The instructions may have struck some as curious, but it was no typo. The strange truth was confirmed by a tiny illustration. There it was: a recipe for homemade fudge, shared with countless readers in a cookbook series trusted by farm women for years. And the instructions suggested cooking the fudge in the microwave. But fudge was not the only recipe subjected to a radical makeover: Farm Journal’s Cook It Your Way (1979) was designed to aid the modern farm woman in her quest to make tasty, “country-style/traditional” foods using new cooking technology. A pot roast could be made in a paltry 48 minutes in a pressure cooker, or could stew, forgotten, in a slow cooker for exactly 9 hours and 3 minutes. Conversely, the fudge only required a 9-minute spin in the microwave.

For more 1950s Jello commercial magic with Roy Rogers click here.

Before World War II, when farm families lived far away from markets and transportation was slow before the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, necessity dictated that families provided for much of their own sustenance by hunting, gathering and farming. With few ingredients at their disposal, farm women had created meals to sustain their families, regardless of the caprice of the weather and the environment. This began to change with the shift towards “efficiency” as packaged “convenience” foods flourished beginning in the mid-twentieth century. Books like Laura Shapiro’s Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America have demonstrated how American women adopted the usage of convenience foods in the postwar period (although she clearly points out they were by no means passive agents in this onslaught of new products).  But creating the new food products was not enough; desire for the products also had to be created, thus spurring new kinds of advertisements in newspapers and magazines. In the 1950s and later, gender roles, a shift towards industrial/mechanized farming, advertising and improvements in transportation all impacted the role of women in the larger food economy. Advertisements featuring modern women living “the good life” suggested that buying new consumer food products would add greater enjoyment to life and erase the drudgery associated with endless cooking and cleaning. These advertisements encouraged women to establish or maintain an emotional connection to the food they served, even as the actual labor involved in preparing the food diminished. According to this logic, food was a symbol of a mother’s love and to prove their love for their families, mothers were supposed to buy only the best.

Farm women nationwide were not exempt from this development. Better transportation meant they could go to the market more often (although, in most places, not as often as their urban counterparts). As television sets entered more American homes, farm women were viewing the same advertisements as other women nationwide. Freezer and oven capabilities meant that farm women could quickly serve culinary love to their families, too. But though the division between country and city was far from concrete, there were many differences in the way convenience foods were adopted in the countryside; different foods were adopted in different ways for different circumstances.

  • 1930s-1950s generally considered the golden age of the tv
  • First regular broadcast was in 1928
  • By 1947, when there were 40 million radios in US, there were only 44,000 TV sets.
  • By 1950, this number will raise to 9,735,000 (in 9% of U.S. households)

Farm Women and the Division of Labor

For starters, the issue of labor differed in city and country settings. Typically, farm women were classified as “homemakers,” a title that distorted their role in farming operations. Farm wives were usually considered “helpers,” even when they regularly engaged in daily farm labor.

Photo by Ann Rosener (1942-1943), Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division Washington, DC 20540.
Photo by Ann Rosener (1942-1943), Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division Washington, DC 20540.

 

Although some farmers viewed their wives as their “partners,” this partnership was rarely considered equal. Women had always played crucial roles on American farms, but as farming moved away from growing diverse crops for sale and consumption and became more specialized, farms began to look more like businesses. In this business/farm model, the male head of household was normally considered the “manager” while the role of the farmwoman became something hazier. While it can be difficult to categorize any chore within either “job” or “home,” the varied tasks of farm women all but erased any distinction. To illustrate this point, one scholar cites an example from Gould P. Colman and Sarah Elbert in which a farm woman was asked to describe the ratio of hours spent doing farm work compared to the hours she spent doing housework. In reply, the farmwoman lifted the lid to her washing machine, which contained an assortment of barn suits and children’s jeans.

I worked hard. I had sometimes two and three hired men and I cooked for them, and when we had threshing time I cooked for 24 men. And I baked all the bread and the pies and I baked bread everyday. Washed on a board in a big tub. And I raised lots of chickens and sheep and I fed lots of little calves. And I milked cows and helped take care of hogs. I always had a big garden. I canned 300 or 400 quarts of fruit. From the time I was 12 years old I baked bread and pies and cakes and cooked. I knew how to do everything when I got married. And I just learnt from a little girl because I helped do everything. That’s all we ever had was old woodstoves; we used to burn cobs and things on the farm. – Anonymous Farm Woman, “The Iowa Heritage: Roots in the Soil,” Iowa Public Television, 1979 

