At your convenience: a century of change

Categories: History of food

In her introduction to a new monthly series, Angela Clutton explores how the development of kitchen appliances after 1918 both stemmed from and influenced the changing role of women

The fridge. Can you imagine not just your kitchen but your life without one of those? I can’t. Yet that is something the ladies of 1918 would have had to take in their newly-trousered stride. Admittedly there were possibly bigger fish for them to fry than keeping food cool—what with winning the vote and all—but there is no denying that the past century has been one of massive change for the room in the home that for so many preceding centuries was considered the woman’s primary, or even only, domain.

You could say the kitchen had to keep up. It had to change because women were driving change. In 1919, domestic doyenne Christine Peel wrote in a national newspaper that the “era of the labour-saving house is dawning”. Too right. Many women who pre-World War I had been domestic servants but had stepped-up during the war to take on ‘men’s jobs’ had no intention of going back into service once the war was over.

195-s kitchen ad

Embracing new appliances
Without the ‘help’, householders had to face the reality of being a bit more hands-on, so duly embraced new appliances such as the dishwashers that were first demonstrated in Britain at the 1920 Ideal Home exhibition, and the oven thermostats that were a step-up from testing the heat of an oven by how quickly it browned paper or even just putting your arm in. (Not recommended in our health and safety conscious times.)

More war inevitably brought more domestic change mid-century. As Britain emerged from deprivation and rationing, it was with a new focus on the kitchen and the role of women in the home. Take a look at magazine kitchen ads from the late 1950s and early sixties and you will most likely see a stream-lined space with sleek built-in storage units, a huge fridge, non-stick pans, electric sockets lining the walls for Kenwood mixers and the like—and the lady of the house in an apron and high heels, with quite the hair-do. A dream was being sold of domestic perfection delivered with glamour and ease.

Ripping off the apron strings
It was a dream that, as the end of the 20th century drew nearer, became a bit too stifling, and newly-accessible freezers and microwaves were instrumental allies for women who wanted or needed to rip off the apron strings.

How about now? Now we benefit from how change has brought about choice. I can choose to buy a non-stick pan or take the time to season my own. I can whizz up a few spices for a few seconds in an electric coffee-grinder that has been co-opted to the task, or take my time with a pestle and mortar. The hope has to be that in the 100 years of women wielding increasing power in society, we have reached a point where it should be every woman’s (and man’s) personal choice how much time is or isn’t spent in the kitchen.

In big and small ways, technological advances have certainly made it easier for women to break free from the kitchen and take charge elsewhere, too. Over the next few instalments of this series, I’ll be taking a closer look at what some of those are.