Penn Library Exhibitions

HOUSEHOLD WORDS: Women Write From and For the Kitchen

"The Handmaidens of Industry"

Cookbooks are avenues into homes and to the women who are their guardians. By reintroducing the nostalgic and familiar form of the recipe book in a new profile, the food industry managed to co-opt cookery and transform the kitchen into the marketplace. Many author-cooks who were allies of social reform and women's rights adapted to the new commercialism and became, in the words of Glenna Matthews, "The Handmaidens of Industry." Their images and voices endorsed the products which were marketed to consumers. The friendly woman-to-woman exchanges which had characterized many cookbooks until this period were replaced by new and impersonal texts. Masquerading as creators of easy and economic cuisine, with efficient, labor-saving products, the manufacturers replaced the author-cooks as experts and guides in household matters. The pamphlets and books that marketed new products and technology, often with introductions by famous women, eventually became household names of their own. The moguls of industry even manufactured "women" such as Betty Crocker and Jane Parker as stand-ins for absent authors. The named products--Jell-O, Baker's Chocolate, Crisco, General Foods--carried as much prestige as the popular cooks and teachers of the previous era. Powerful warnings were attached to these products: "Accept no substitutes."

The introduction of the new technology--everything from chemical leavening to stoves and kitchen gadgets--launched the "de-skilling" of the American housewife and diminished the prestige associated with skilled labor. Advertising campaigns eventually convinced women that homemade foods were not as healthful or desirable as the standardized and uniform products that could be bought at the grocery. A craft tradition--cooking--and the generations and communities of women who had fostered it to its peak was diminished in the name of progress and social reform. The women activists who labored to elevate the status of the housewife ultimately contributed to her debasement. The era of the housewife's anomie had taken hold.

Aresty Exhibition HomePage | Table of Contents | Previous Panel | Bibliography

Last update: Thursday, 02-Aug-2012 12:22:40 EDT
Send mail concerning this page to: shawcros@pobox.upenn.edu