A Return to Domesticity?
Over the last few years, I’ve taken up baking as a hobby and as a historian this brought me to questions of why and how home baking has historically been gendered female. As research often does, especially when starting with a broad topic, my look into questions of the history of baking and women’s roles took an interesting turn toward questions of why there has been a resurgence of interest in DIY and made from scratch products (apparent in the popularity of Pinterest & YouTube tutorial videos.)
I began gathering resources and perused lots of mid-20th century advertisements for baking products. (This reminded me of an exhibit I saw at aSHEville Museum in Asheville, North Carolina a couple of years ago, profiling the way women have been portrayed in advertisements, which in turn led me down a rabbit hole of advertisements for all sorts of products and the way they portrayed women-perhaps a topic to expand on later.)
I also found a number of interesting articles, blogs, and other sources. One blog I was already familiar with is called Modern Wife, Modern Life and is the web accompaniment of a traveling exhibition about 1960s women’s magazines in Ireland curated by Ciara Meehan. The exhibition explores the advice given to newly married women and how that advice changed with the spread of home technologies. Women were expected to no longer just keep a beautiful home, but also to do so by being modern wives who made use of the newest technology. You can check out more about this exhibit here: https://modernwifemodernlifeexhibition.com/
Next, I came across a research guide put together as a project of Boston University students. The site, called Guided History, includes history research guides on a number of topics. One, Material Culture of the American Household, discusses themes of gender through material culture and recommends a number of books for further reading. The guide discusses how rooms within the American home became gendered, with the kitchen and dining rooms being associated with women. Two books on this topic were recommended and I have added them to my list for future research.
- Cromley, Elizabeth C. The Food Axis: Cooking, Eating, and the Architecture of American Houses. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010.
- Inness, Sherrie A., ed. Kitchen Culture in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.
The research guide also included a section on individual object studies with one recommended about the rise of Tupperware and women’s use of it.
- Clarke, Alison. Tupperware The Promise of Plastic In 1950s America. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institute, 1999.
Another site, Gender, Food, and Culture, populated by students in a Harvard University Summer School course entitled “Gender, Food & Culture in American History,” offered up an article specifically about cake, “From Celebration to Procrastination: Cakes and Creativity in the 1950s.” This article discusses the shift from cakes as special treats for important occasions such as weddings and birthdays to everyday desserts because of the rise of the cake mix. Easy and quick to make, cake mixes made everyday cake possible.
With the availability of cake mixes and ready made desserts, all of this research about women’s roles in the kitchen & inventions meant to make those roles more efficient, led me to wonder about the rise of Pinterest recipes, DIY, and my own interest in baking from scratch as opposed to using a mix. Is this regressing? My own interest in baking from scratch stems from a desire to make something authentic, by myself, and to learn what I see as something taking skill.
Emily Matchar argues in her book, Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity that a “homespun rebellion” is taking place with young adults “embracing the domestic in the service of environmentalism, DIY culture, and personal fulfillment.” Matchar’s book looks at DIY, the rise of young artisans, handmade products in Etsy shops, etc. When pursued for this purpose, this return to the domestic is not a return to old-fashioned gender roles, but instead, a response to feeling let down by mass culture & big corporations.
So the question of why & how baking has historically been gendered female brought me instead to questions about how and why modern women (and some men) are returning to traditionally domestic, made from scratch hobbies. Interesting how research can do that. Have I raised more questions than I answered? Probably, but that’s all in the fun of research.
I offer research and writing services to museums and businesses. When researching for a client, I prepare research questions for the client to review at the start of the project. I love doing research and pride myself on being thorough. The above blog post is the result of my passion for research — I did it just for fun! Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if I can help you with a historical research project!
I had to laugh at the mention of Tupperware. I think the selling of Tupperware through the little house parties was just another way for women to get together, chat, and enjoy each other’s company. I remember my mom having those gatherings, and the plastics were the least of it. Plus, it gave a few women some needed cash that was their own.