From Celebration to Procrastination: Cakes and Creativity in the 1950s

Traditionally, cakes are emblematic of significant celebration. From first birthday cakes to wedding cakes and anniversary cakes, our lives are punctuated by celebratory baked goods. Part of this is due to the communal nature of cakes; they are intended to be divided and shared between those partaking in the event. Cakes also remain a central feature of celebrations because of the perceived time and effort involved in their preparation and decoration.

Cakes are a treat steeped in frosted tradition. Even focusing solely on American culture, there are rituals surrounding cakes which are upheld with startling continuity. In many celebrations, for example, the first cut into the cake is symbolic. For birthdays, it is the opportunity to make a wish, for married couples, the communal first slice symbolizes unity (as John and Jackie exhibited below on their wedding day in 1953). And both, of course, make for significant photo opportunities.

John F. Kennedy and his new bride, Jackie, cut their wedding cake. 1953.

John F. Kennedy and his new bride, Jackie, cut their wedding cake. 1953.

Despite the symbolism and tradition associated with baking and eating cakes, however, the post-war years of the 1950s heralded an era in which cakes became every day staples for the American housewife. Thanks in large part to the entry of ready-made cake mix to the public, brands like Betty Crocker and Pillsbury began marketing their products as both celebratory and every day treats.

Cake mixes had been in development in America since the 1920s, and were almost ready for public distribution when World War II broke out. Flour manufacturers then turned their focus to developing bread mixes to feed the troops (Byrn 20). By 1948, however, men were back to work, and women who had been employed during the war were back in the kitchen. The metaphorical oven was preheated and ready-made cake mix rolled out into American stores.

The convenience that packet cake mixes provided, in combination with the availability of new-fangled appliances, made extravagant-looking cakes something that was expected of the American housewife. The promise of fail-safe cakes must have been appealing for families living in the image-conscious post-war period which followed two decades of poverty, joblessness, and war. Advertisements like the below from Betty Crocker shows seven beautiful cakes – one for each day of the week – which, it is assumed, the good housewife could whip up with ease.

"Seven days of Betty Crocker creations," ca.1953

“Seven days of Betty Crocker creations,” ca.1953

Problems arose for women (and advertisers), however, following the post-war boom in convenience products. In the case of pre-made cake mixes, the simpler baking became, the more genius had to be attributed to the housewife’s creation. Parkin notes that, during this time, advertisers capitalized on women’s feelings of guilt and inadequacies with messages of false praise in which their intelligence was heralded (51). The below advertisement for Pillsbury ready-made frosting is a good example of attempts at a forced link between convenience products and housewives’ acumen.

Source: YouTube

To a modern viewer, perhaps college-professor-turned-disc-jockey Erwin Johnson seems an odd choice to spruik frosting. To the 1950s housewife, however, the words of an educated older white gentleman would have given the product credence; if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for your family. The fact that he repeats his words in French is further proof that he is not only educated, but cultured – contrasted again by the female host who can’t ‘talk French like that’.

Page proof of Betty Crocker advertisement, 1958

Page proof of Betty Crocker advertisement, 1958

According to Ericka Endrijonas in ‘Cooking for a Family in the 1950s’, the emergence of convenience foods in the 1950s allowed opportunity for ‘women’s personal development’ (157). In the absence of any real opportunity for ‘personal development’, however, the time saved by convenience products left a void to be filled by the housewife. This is a sentiment echoed by Betty Friedan in chapter 10 of The Feminine Mystique. Speaking in depth about ‘housework expanding to fill the available time’, Friedan wrote that many women of ‘intelligence and ability’ were frantically busy during the day, filling the time with meritless busywork (333, 336). Cooking was, of course, a significant part of this, with new and elaborate recipes delivered to housewives and retitled as a creative outlet. In terms of cake-baking, ready-mix brands were active in advertising the possibilities for their cakes. The two brochures, above and below, are representative of a string of advertisements from Betty Crocker at this time. Both detail possible creations housewives could make with a couple of boxes of ready-made cake mix.

Excerpt from Betty Crocker cake advertisement, ca.1956

Partial cover of Betty Crocker pamphlet of recipes for cake mixes, ca.1956

As with all types of food, no matter how beautifully prepared or presented, the cakes advertised to American housewives were, of course, transient. Regardless of how many hours were poured into creating ‘snowballs’ or ‘merry-go-round cakes’, the work of the housewife remained ‘largely invisible’ and the cakes were eaten and, presumably, forgotten just as quickly (Endrijonas 169). Fast forward to 2013, and Betty Crocker continues to encourage the strange combination of convenience and busywork. The Betty Crocker Pinterest site is laden with recipes for extravagant mix-based cakes. It is interesting that what was once developed as a product to save housewives time has since become a base for a thousand different types of culinary time-filling. Since the 1950s, the producers of ready-made cake mixes have attempted to reassure housewives that their work is creative, and, most importantly, valuable. In the very fitting words of Betty Friedan, this culinary busywork is, however, ‘decorated with meaningless details to conceal its emptiness’ (340).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Anne Byrn, The Cake Mix Doctor (1993) Philadelphia: Rodale Publishing.

Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (1963) New York: W.W Norton & Co.

Ericka Endrijonas, ‘Processed Foods from Scratch: Cooking for a Family in the 1950s’, in Sherrie A. Inness (ed) Kitchen Culture in America (2006) Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 140-174.

Katherine J. Parkin, Food Is Love: Advertising and Gender Roles in Modern America (2006) Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

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