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Daydreaming in Linoleum: Postwar Advertisements and Domestic Fictions

By Kate Schneider

Every era has material nova that signal the newness of the present age. In the 1930s, it was the shine of early plastics such as Bakelite and celluloid that made them attractive modern surfaces. But in the 1950s and 1960s, domestic daydreams about ideal homes were played out in the medium of linoleum. First manufactured in 1863 — transforming linseed oil and other raw natural matter into mechanically flattened sheets — its inventor Frederick Walton acknowledged that linoleum might not rank in importance with Watt’s steam engine, but he hoped that ‘many housewives will […] bless my memory in the future, although my name will be forgotten.’ And it was as part of the postwar aesthetic of ‘damp-cloth’ consumerism that linoleum — ‘easy on the nerves and feet’ — came to be the ground on which an aspirational domesticity could be built.[1] We can read postwar linoleum adverts as a way into understanding the appeal of domestic fictions of the time, and as powerful proposals about the home.

As Ferry argues, ‘the post-war fitted kitchen felt modern because of its coherence: unified cupboards made full use of the wall space above and below a single work surface’ — lining the room like an unbroken skin.[2] An advertisement catalogued as ‘White brick linoleum floors for your pink kitchen (1956)’ encapsulates all the heady pleasures of domesticity, glossed and glazed for easy consumption.[3] It strives for an absence of texture, slipping over itself like Teflon (which was first used for cooking pans in 1954, and would later go on to coat the uranium storage equipment in the atomic bomb).[4]

 

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[5]

Perhaps the most conspicuous element of this advertisement is its pinkness. The kitchen is outfitted in a Valentine’s Day-esque colour scheme — fitted appliances and cupboards accented in a tunnel-of-love palette of pastel pinks and reds; puffy bouquets on the windowsill, and ‘brick’s textured beauty — in carefree linoleum’. This recalls the historical use of pink in the eighteenth-century taste of Madame de Pompadour and King Louis XV, ‘evoking feminine taste, craftsmanship and luxury that were part of that historical moment, reconfirming in the process the essential femininity of the domestic sphere.’[6] As Sparke writes in As Long As Its Pink, during the 1950s pink staked out its domain with ‘rose pink and salmon pink to ‘shocking’ pink’, appearing on ‘automobiles, radios, refrigerators, ‘Barbie’ dolls and the luminous iced cakes at children’s parties.’

 

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[7]

The postwar proliferation of pink, Sparke continues, is evidence of women’s investment in the project of modernity; but it also points to the way that pinkness had become a way of figuring a specifically Caucasian idea of femininity along the way. Pink is often associated with sexualised women, flushed and blushing, but it is also associated with the shiny pinkness of children: in The Feminine Mystique (1963), Betty Friedan described the image of the pink-smitten women emerging from magazines as ‘young and frivolous, almost childlike; fluffy and feminine, passive’.[8] Friedan interviews a young housewife whose ‘favourite possession is a pink four-poster spool bed with a pink taffeta canopy.’[9] The suburban house was designed to be a kind of case for a woman, and so like her surroundings she should be attractive and smooth, pink with the conspicuous powder and rouge fashionable at the time.

Advertisements also communicated expectations about how women should be spending their time in these staged domesticities. These images appear shiny and consumable (like pink and shiny housewives), fudge-y like icing. Dessert cookbooks produced throughout this period, showcasing lavishly iced home-baked goods, further identify an aspirational vocabulary that precisely articulates the appeal of the perfectly glazed surface. Icing can be read as an edible analogue to linoleum: they are both smooth, thick, yet pliable sheets that are vulnerable to scuffing.

 

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[10]

Part of the appeal of both, then, is the smoothed, uniform aesthetic of mechanisation. These desserts work hard to erase the touch of their makers. In a 1960 compendium of dessert recipes, the captioning text boasts, ‘these cakes frost themselves!’[11] This was in part facilitated by technological developments in food processing: cake mixes and icings were newly available in readymade packages, guaranteeing a uniform finish every time. As detailed in Finding Betty Crocker, ‘from 1945 to 1951 […] use of mixes increased 343 percent.’[12] The brand’s slogan was an ode to the mechanical production of the sponge cake: ‘A perfect cake every time you bake…cake…after cake… after cake.’[13] The rhythmic thud of this ad-prose, carried smoothly along by the ellipses, imitates the factory production line. Furthermore, Spry ‘cake-improver’ guarantees a kiss every time, automating desire.[14] Women, like the ingredients of a cake, are depicted as a passive substance that can be directed to flow from one task to another: preserved in the picture-perfect domestic fiction of the linoleum-lined postwar advertisement.

References:

[1] Steven Phillips, ‘Plastics’, Cold War Hothouses: Inventing Postwar Culture, from Cockpit to Playboy (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004), pp. 91-123.

[2] Kathryn Ferry, The 1950s Kitchen (London: Shire Publications, 2011), p. 13.

[3] White brick linoleum floors for your pink kitchen (1956) (America: Click Americana Archive). Available at:  <https://clickamericana.com/eras/1950s/white-brick-linoleum-floors-for-your-pink-kitchen-1956>.

[4] Rupert Cole, Teflon: 80 Years of Not Sticking to Things (London: Science Museum, 2018). Available at: <https://blog.sciencemuseum.org.uk/teflon-80-years-of-not-sticking-to-things/>

[5] 1958 kitchen, made available for public use here.

[6] Penny Sparke, As Long as Its Pink: The Sexual Politics of Taste (London: Pandora Press, 1995), p. 198; p. 194.

[7] Petit Trianon, Louis XV, made available under a Creative Commons Licence.

[8] Ibid., p. 198.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Betty Crocker Cake Ad, made available for public use here

[11] Better Homes and Gardens Dessert Cook Book (Iowa: Meredith Publishing Company, 1960). Available at: <https://archive.org/stream/bhgdessert00desm#page/n3/mode/2up>.

[12] Susan Marks, Finding Betty Crocker: The Secret Life of Americas First Lady of Food (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 170.

[13] Ibid., p. 171.

[14] Every cake rates a kiss thanks to Spry with Cake-Improver, 1948  via ‘Sweet Story Cake, 1948 — A Vintage Recipe Test’ on Mid Century Menu. Available at <http://www.midcenturymenu.com/2017/02/sweet-story-cake-1948-a-vintage-recipe-test/>

Top Image: 1956 kitchen, made available for public use here.

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