talk about the post-war home. There would be conveniences galore, homes would be easy to maintain and clean, and the average family house could do everything but blast off into space. Plastic was the material of choice, with fabric and wood as accents. All the talk worked–after the war, housewives were ready to give their kitchens a spruce, and in the 1950s, everything was sleek, streamlined, and futuristic. Uniform wall-to-wall color was popular, with even refrigerators getting in on the act. Uniform patterns such as plaid weren’t off-limits, either, which must have made some kitchens absolute eye-poppers. It was also trendy to mount appliances on walls, and there were plenty of those available. Families could even have a TV in the kitchen if they wanted to.
Disney capitalized on this trend with the Monsanto House of the Future, which first opened at Disneyland in 1957. This modular house was built entirely of plastic, with the insides trimmed in natural materials. My mom toured this house as a teenager and remembers being very impressed by it, because it was definitely a marvel.
Problem was, technology kept catching up with the House of the Future, making it the House of the Present. Disney’s Imagineers made the house over several times, but it was too big of a hassle, and in 1967 it was dismantled.
Yeah, dismantled, not demolished. Atomic Kitchen doesn’t mention this, but the configuration of the house, as well as its durable plastic exterior, caused the wrecking ball to bounce off of it, making conventional demolition impossible, so the house was taken apart piece by piece. Most of the foundation was converted into landscaping, but a small piece of the house can still be seen at the entrance to Pixie Hollow.
Alexander goes back a wee bit farther back in time than the fifties, however. It goes without saying that since the dawn of time, people have been looking for ways to improve their homes and kitchens in particular. Kitchen gadgets as we know them didn’t start to pop up until the 1800s. Prior to that, we had pots, pans, forks, spoons, knives, and so on, plus cooking was a legacy skill.
The book incorrectly states that measurements were omitted in early cookbooks. We had measurements, but they were metaphorical and estimated–a recipe might call for butter the size of a walnut, for instance. It wasn’t until 1896 that standardized methods caught on, as a result of Fannie Farmer’s cookbook.
Other factors in popularizing kitchen gadgets was the proliferation of mail-order catalogues, better roads, and an expanded rail service. Families eagerly snapped up egg beaters, whisks, and peelers, and suddenly housewares were big business, garnering their own sections in general stores and department stores. In the fifties, one surefire way to get people’s attention was to add “O-Matic” to something. Ron Popeil knew this, which is why his first products had names like the Chop-O-Matic and the Veg-O-Matic. Considering Popeil is the king of the infomercial, his O-Matics were obviously a success.
Some appliances took longer to catch on. Fridges went through plenty of changes, and some models from the fifties had them mounted on the wall and opening like cupboards. Dishwashers, on the other hand, had to grow on people. They were first invented in 1900 by Josephine Cochran, and according to Alexander, were available for sale in 1912. They were self-contained by the nineteen-forties and continued to be improved, but sales were sluggishly steady until the 1950s.
Atomic Kitchen has a lot of similarities to Retro Housewife in that it’s all about the gadgets. Unlike Retro, though, Atomic doesn’t rely solely on ads and stock images–it has photos of the actual mod-cons.
The variety in the book is immense. Some appliances are weird in a cool way, like a vegetable dish that rotates like a Ferris wheel or the Fold-Away Buffet. There’s also the Toas-tite, which made what looked like the forerunners of Uncrustables. Others are just durable and fun, like Fiestaware, which is still produced today. I even recognized my mom’s colored Pyrex mixing bowls and saw a cookie press just like mine.
Some appliances look uncomfortably ripe for trouble. One is Reed’s Rocket Nut Cracker, which looks as though it could break fingers as easily as nutshells. Amazingly enough, this puppy is still on the market, although some Amazon reviews recommend using it with caution.
However, not many gadgets can match the strangeness of the Helping Hand. I don’t know whose brainchild this was, but they defy description. These oddities can occasionally be found at antique stores or flea markets, probably because they were more of a novelty than anything, not to mention the public may have found them creepy.
I wonder if the Thing on The Addams Family was inspired by the Helping Hand.
Anyway, moving on…
The only possible criticism that can be made about Atomic Kitchen is that it’s not terribly well-organized. However, this is neither here nor there, as reading this book is like rifling through Grandma’s cupboards, where things may be jumbled up and thrown together. In that sense the book feels very natural, and it’s diverting to leaf through. I highly recommend it for anyone who likes social history, cooking, or plain old novelty. It’s a nice snapshot of the optimistic fifties, when the sky was the limit.
Got a special announcement coming up on Thursday, and then on Friday the Wizard of Oz Blogathon is starting…woot! Gonna be a busy weekend. Thanks for reading, all, and see you in a couple of days…
Alexander, Brian S. Atomic Kitchen: Gadgets and Inventions For Yesterday’s Cook. Portland, Oregon: Collector’s Press. 2004.