Still feeling a bit 1952 after a weekend of cake and bunting?

Then you might like my article in the current Waitrose Weekend about the 1950s kitchen …

Oh, there was plenty to celebrate in the 1950s.  Rationing finally came to an end.  Marriage rates were at their highest ever.  The ‘Festival of Britain’ set a new tone of optimism.  No wonder, upon the accession of a new and radiant young queen, people talked about a second Elizabethan Age.

But it wasn’t all sunshine. Some foods were still in short supply, and the post-War housing shortage remained.  There was a new and rebellious group in society: the teenager, complete with moody irresponsibility.  And the return of the men from the war to the workplace meant that many women lost their jobs.

These women were expected instead to devote themselves to their homes. But the middle class housewife could no longer reply upon the cheap human help that her mother would still just have been about able to employ in the 1930s. The two World Wars had removed the huge infrastructure of servants who’d cooked and cleaned for the Victorians. Lady Beveridge noted that not only were new houses desperately short in supply, but that existing homes had been ‘all too frequently designed for a social system which is a thing of the past’. What the happy 1950s housewife needed instead was a rational, efficient, time-saving, fitted kitchen.

‘The kitchen of today’, wrote Picture Post in 1953, ‘is light, airy and highly equipped. Its separate components are carefully planned to make a complete working unit. It is gracious, comfortable and efficient. Or it should be!’

The modern and hygienic fitted kitchen was in fact a pre-War German invention, inspired by the narrow galley kitchens of railway trains.  Shockingly modern to contemporary eyes, the so-called ‘Frankfurt Kitchen’ had work surfaces which pulled out like drawers and draining boards on hinges which could be folded away.  In it the housewife was thought of as an engineer, efficiently turning out meals.  She would tread out a ‘golden triangle’, carefully calibrated to minimise the distance between cooker, sink and table.

One of the early home-grown British fitted kitchen designs was ‘The English Rose’ of 1948, intended to use up the aluminium which had been stockpiled for building Spitfires.  You simply chose your whole kitchen from the standard range of units and cupboards.  The work surfaces would be covered with coloured, wipe-clean melamine.  After the dingy war years, it would look striking clean and bright.

Electricity was nationalised in 1947, and the post-War relaxation of the hire-purchase rules made gadgets and appliances suddenly became much more obtainable. ‘Choosing your cooking stove’, the housewife was advised, ‘is a momentous event second only to choosing your life partner’.  By the mid-1960s, 61% of London households would have a refrigerator.  Frozen food and the fridge gradually eased the daily pain of having to go to the shops for fresh supplies.  1950s innovations included the time-saving teabag, and, of course, Arctic Roll.

The ultimate post-War gadget of desire, though, was the Kenwood mixer.  Kenneth Wood, who gave his own name to his products, was a former RAF engineer who’d worked on the development of radar. In 1950 his ‘Chef’ or mixer was launched at the Ideal Home Exhibition.  Harrods sold out within a week, and by 1968, Wood had sold more than a million units.  From 1955 you could also purchase a steam iron or a pressure cooker, and you might even visit the chemist to pick up what was then considered a luxury item: a pair of the new orange Marigold washing-up gloves.

La dolce vita did not come packed with the detergent inside the new washing machine’, wrote Marilyn French in her feminist novel The Women’s Room of 1978, ‘but for women especially, the new washing machine or dryer or freezer really was a little release from slavery’.

The imaginary 1950s housewife of our clichéd imagination, sipping a mind-numbing afternoon martini while baking a cake for her absent husband, may not appeared to be especially liberated to us today.  But in this optimistic decade, her very kitchen appliances were going to give her the free time to think about demanding something more from life.

Lucy Worsley is the author of If Walls Could Talk, An Intimate History Of the Home (Faber, £9.99)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *