Thursday, April 17, 2014

1950s Kitchen Quote of the Week: Mrs. Emma Van Coutren

“Just like a man, I thought, singing the familiar refrain about how wonderful everything used to be. I told him I didn’t believe most women of my generation would agree. And I say it again, although I’m no expert with a degree after my name, but only know what I’ve learned from 65 years of living on this earth, raising a family of 12, and watching 17 grandchildren come along. I know how life has changed in our country in the past half century, and I admit that it isn’t like the good old days. I think it’s a lot better.

Of course, I don’t say that ever change has been an improvement. It seems to me that we are on the go too much to think of spiritual things as often as we should, and as often as we used to. If so, that’s our own fault, and not the fault of the times we live in. If we stopped once in a while for reflection, we would look back at the road we’ve traveled and give thanks for the blessings of life in America today.

I notice that it’s almost always the men, anyhow, who say that things used to be better. Men remember chicken dinners and home-baked pies an bread—but it was their wives who spent hours plucking the chickens, kneading dough, and baking in a coal range.

After Sunday dinner, it was the men who went to the lodge or the park, while the women piled the dirty dishes in the tin-lined sink and heated cistern water on the stove for washing. There were no automatic dish washers and dryers, no stainless steel sinks with garbage disposal units, no ventilating fans to carry off cooking smells and heat.

Men have forgotten how floors were scrubbed on hands and knees, rugs cleaned with a broom or a beater, clothes scrubbed on a washboard, fruits and vegetables canned all summer long to provide the winter’s food supply. These were round-the clock, 7-days-a-week chores which women of my day accepted without question, and which made many of them old before their times.

Young housewives of today take for granted a world which has been turned upside down for their convenience, during the lifetime of people no older than myself."

–––Mrs. Emma Van Coutren, from her memoir essay, ‘This Beats the Good Old Days,” The American Magazine, August 1950: pp. 32-33; 104-106.

Mrs. Emma Van Coutren was a 65 year old mother of twelve and grandmother of seventeen who raised her family in rural Missouri. [She was born in Elmira, New York in 1885]. In the extensive article, in addition to her describing the “good old days” (a man’s term, she says) and all of the hard work she did as a housewife, she mentions that each of her twelve children served during World War II—at home or abroad—and that all twelve came home. She was honored in 1944 by the Mother’s Day Commemorative League as the woman who best exemplified American motherhood.

Friday, April 11, 2014

1950s Kitchen Quote of the Week: Russel Wright

Mary and Russel Wright (c. late 1940s) displaying their
unbreakable line of affordable dinnerware. They co-authored
Guide to Easier Living in 1950 which outlined modern design
and lifestyle concepts–a seismic and influential shift
away from entrenched post-Victorian holdovers.
"I believe our wives and daughters want the kitchen to be a place as pretty as the rest of the house...(designers need to develop) a living kitchen...(so the housewife can say) 'Let's sit in the kitchen.'"

Russel Wright
To the Steel Kitchen Cabinet  Manufacturers Association:
The New York Times,  March 12, 1955

I have to confess to being a bit obsessed recently with Russel Wright. When you have dwelled as long as I have in all things nineteenth century and then spend significant time studying the 1950s kitchen, when you learn of someone like Wright it presents a major shift in your perceptions of design, space and domestic history. I will certainly be posting more on Russel and Mary Wright and their contributions to the American kitchen in the months to come.

For more on Russel Wright visit

Friday, April 4, 2014

1950s Kitchen Quote of the Week: Julia Child

No one has done more for transforming how Americans ate and cooked after World War II.
Julia Child, 1912-2004, in her kitchen [© Pat Greenhouse, The Boston Globe]

"I cannot forget one ladies’ lunch back in the 1950s. Our hostess proudly led us to our seats around a nicely appointed table where we each sat down to a pretty china plate upon which stood an upright, somewhat phallic-shaped molded aspic holding in suspension diced green grapes, diced marshmallows, and diced bananas."

Julia Child

Before her unprecedented culinary contributions of French cooking to America, throughout the 1950s Julia Child perfected her cooking skills and interests at Le Cordon Bleu while teaching with future cookbook collaborators Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle in post-war Paris. 

Child's original kitchen was installed in her Cambridge, Massachusetts home in 1961–the same year that her classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published. It was later donated and reassembled at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. You can also view it virtually here. Although it was constructed just after the 1950s it still has some traits from that era: namely the pale turquoise blue color and even the peg-board method of placing pots and pans on her wall (my mother used the same method to hang her Paul Revere Ware® throughout the sixties on pink peg-board in our kitchen). Of note is that husband Paul Child, who designed the kitchen, made certain that the counters were 38 inches in height instead of the standard 36 inches. [Julia was 6'2.] The kitchen was also used for seven years in the taping of Child's first, now iconic, cooking series on PBS.

To read more about Julia Child, click here

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Living in the 1950s

A "Little Golden Book" from the 1950s.
For the past few months as I've been writing this book, I've been living in the 1950s. As I was born in 1962, this isn't much of a stretch: we had the 1949 post-war house that my parents purchased in Akron, Ohio in 1961, complete with pink-applianced kitchen, "atomic" flecked linoleum (black with white, pink and gray flecks––I thought it was the entire universe on our kitchen floor!), and pink-outfitted bathrooms. We had all manner of barbecue gadgets and funny aprons that my father used alongside the charcoal grill outdoors. We were your typical 1960s suburban family living under a post-1950s gossamer web. I spent my childhood years quite removed from any details of the Vietnam war, riots, protesting, or the Civil Rights movement.

"Our house, in the middle of our street." 2024 Ayers Avenue, c. 2009.
The house was built in the post-war housing boom of 1949.
The early 1960s, for most young American suburbanites and their children, was not much different than the 1950s. We didn't have the 24-hour news cycle that we have today on more than one television channel or the constant presence of the Internet. We didn't watch television when having dinner. We didn't have "smart" phones in our pockets or at our dinner tables, either. As children, we really didn't see or hear any news.

There could be no 1950s kitchen without Betty Crocker.
As a child I was mostly interested in kitchens and pantries and food. When I wasn't building townscapes out of American Bricks or Lincoln Logs, I was doodling house plans. I wanted to feel, experience and define the diverse architectural spaces and the suburban landscapes where I lived. It's still true today.

The 1950s American Kitchen, to be published by Shire Books, will be available in Fall 2014. This blog will include other images and video clips not found in the book as a means of accompanying it with more detailed information on certain topics or items of interest. As there is a necessary word count and image limit, this seems the best way to share more than is possible in the book itself.

Please visit often and I also encourage you to submit original photographs of yourself or your parents, friends or relatives in their 1950s kitchens. Feel free to email your crisp jpeg files to me at and I'll post them on this blog. Send as much information as you'd like along with the image.

The 1950s was a pivotal decade in American house design and within the weave of our national social fabric. Post-war societal change and new design and technological innovations were the backdrop for home-owning adults and the childhoods of most of the "Baby Boomers" who were born after World War II between 1946 and 1964. These were also the early years of the Cold War and the flowering of the Atomic Age. While the greater world often seemed threatening, the 1950s home and its increasingly more livable and centralized kitchen provided a comfort zone for American families privy to a new and booming post-war prosperity. The kitchen has always helped define the story of our lives and it's arguably the best place to be any where in any home, and in any era.