In many ways, the gender division of labor on a farm could be viewed as a sliding spectrum, with “men’s jobs” on one end and “women’s jobs” on the other. Men’s tasks would likely include working in the fields and operating heavy farm machinery; women’s tasks would involve childcare, cleaning, and food preparation. Other tasks had somewhat ambiguous connotations; gardening and milking cows, for example, were farm tasks that either the husband or wife would manage.  Despite the clear demarcation that fieldwork was definitely “men’s work,” at times it became necessary for women to work in the fields as well. In these instances, women were called upon to “help” with the fieldwork, a term that clearly designated that their role was temporary and that they were not the preferred source of assistance. This is not to imply that men did not appreciate the work of these women and in fact, some men frequently relied on their assistance; it does, however, insinuate that many people believed that women did not belong in farm fields. It is also important to note that the continuum did not so easily swing the other way. Should the need arise for a farm women to take leave of her food preparation or childcare duties, other arrangements were often made. Children could be left with sitters or other family members and meals could be made in advance. Many Farm Journal cookbooks likewise featured meals that men could easily warm in the oven while their wives were running errands in town or visiting friends.

  • In 1900, 41% of the U.S. workforce was employed in agriculture; by 1945, this number was 16%.
  • In 1900, farmers relied on 21.6 million horses or mules to work their fields; by 1945, their work was powered by 2.4 million tractors and only 11.6 million work animals. After 1960, the U.S. Census stopped tracking working animals.

It appears likely that the nature of this workload contributed to the mythologization of the work of farm women. Farm women did not receive much by the way of financial compensation (except through their husbands or by selling eggs or baked goods for spending money known as “pin money”) and their work was far from glamorous. The romanticization of farm women was spread by authors like Rose Wilder Lane, the writer daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder of Little House on the Prairie fame. Even though she often wrote about the difficulties of farm life for women, her novels typically ended with the protagonists coming to love the land and the life that caused so many trials and tribulations.  Farm magazines like Farm Journal followed suit with profiles of hardworking women who cared more for the welfare of their family than for themselves. While this imagery seems powerful, mythologizing farm women was not necessarily beneficial for the women as authors created an ideal that was almost impossible for farm women to attain. This put farm women in a difficult situation; talking about rural problems was viewed as complaining and an admission that they did not measure up to the standards of the mythical farmwoman.

Technology in a Traditional Place

Emphasis was placed on traditionalism and community, but this did not mean that farm women were averse to new technology. In fact, in many ways, farm women believed that technology allowed them to have the comforts of city women while reaping the spiritual benefits of farm life. One such article boasted “We Have the Best of Two Worlds!” explaining that while farm women were similar to their urban peers, the farm itself gave them “special gripes – and her deepest joys.”  In the view of one farmwoman, the differences between city life and farm life were null because modern technology meant that she and her family had the same luxuries as those living in towns. While the author was able to enjoy these privileges because of good market prices, she was also able to escape the market and the frenzy of the city. A later Farm Journal article featuring the aptly-named Delight B. Wier also perpetuated this idea. In “My Every Day – It’s the Greatest!,” Wier tells readers that she had been a teacher and had done missionary work with Indians in South Dakota. But that had been nothing compared to her life on the farm; life as “a farmer’s wife [is] more absorbing.”

Absorbing or not, these articles illustrate how busy these women were and just how varied their tasks. Several pictures show them working with or teaching their children, examining business records with their husbands over a cup of coffee, and preparing meals. Each woman was aware of just how many hats they had to wear: chauffeur, volunteer, cook, housekeeper, bookkeeper, and hostess were just a few of their many roles. In light of all these tasks, farm women believed it was only logical to adopt the usage of new technologies, as long as it still appeared as though they were following in the mold of their predecessors. Women could throw ingredients in a slow cooker, help her husband with the farm chores, and still have stew ready in time for dinner. Chest freezers meant fresh vegetables in a matter of minutes and roast could be thawed in the microwave just as quickly.

The process of adopting these new technologies was surprisingly intricate and contingent on a number of variables involving the nature of farming itself. As farms became more mechanized and specialized in the postwar period, farmers adopted new technologies and practices that allowed for the greatest yield for the lowest labor costs. Diversified crop patterns were replaced with one-crop rotations and land that had been used for crops to supplement the family’s diet were increasingly supplanted by crops for market.  Having observed how new technologies seemingly eased the farmer’s workload, women pressed for their own rewards. Some men were wisely compliant, but one Farm Journal reader had a suggestion for the women with more reluctant husbands. Because men did not perform the work of farm women, the author suggested, they sometimes needed to be reminded of its nature in order to be persuaded: “The two times my husband washed diapers made such an impression on him that he went out and bought a washer, money or no!”

