We have always imagined alternative futures, and our notions are often either radically hopeful or filled with fear. History is full of examples of tales of a future that never came to be – or, turned out to be entirely different from what the majority of people had expected. In this feature in the magazine, we take a closer look at past conceptions of the future, conceptions that are now mere parentheses in history. This time: The Miracle Kitchen.
The 1950s was the age of traditional gender roles and the nuclear family. The husband handled money affairs, and the wife kept the home. Women married young and started families, the well-being of which was the nexus of the female role. The US witnessed the so-called White Flight, where white, middle-class families moved to the suburbs, which resulted in rather homogeneous areas outside the cities and a distinct suburban consumer segment. Wealth and well-being went hand in hand, and with the growing economy of the 1950s there was time for leisure pursuits for this large middle class; though for women only once the household chores were done.
When the commercial for the fully automated kitchen RCA-Whirlpool® ‘Miracle Kitchen’ was shown in 1957, housewives were presented with a product that could drastically change home life. Here, a well-dressed, pretty housewife presented the kitchen of the future for American families. This kitchen would liberate women from trivial duties like cooking and cleaning, enabling her to instead focus on her husband, children and bridge games. The electronic kitchen could be controlled by hand movements and a control panel that could even activate a television set and directly transmit video from the kids’ room and the front door, making the wife able to monitor her home closely from her place in the kitchen. Most of the kitchen elements could adjust their height to the individual housewife for increased comfort, and from the control panel she could prepare a meal in minutes with little effort. The Miracle Kitchen was if anything a product tailored for the ideal woman of the 1950s.
The commercial was also part of The American Exhibition in Moscow, 1959. Here, it would give the Russians an idea of what US housewives could look forward to. Even though it was questioned if the automated kitchen really did exist on the other side of the Atlantic, the RCA-whirlpool Miracle Kitchen did succeed in being seen as the American near-future standard kitchen. Score 1-0 to the good ol’ USA.
However, the miracle kitchen did not have much of a future. The technology was far from developed; many of the kitchen elements didn’t work at all. The ones shown in the commercial were in fact radio-controlled, and behind a one-way mirror an assistant controlled the kitchen according to the housewife’s hand motions. Even so, the fully automated kitchen was a strike for capitalism, and at the Moscow exhibition this made Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev declare to the US Vice President that the same technology would, in a few years, also be standard in the Soviet Union.
Neither in the US nor the USSR were the politicians’ claims turned into reality. As women began to enter the labour market in the 1960s, fewer hours were spent at home, and ultimately the RCA-whirlpool Miracle Kitchen had neither the technology nor the target group, since the product was developed from the assumption that women would remain housewives.
Hence, the miracle was too good to be true. Today, the idea has been revived to some extent in products like Amazon’s ‘Dash buttons’, where the consumer can order groceries with a single touch of a button, and in smart fridges that help the consumer with recipes, ordering groceries, and such. Yet in spite of such examples, the idea of the fully automated kitchen hasn’t been taken up again. Why not?
It may be because the cooking process isn’t necessarily connected with a dreary chore. Less work does not equal less joy; something that was considered self-evident in the 1950s.
In the future, we are more likely to experience that the kitchen thinks with us rather than for us. Smart fridges and similar technologies that liberate us from shopping in the local or online supermarket may have very short lifespans, simply because we also lose the opportunity to become inspired for new culinary experiments. And not least being nudged toward impulse buys when we shop – which is not something that the retail trade could possibly want.