Object lessons : household appliance design and the American middle class, 1920-1960

Nickles, Shelley Kaplan, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Zunz, Olivier, Department of History, University of Virginia
Carlson, W., Department of Engineering and Society, University of Virginia
Aron, Millicent (Cindy), Department of History, University of Virginia
Wilson, Richard, Department of Architectural History, University of Virginia

In the mid-twentieth century, the suburban home equipped with up-to-date household appliances became a powerful symbol of the modern American middle class. This study examines the relationship between household appliances and middle­ class formation forged from 1920 to 1960 by analyzing the design of these goods as a social process. I use largely unexplored records of designers and manufacturers and many additional sources--including trade journals and catalogs, advertisements, market research reports, sociological surveys, women's magazines, oral histories, and extant artifacts--to show the ways that dynamic interactions between designers and consumers resulted in new design standards for mass-produced household goods and new notions about middle-class status and identity.

Between 1920 and 1960, technologically-complex artifacts--such as refrigerators, toasters, and radios--entered the majority of American homes. In 1920, both the domestic characteristics of the modern middle class and the design of household appliances were uncertain. Manufacturers hired industrial designers to restyle appliances as a competitive strategy to attract the middle-class consumer, broadly defined in gendered terms as the "servantless housewife." By the postwar period, household appliances had emerged as important tools of social integration. Designers played a significant role in expanding the social function of domestic machines by imposing a visual coherence on appliances while continually modifying lll their elite modernist aesthetic to conform to the changing values and taste of an enlarging middle class, resulting in streamlining in the 1930s and "populuxe" styling in the 1950s. In this way, the domestic characteristics of a modern middle class, which reconciled efficiency and domesticity, were defined through the process of designing and redesigning household appliances. By 1960, as appliances became "object lessons" to newly enfranchised "workingmen's wives" in achieving middle­ class lifestyles, they also became an arena to debate the limits of mass consumption in constructing social identity.

This study combines social history and material culture to revise our understanding of the rise of a mass consumer society by recognizing the importance of style in constructing social identity and by pointing to the centrality of women in articulating middle-class status through their discriminating roles as consumers and homemakers.

Note: Abstract extracted from PDF file via OCR.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

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