“Husbands would start wondering why they needed wives at all.”

“If there was one figure who came to symbolize the dazzling new American kitchen and all its astonishing appliances, as well as the revolution in selling and advertising that was taking place, it was Betty Furness–the Lady from Westinghouse. In 1949 Betty Furness was thirty-three, an ingenue whose career was winding down after thirty-six films in five years (most of them B films). In those days, the people who did television commercials usually had come from radio, which meant they were good at reading lines but not at memorizing them, and they had no earthly idea of how to look at the camera. One poor woman who was directed to stand at a Westinghouse stove and heat some chocolate had been so terrified by the idea of talking and demonstrating at the same time that she had spilled melted chocolate all over the stove….


“The Westinghouse people realized they had a star on their hands, and they asked [Betty Furness] to sign a three-year, noncancellable contract to represent Westinghouse exclusively, for $100,000 a year. With that she became the queen of American appliances, standing between a great faceless industrial company and American housewives. She knew little about the machines themselves except that they seemed well made and that the people who made them seemed like solid Americans from Ohio.

“The one thing she did notice about the appliances, as she continued to promote them, was her sense that she was beginning to shrink–because the machines were getting bigger. When she started in 1950, the first refrigerators came up to her shoulders, which made them about fifty-eight inches high, on average. Gradually, they began to gain on her and became even fancier, with enormous ‘frost-free’ freezers. In this new wonder age, she mused at the time, people were being swallowed up by their kitchen appliances.

“The only appliance she represented for Westinghouse that did not sell well was the dishwasher. For a long time the people at Westinghouse, as well as at other companies, were both surprised and disappointed by that appliance’s poor showing. Persistent research with consumers finally showed that women were wary of buying dishwashers because the modern kitchen had become so automated that they feared if they stopped doing the dishes by hand, they would lose their last toehold in the kitchen and husbands would start wondering why they needed wives at all.”

–from David Halberstam’s The Fifties.

Hortatory recommendation: Buy this book promptly. For Baby Boomers such as myself, it is a way of remembering our childhood. The chapter on Elvis is especially good. For those of you who are going to be taking care of Baby Boomers retiring at the rate of 10,000 a day, it would be helpful to read the chapters on the development of the birth control pill, the launching of the first satellite, and the massive migration to the suburbs.