11 May, 2009Issue 9.3EuropeHistoryNorth America

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The Fight for the Kitchen

Tom Williams

Cold War KitchenRuth Oldenziel and Karin Zachmann (eds.)
Cold War Kitchen: Americanization, Technology, and European Users
MIT Press, 2009
424 pages
£36.95
ISBN 978-0262151191


Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is commonplace to assert that the Cold War was as much a struggle for cultural and ideological supremacy as it was a diplomatic, military, and technological conflict. Safe in the knowledge that the Soviet Union collapsed without a missile fired, it is tempting to conclude that the real weapons of the Cold War were Hollywood visions of American prosperity and the radio stations that broadcasted jazz and rock and roll across the iron curtain. News footage of East Berliners streaming through the gaps in the wall to marvel at consumer brands in Western department stores, just moments before trucks filled with Coca-Cola and Levis began to roll eastwards, suggests that 1989 marked the victory of Western consumer society, the triumph of an identifiably American way of life.

In short, it would be easy to assume that America’s cultural ascendancy was a foregone conclusion. As the contributors to Cold War Kitchen: Americanization, Technology, and European Users ably demonstrate, the reality was far more complex. This illuminating and wide-ranging collection of essays explores the ways in which Europeans negotiated, contested, embraced and adapted the American dream. Together, these essays challenge our understanding of “Americanization” by illustrating the curious, conscious process though which Americans projected their national identity as a defining symbol of “modernity” at home and abroad. Consumer products were at the centre of this process. Ultimately, consumer abundance became a way for Americans to construct and propagate their national idea.

The case study—the modern kitchen—was no mere sideshow in Cold War cultural competition. Kitchens were potent symbols, not only of modernity or technological innovation, but also of opposing visions of social organisation. In the United States, the Soviet Union, and across a divided Europe, the kitchen played a major role in some of the most fundamental debates of the post-war period, from practical issues of urban planning, energy policy, and food production to the contested ideological terrain of consumerism and gender roles. The diverse essays in Cold War Kitchen investigate how, across Europe and the United States, “politicians strategically used kitchens to constitute, embody, and enact their political goals”.

There was no point at which the symbolic import of the modern kitchen was more evident than during the famous “kitchen debate” between American Vice-President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, held at the U.S. exhibition in Moscow during the summer of 1959. Leaning over a handrail to examine General Electric’s lemon-yellow kitchen, where boxes of S.O.S. scouring pads and Dash washing powder were neatly arranged on top of the latest American washing machine, the two leaders debated not just the relative quality of their countries’ kitchen appliances, but also their underlying ideological implications.

Khrushchev, having earlier branded the exhibition’s futuristic vision of American domesticity a “capitalist lie”, claimed that the Soviets had kitchens to match: “You Americans expect that the Soviet people will be amazed. It is not so. We have all these things in our new flats”. Gesturing to the exhibit as if lecturing to Khrushchev, Nixon retorted: “We do not claim to astonish the Soviet people. We hope to show our right to choose. We do not wish to have decisions made at the top by government officials who say that all homes should be built in the same way.”

Nixon’s response was heralded in the American press as a brilliant propaganda victory for the United States. The “kitchen debate” soon became one of the most iconic images of the U.S.–Soviet struggle for scientific, technological, and cultural supremacy. In Nixon’s rhetoric, the freedom to choose between rival brands of washing machine or refrigerator was as important as any other individual democratic right in a free capitalist society.

Domestic technologies also represented another kind of freedom: the modern American housewife’s liberation from time-consuming domestic chores. Many Soviet commentators later rejected this notion, claiming that the American ideal kitchen was nothing more than a gilded cage which, as writer Marietta Shaginian wrote in Investiia, would “anchor to a woman in perpetuity her mission as ‘housewife’, wife and cook”. One of Khrushchev’s retorts in the “kitchen debate”—”this capitalist attitude to women does not occur under Communism”—echoed the Soviet criticism.

The “kitchen debate” characterized modernity, freedom, and progress as American products for export. It also set the terms for all future competition. Alleviating the burdens of domestic labour and modernising housing and the production of consumer goods were major issues on Khrushchev’s agenda before the kitchen debate (albeit with an emphasis on collective rather than individual benefits). However, according to Susan E. Reid’s essay, after the 1959 debates the modern kitchen was seen in the Soviet Union as “the supreme symbol of the imagined America”. Official proclamations that the USSR would soon be “catching up and overtaking America” thus appeared as recognitions of inferiority and suggested that, for the time being, America was setting the agenda. As was so often the case in the Cold War, images were just as important as realities.

In reality, of course, America could not claim to be the sole creator of freedom, modernity, or innovative kitchen design. A number the essays in Cold War Kitchen examine the early forerunners of “American” modern kitchen design in interwar Germany and Finland. The refusal to acknowledge these precedents was a key dimension of Cold War competition. This was particularly the case, Ruth Oldenziel tells us, with the socialist-inspired—and therefore thoroughly un-American—”Frankfurt kitchen”, which had been the reference point for modern kitchen design across interwar Europe. In the Cold War context, American architects and designers did their best to dissociate modernist design from its international and socialist roots. Modernity, in other words, had to be marketed as a homegrown American product.

The essays in Cold War Kitchen reveal that “Americanization” never involved a full-scale acceptance of American models. Europeans selected those aspects of American modernity deemed most suitable, valuable, and affordable, and adapted them to local needs and concerns. As a result, European welfare-state models of affordable technological progress were often more influential than American promises of mass individual consumption, to the point that “Khrushchev’s ideas turned out to be closer to European design choices and technological trajectories than Nixon’s”. And yet, the boundary between “Americanization” and “modernization” was successfully blurred. Julian Holder explains that the much-admired kitchens designed by the British Ministry of Works for the prefab houses of post-war Britain were considered so innovative that they were frequently mistaken by the public for a luxury American product.

The contributors to Cold War Kitchen all strive to unpack the complex relationship between designers, producers, and consumers in the creation and development of technologies. This analysis reveals that “Americanization” was not a one-way process of cultural diffusion but, as Ruth Oldenziel concludes, an exchange involving “modification, cross-fertilization and hybridization”. Given this insight, it is surprising that none of the contributors challenge the validity of the term “Americanization” as a category of historical understanding.

But perhaps the reason we can still talk of “Americanization” is—as many of the essays in Cold War Kitchen would seem to imply—because public perceptions of Americanization were as important as its reality. If the United States “won” the cultural Cold War, it was not by imposing its own homegrown version of modernity on the world, but rather, by convincing the world that “progress”, “modernization” and “Americanization” were all but synonymous.

Tom Williams is a DPhil student in Modern History at St Antony’s College, Oxford. His thesis examines public commemoration, historical consciousness and national identity in the contested Franco-German borderlands during the 1940s.