FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000

Modern Kitchens

In the postwar United States, modern kitchens became a prominent symbol of an idealized American way of life. For those who could afford them, modern kitchens were stocked with the latest processed foods and filled with labor-saving electric appliances. Home builders promoted and reinforced the kitchen’s significance, relocating it to the front of the house and integrating it with the living and dining rooms. Magazines advertised kitchens as status symbols, while manufacturers encouraged consumers to transform their kitchens into showcases of progress.

Julia Child’s real kitchen both contrasts and harmonizes with the sleek and modern ideal promoted for middle-class suburbanites of the 1950s and ’60s. With her husband, Paul, Julia designed and set up this kitchen in 1961. She had strong opinions about how her kitchen should be arranged. Its simple, painted cabinetry and butcher-block countertops contrast with the shiny surfaces pictured in kitchen brochures of the time. Yet her embrace of new appliances was in keeping with ideas of a “new and improved” kitchen.

View of Julia Child's kitchen

View of Julia Child's kitchen

“Built to Fit Your Wife,” 1953

“Built to Fit Your Wife,” 1953

Popular Science magazine portrayed the modern kitchen as a serious work space while reinforcing the traditional notion of the kitchen as a place for housewives. This article described a project at Cornell University that re-engineered the kitchen, setting up efficient work zones that would, as this piece says, “fit the woman.”

Upgraded Kitchens, 1952

Upgraded Kitchens, 1952

Philomena Dougherty in her new, color-coordinated kitchen in Levittown, Pennsylvania. Stainless-steel kitchens, a standard feature of suburban houses, were aesthetically appealing and signaled up-to-date living—a marker previously reserved for upper-class homes, but still largely reserved for white residents.

Courtesy of Rita Calzarette

Artwork for The Jetsons lunchbox, 1963

Artwork for The Jetsons lunchbox, 1963

Created for a lunchbox in 1963, this illustration features the animated television sitcom The Jetsons. Wife and mother Jane is in charge of the family’s meals, which are programmed via punchcards, fed to a computer, and prepared by pushing a button. The scene pokes fun at futuristic utopias that promised instant meals and lives of leisure.

Courtesy of Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Souvenir book, 1964

Souvenir book, 1964

Visitors to the New York World’s Fair were dazzled by fanciful and impractical kitchen designs in Formica’s display house.

Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Libraries