Manufacturers were well aware of the needs and desires of farm women. Though the population of farm women was on the wane throughout the twentieth century, they remained an important to manufacturers for several reasons. Although some farm women had jobs off of the farm, many farm women worked at home on the farm and were more likely to be home during the day, meaning they were likely to cook more meals. Practical farm women looking to ease this burden could be turn to an array of appliances and supplies designed to reduce her labor. Even farm women who gardened and “lived off the land” to a great extent still benefited from improved canning supplies, ranges, pressure cookers, refrigerators, and freezers. In fact, the very nature of farm women’s work and their physical distance from neighbors or towns made them more likely to buy appliances and utensils they only occasionally needed. They did not need canning supplies on a regular basis, but when they did, it was essential. They did not use their huge roasters daily, but during harvest or before a church supper, it could prove indispensible.

Farm women at the women's extension club meeting. This women's meeting is held while the men meet at the Farm Bureau. Pie Town, New Mexico. 1940 June. Lee, Russell, 1903-1986, Photographer. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division Washington, DC 20540.
Farm women at the women’s extension club meeting. This women’s meeting is held while the men meet at the Farm Bureau. Pie Town, New Mexico. 1940 June. Lee, Russell, 1903-1986, Photographer. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division Washington, DC 20540.

 

Creating Community, Selling Products

Given an increased emphasis on market segmentation, manufacturers were interested in determining what farm women wanted in their kitchens and understanding how they differed from their urban and suburban counterparts. The editors of the Farm Journal’s The Farmer’s Wife portrayed themselves as part of a community of women by publishing the views and recipes of these women and even forming their own “Family Test Group” comprised of subscribers. But they were still a business and the opinions of these women were valuable. This information could also help companies tailor their merchandise towards the tastes of country-dwellers. When women wrote of their concerns about and wish for new appliances and utensils, they felt connected to other farm women with the same desires and anxieties; yet this information was a gold mine for manufacturers looking to sell new products. It wasn’t necessarily insidious – Farm Journal claimed that this relationship benefited the farmwoman first and foremost – but it definitely made good business sense.

Such good business sense, in fact, that in 1962, Farm Journal published a booklet intended to inform businesses about the desires and purchase patterns of rural woman. It isn’t precisely clear what companies received this booklet or why, but it is clear that the pamphlet was made with the express purpose of promoting consumption among farm women.  Other historians have noted the rise of market segmentation in the post-war period as businesses attempted to attain the greatest profit margin; farm women were no exception.  In the booklet’s introduction, Mary Sheldon, the director of Farm Journal’s Test Group, emphasized the importance of farm women as a consumer group, calling them “experts in knowing what’s needed in any busy kitchen, because farm life centers around the kitchen.” Further, farm kitchens were “headquarters” for the business and farm women cooked more: “three big meals a day, plus coffee breaks!”  If businesses had any doubts that farm women were an important consumer group, Sheldon was keen on convincing them.

Galactic Central. Farm Journal. September 1944 Issue
Galactic Central. Farm Journal. September 1944 Issue

 

Beyond the introduction, however, there is little editorializing from the Farm Journal staff. The results were based on open-ended surveys in which women were encouraged to write out their feelings on certain products and appliances, rather than rate or rank them on a ready-made scale. Interestingly, the survey also encouraged them to explain how their lives differed from those of urban and suburban women. Though some farm women may have claimed to have the best of both worlds, they clearly perceived a few great differences between farm life and city life, and had different ideas about what that meant for each woman’s kitchen. Farm women surmised that they probably cooked more and in larger quantities than their urban and suburban counter parts and thus, “almost unanimously,” agreed on the need for more space and larger kitchens. Snarkily, one farm woman commented “I doubt if very many city women cooked for a bunch of silo fillers Saturday like I did.”  Canning, along with infrequent trips to the market, meant that women needed ample storage in which to keep their goods, as well as a large chest freezer if possible. Farm women found these appliances so useful that a few mentioned their wish to have multiple stoves or freezers – comments that no doubt warmed the hearts of every Maytag executive.

Farm women also declared they needed a great deal of kitchen space because it was where they entertained. Entertaining was an important part of a farmwoman’s life, partially to counteract the solitude of rural life and because women were expected to be the protectors of tradition and community life. Given the distance, the nature of these visits were different. Often, woman would plan for longer visits.  Meals would often be prepared and eaten together. Women would also provide meals for community members who fell on hard times or if a family member had passed away.

