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Camera Obscura 16.2 (2001) 79-131
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KitchenTechnologies: Promises and Alibis, 1944-1966
Laura Scott Holliday
Motorama and the Romance of Technology
Everyone says the future is strange
But I have a feeling some things won't change!
--Woman, Design for Dreaming
One of the classic advertising extravaganzas of the 1950s, General Motors' "Motoramas" were like giant museum exhibits, trade fairs, or debutante balls for GM's new products. The 1956 Motorama, dubbed "Highways of Tomorrow," drew 275,316 visitors during its six-day opening run at New York's Waldorf-Astoria hotel; later, its ten-minute promotional film version, Design for Dreaming, would be seen by more than 8 million people. 1 Among the most strenuously hyped exhibits at the Motorama was the Kitchen of Tomorrow. In contrast to the Motorama's main attraction, which showcase the latest crop of automobiles including five futuristic models, the Kitchen of Tomorrow was designed not to [End Page 79] show off current products but to be a spectacle of domestic futurism. Features included an Ultrasonic Dishwasher, a Roto-Storage Center (rotating glass refrigerator/freezer), and an Electro Recipe File with a color monitor mounted at eye level on which the cook could preview images of various dishes. 2 In Design for Dreaming, a young woman is visited one night by a mysterious masked and tuxedo-clad stranger who magically transforms her pajamas into an evening gown and whisks her away to visit the Motorama. When she arrives at the Kitchen of Tomorrow, the heroine twirls and sings her way through the kitchen's main features, places a cake in the glass-domed oven, exclaims "I'm free to have fun around the clock!" and then performs a quick-change dance routine in which she appears in tennis, swimming, and golf outfits--signifying, of course, that her day is filled with leisure, thanks to the Kitchen of Tomorrow.
Beginning with the kitchen in Design for Dreaming, this essay examines a series of representations of Kitchens of Tomorrow in an effort to elaborate popular-cultural understandings of the relationship between mediated technologies of gender and technologies of the kitchen in the postwar United States. On the face of things, it seems remarkable that a company like General Motors, whose goal was to maximize purchasing in the present, attempted to do so with extravaganzas showcasing future kitchen commodities--after all, it could be expected that Kitchens of Tomorrow would discourage, not encourage, consumers from buying contemporary appliances that were already obsolete compared to futuristic ones like the Roto-Storage Center. Yet Kitchens of Tomorrow abounded during the two decades following the end of World War II, promoted by companies to suggest that present-day appliances were the best available and that appliance producers had harnessed domestic-technological progress itself in order to serve women now and in the future. More broadly, Kitchens of Tomorrow, and the consumerist techno-kitchens that they indirectly promoted, played an important role in suturing ideologies of postwar femininity, democracy, domesticity, family values, and consumption, and they did so by centering American technological progress--materialized through [End Page 80] corporate research and development--as something mobilized to serve women. In the postwar period, women's status as homemakers was constructed (and justified) as part of a kind of national contract, according to which, through their roles as raisers of the nation's children and supporters and maintainers of the nation's domestic spaces, (white, middle- and upper-class) homemaking women would be recognized as central to American greatness. As such, they would be supported by a whole range of institutions, from government departments to magazines to university and corporate research units. The domestic sphere would be understood as separate but equal to the public sphere, and women would be equal partners in the postwar national project, trading in their access to paid labor and other aspects of public life with the knowledge that domestic and homemaking issues were of vital public concern. As full and equal partners they would also enjoy the spoils of postwar prosperity and the advances in science and production...