American Housewives, Can Openers, and TV Dinners

Fast and Convenient Cooking in U.S. Mass Consumer Society (1950s-60s)

Hélène Le Dantec-Lowry


This paper examines the instructions given to American women in 1950s-60s cookbooks, when mass consumption was rapidly increasing, and when suburban white middle-class nuclear families were moving in great numbers to new suburbs and were being held up as ideal representatives of the American life style. Suburban housewives were paradoxically told to prepare gourmet meals for their husbands while also making quick and easy dishes for their families, using “modern” and “convenient” tools devised and promoted by industry.
I will briefly demonstrate that the trend toward more rationalized and standardized dinners started at the end of the 19th century, when some women reformers promoted food preparation as precise and scientific (e.g. with measuring cups and spoons), thus attempting to professionalize women’s work in the house. They also wished to Americanize immigrants who were told to forget their traditional recipes, tools, and techniques, and to embrace “modern” American food ways. These reformers moreover attempted to uplift the poor by teaching them more nourishing and hygienic food.
The main part of my presentation will then focus on 1950s-60s cookbooks that advertised practicality and imposed standardization by encouraging women to adopt a growing number of manufactured food items (canned and frozen food, TV dinners, etc.) as well as tools such as chafing dishes, microwave ovens, freezers, and the ordinary can opener, all of which were supposed to make the housewife’s life simpler without undermining her traditional role as the family’s principal cook. I will argue that using such tools and manufactured food helped define gender, class and ethno-racial identity.
I will conclude by arguing that cooking thus became standardized—as exemplified by the concomitant growth of fast-food restaurants—but that among both sexes, some resisted these trends by cooking more “natural” foods with older techniques while many immigrants and Southern Blacks, among others, continued to cook as their ancestors had done.