Alfred Hitchcock’s The Farmer’s Wife (1928) 

According to Farm Journal cookbooks, different audiences required different menus. Farm men were apparently resistant to “newfangled” foods, if not methods of cooking. Although it predates the time period covered in this article, a March 1940 Farm Journal expository highlights farm men’s distrust of “fussed-up concoctions” and spoke of their love for “steaks, roasts, succulent cooked vegetables, savory stews and meat pies, potatoes with good gravy, sizeable lettuce salads or slaw, corn bread, hot cakes and country sausage or ham and eggs, and strong, hot coffee.” The same issue also featured a checklist for women to determine how their husbands ranked as a cook. According to this list, farm women needed to prepare “farmer’s breakfasts” not just coffee and toast. They needed to avoid asking their husbands what they should make for supper, plan it ahead of time and be careful enough to have variety in the meal without using their husbands as “human guinea pigs.” “Fancy fixings” were to be saved for female guests and women needed to frequently prepare their husbands’ favorite meals.

According to custom, women were allowed to take more culinary risks when they cooked for social events and get-together with their female friends and relatives and it appears as though prepackaged and convenience foods were more accepted at these events. The most notorious commercial food of all – Jell-O – was at home in the countryside as well in urban kitchens. Women were also expected to eat smaller portions and be more aware of the nutritional value of food. A menu for a women’s luncheon in Farm Journal’s Country Cookbook consisted of a cheese-pineapple salad, chicken sandwiches, pickles, a peach sundae, and coffee. A cottage cheese and fruit salad could also be substituted for women’s groups, “especially if there [were] calorie watchers among them.”  Elsewhere in the same cookbook, a mother’s day menu is advises making a meal that not only delicious, but also make sure it had “color and appeal for feminine eyes.” The editor also notes that the same meal could be adapted for male consumption with a desert change – as men apparently had no sense of aesthetics.

As anthropologist Deborah Fink and historian Mary Neth have observed, these social events were important because farm women were perceived to be, even expected to be, the preservers of community and tradition.  There was a great reverence for the ways of the past and doing things “the way grandma used to do” was held in high esteem. These farm women also linked the past and the future by teaching their daughters how to cook using the same (albeit updated) methods that their own mothers and grandmothers had taught them. Farm Journal even published a cookbook to help young girls learn the correct methods to use when cooking. An supplementary guide, entitled “How to Bring Up a Good Cook,” was all provided with the goal of helping mothers teach their daughters how to become accomplished cooks and bakers. Using this method, the cookbook editor hoped two accomplished two things simultaneously. First, the young cook-in-training would be taught “from-scratch” methods similar to those used by her predecessors. At the same time, her mother could use the same book to make sure her own methods were up-to-date. Both would be given a lesson in the “science” of food preparation, reflecting the modern fascination with the scientific.

But the use of commercial foods was not unproblematic. Food bought from the grocery store was often far removed from its original source. Growing their own food or buying it locally allowed farm women to maintain a close connection with their food supply and also supported a local economy instead of patronizing a company located hundreds of miles away. This fact, coupled with a reluctance to abandon tradition, made some farm women leery of buying prepackaged cake mix. Aware of this reluctance, Farm Journal cookbooks attempted to coax them into seeing new perspectives. Farm women who had qualms about being loyal to business when using canned and packaged food were reassured that they were still supporting farmers. “The flour in cake, biscuit, muffin and other mixes and the cans and packages of milk, potatoes, rice, mean and chicken, for example are farm produced of course.” Further, Farm Journal stated, “In many instances convenient forms of merchandising actually increase the demand for what you grow.” Such a statement reflected the strong pro-business orientation of post-war American farms – or, at least, the increasingly business oriented farm magazines.

Compounding this push-pull problem was the fact that some farm women sold their own farm products, produce, and baked goods. Called “pin money,” these funds were usually considered the housewives’ own and were not necessarily funneled back into the farm. Although much of what farm women grew in the garden or knitted was for their families, they could also sell these items to increase the cash inflow of their households. Having control over these aspects gave farm women a certain degree of power and freedom within the household. But their costumers were their neighbors and friends; if these people turned instead to a box of cake mix, this was income lost for the farmwoman.

