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"Preserving Women": Refrigerator Design as Social Process in the 1930s

From: Technology and Culture
Volume 43, Number 4, October 2002
pp. 693-727 | 10.1353/tech.2002.0175

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Technology and Culture 43.4 (2002) 693-727

[Figures]

In 1940, Sam Vining, Westinghouse's director of department store sales, complained about the way one novice salesman demonstrated a refrigerator to a prospective customer:

He caught hold of the door handle, and he said, "Look, this door handle moves three ways." And the woman was supposed to drop dead. Now, what the hell difference does it make to the refrigerator how many ways that door handle moved? . . . Fifty per cent of our business is preserving women, not fruit, and it makes a lot of difference to the woman whether she can walk over with her arms full of something and it will open in any direction she wants. But that salesman didn't tell her that—he was selling merchandise, not people.

Vining's vignette of the lackluster salesman, the hardworking homemaker, and the three-way door handle vividly captures the relationship forged during the 1930s between household appliance design and consumers. Consumers experienced new domestic technologies, and therefore the process of modernization, in large part through the mediating influence of industrial design. Design elements were related only tangentially to the technical function of the refrigerator as a food preservation device, but were central to its perceived social function of "preserving women" by aiding the servantless housewife. Historians of household technology have asked how the refrigerator "got its hum," but not how it got its streamlined curve, vegetable drawer, or door handle. This study of refrigerator design in the 1930s suggests that an exploration of industrial design as part of a larger process of social interaction offers insight into how new technologies were domesticated, on whose terms, and with what social consequences.

As this 1940 anecdote reveals, manufacturers, marketers, and designers had created a notion of a generic, "average" consumer from the increasingly diverse demographics of the real women who purchased mechanical refrigerators in a decade when ownership climbed from 8 percent to 44 percent of American households. Contrasting to the upper-class consumer of the appliance's early years, it boiled down to this deceptively simple portrait: a homemaker in a depression economy, without servants or other helpers, who found herself in the kitchen opening the refrigerator door with both hands full (fig. 1). She valued thrift, efficiency, convenience, and modern food preservation methods for her family. Vining's exasperation with his salesman hinted at the conflict-ridden and complex process of conceiving this average consumer and designing her refrigerator.

This article explores the social process of designing refrigerators in the 1930s. I argue that industrial design was central to manufacturers' struggles to redefine the refrigerator from an expensive luxury item for the wealthy few to an affordable, laborsaving, food preservation device for a broad market of "servantless housewives." When electric and gas refrigerators became available for domestic use following World War I, their design and marketing (fig. 2) largely reflected their status as prestige products intended for elite households. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, technological advances in gas and electric refrigeration, the adoption of standardization and mass production, and increased competition caused prices to fall steeply. At the same time, advertising, installment credit plans, and the educational efforts of home economists spurred demand. By the middle years of the Great Depression, New Deal electrification and loan policies further extended the potential market for mechanical refrigerators.

The ability to produce a reliable, affordable refrigerator only brought new questions about this market: who were these new consumers and what did they want? This article begins with a discussion of the ways an expanding market forced the leading producer, Frigidaire, to abandon its outdated notion of the refrigerator as a prestige product for an elite consumer. Though manufacturers understood that potential buyers existed at different income levels, the necessity of reconciling mass production of standardized goods with growing market diversity led them to focus on an average consumer in the middle of the market.

The task of interpreting the needs and values of this average consumer fell to a new group of industrial designers who had their own elite, modernist agenda and gender biases concerning the styling of household technology. As designer Lurelle Guild's work for Servel refrigerators...