Yet, the “gelatinization” of the countryside was never been fully complete. Rural communities and churches continue to hold community dinners and some farms still butcher their own meat. Cookbooks that promoting “real homecooking” abound. Yet if the countryside maintains its connection with past traditions, the contradictions inherent to “country cooking” have never been resolved. The allure of the country is such that country cooking remains a separate cooking domain, even if the cook is using the same dehydrated potato flakes as his or her suburban or urban counterpart. Perhaps this distinction maintains its staying power because food chains have become so extended and diffuse from its origin. The idea of “real” foods has become more appealing than ever. At the same time, this picture of rural American cookery seems traditional and uncomplicated, a representation of “the good old days” even though Grandma’s cookbook contained a receipe for quickset Jell-o salad. While this transformation in cooking in rural areas shares a number of similarities with changes in cooking nationwide, it is issues like these that remind us of the differences – differences that remain to this day.

For More Information:

 

  1. Nell B. Nichols and Betsy McCracken, eds., Farm Journal’s Cook it Your Way, (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1979), 50-1
  2. See: Laura Shapiro, Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America (New York: Viking Adult, 2004 
  3. Laura Schenone, A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove: A History of Women Told Through Food, Recipes, and Remembrances (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2003), 274-5
  4. Shagawat, Robert. “Television recording – The origins and earliest surviving live TV broadcast recordings”Early Electronic Television. Early Television Museum. Retrieved April 20, 2011
  5. http://tarlton.law.utexas.edu/exhibits/mason_&_associates/documents/timeline.pdf 
  6. Gould P. Colman and Sarah Elbert, “Farming Families: ‘The Farm Needs Everyone,’” Manuscript. (Ithaca, N.Y.: Department of History, Cornell University, 1983), as cited in Rachel A. Rosenfeld, Farm Women: Work, Farm, and Family in the United States (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985), 10
  7. I have borrowed this concept from Mary Neth, “Gender and the Family Labor System: Defining Work in the Rural Midwest,” Journal of Social History, 27, no. 3 (Spring 1994): 566 – 567. For an alternate example of the continuum idea, see K. Ward and J.L. Pyle, “Gender, Industrialization, and Development,” Women in the Latin American Development Process: From Structural Subordination to Empowerment, ed. C. Bose and E. Acosta-Belen. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995 
  8. Compiled by Economic Research Service, USDA. Share of workforce employed in agriculture, for 1900-1970, Historical Statistics of the United States; for 2000, calculated using data from Census of Population; agricultural GDP as part of total GDP, calculated using data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
  9. Compiled by Economic Research Service, USDA, using data from Census of Agriculture and Census of the United States.
  10. Julia Hornsbostel, “’This Country’s Hard on Women and Oxen’: A Study of Images of Farm Women in American Fiction,” Women and Farming: Changing Roles, Changing Structures, ed. Wava G. Haney and Jane B. Knowles (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1988), 110 
  11. Jean Ann Nimrod, “We Have the Best of Two Worlds,” Farm Journal, February 1962, 88. 
  12. Delight B. Wier and Laura Lane, “My Every Day – It’s the Greatest!” Farm Journal, August 1962, 51.
  13. For a succinct explanation of this process, see Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), 38-40. 
  14. Kathryn Larson, ed., Listen to the Land: A Farm Journal Treasury (Philadelphia: Countryside Press, 1977), 100-1.
  15. Farm Women Tell us about their Kitchens: A Farm Journal Family Test Group Report, (Philadelphia: Countryside Press, 1962), 1 
  16. See, for example, Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), 296-344. 
  17. Farm Women Tell us about their Kitchens, 1 
  18. ibid, 4 
  19. ibid, 3, 9
  20. Deborah Fink, Open Country, Iowa: Rural Women, Tradition, and Change (New York: Albany State University, 1986), 80 
  21. Farm Journal, March 1940 as cited in Barbara Swell, Old-Time Farmhouse Cooking: Rural American Recipes and Farm Lore (Asheville, NC: Native Ground Music, 2003), pg 22-5
  22. Nell B. Nichols, ed. Farm Journal’s Country Cookbook, (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1959), pp. 198-201 
  23. ibid, 62
  24. See, specifically, Deborah Fink, Open Country, Iowa: Rural Women, Tradition, and Change (New York: Albany State University, 1986) and Mary Neth, “Gender and the Family Labor System: Defining Work in the Rural Midwest,” Journal of Social History, 27, no. 3 (Spring 1994). 
  25. Nichols, Nell B., ed. How to Bring Up a Good Cook: A Guide to ‘Let’s Start to Cook,’ (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966), ix; see also: Nichols, Nell B., ed. Let’s Start to Cook, (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jenni Ostwinkle studied environmental and agricultural history at Harvard University. She now wears many hats, even though she's not really a hat person.