Saturday, September 22, 2012

Better Homes and Gardens Consumerist Utopia: WWII

      For my research into structures of domesticity, I've been reading a number of domestic and women's magazines from the period of 1942-1950, notably Good Housekeeping and Better Homes and Gardens.  Within that context, I came across a remarkable set  of articles written in the latter publication during 1942-1943 that purport to offer a glance into the future home of the country, along with the future of medicine, technology, and other aspects of life pertinent to the domestic sphere.  Linked in with the publications push to sell war bonds, each of the articles offers a possible glimpse into the world of possibilities that will be available to families when the war is over.  Bonds are offered as the vehicle to invest in this future, to, in effect, buy a share of that future.  It's important to note that bonds are advertised throughout the publication, pushed primarily from a nationalist frame of security and contributing to the war effort.  However, the series of articles does something substantially different than the work to sell bonds in the rest of the magazine.  It links that process to the horizon of the future, a future that both can be understood as progressive, but beyond that, utopian in its most traditional meaning.  Within this context, it can be understood as part of a greater narrative of futurity, along with the figure of the child and nuclear war, which is technologically oriented without falling fully into a technocratic structure, not through a political framework, but through anti-politics of domestic sentimentality and individuation.

      The post war future produced by bonds is constructed at a multiplicity of levels.  At the most immediate level, it is created through the possibility of owning a refrigerator, a larger house, or saving for a child's education.  The publication reinforces these possibilities through select letters from readers, discussing their plans for the money they will receive from bonds.  Readers are called to recognize themselves within the monthly column of letters discussing the possible post-war uses of war bonds.  These letters continually reference and frame the larger articles written to discuss the future.  As noted, these articles focus on three basic issues, personal commodities that add convenience to domestic labor, new forms of technology developed in the war to help home construction, and new possibilities of health care.  The articles frame these possibilities in a discourse that both personalizes and individualizes the audience, drawing heavily on the second person, and often writing from that perspective.  In ideological terms, the magazine is constantly 'hailing' its audience of readers, using the forms of intimacy and the participatory structures of the magazine to identify with and feel a part of the future horizon produced through the war.  We are offered a future that is focused on the household, but one that offers the promise of resolution of not only the problems of war time restriction, but the larger issues of poverty, toil, and disease.

     At the most immediate level, the magazine discusses a number of commodities that will either be invented or be improved through the war effort.  The most significant of those discussions are the discussions of the upcoming invention of television, and the future improvement of the automobile.  Both are heavily constructed in the second person format, inviting them to imagine the future when these these home technologies would be available to its readers.  Within a Blochian framework, we can see the linkage between this sort of work and the functions of wish fulfillment contained in the daydream.  We are invited as readers to participate in a collective daydream, one structured by technological improvement, rather than political transformation.  Just as significantly, the articles bear the mark of the intersection of the federal government, advertisers, and the publications.  The article on the new automobile is a report on the activities of the American auto industry, produced through a series of conversations between the owners of the auto industry and the magazine.  It also reflects some of the shifts in expertise in the domestic sphere.  As Nancy Walker notes in her text on mid-century women's magazines, Shaping Our Mother's World: American Women's Magazines,  the forms of domestic expertise found in women's magazines originated more from the corporate world, rather than the academic world that previously defined the field of home economics.

     That shift is even more evident in the sort of enthusiastic utopian vision of the household of the future.  The possibilities of which are discussed in the February 1943 issue of the magazine.  The article immediately frames the promise in relationship to bonds,

    “Come victory you’ll find these products mean a far better house than you ever had before. We, personally, are going to be ready for it with War Savings Bonds, bought now and put away in the sock to buy this better home of tomorrow when it’s available.”

    At this point, the War Savings Bond literally becomes a sort of investment in the future, a type of savings, but also a kind of pledge to participate in that future, and a social contract to that future horizon.  The reader is invited to join the we of the magazine, an imagined audience of primarily middle class house wives, in committing to the larger structure of the nation state, one that will lead to prosperity.  That future promise is quickly linked to the corporate industries building the equipment for the war, and profiting from it.

      “Today we’re building houses much as Henry Kaiser builds ships and Boeing builds planes—by slipping mass produced, scientifically engineered panels together at the site. One type of panel consists of two thin metal or plywood sheets welded or glued to a light material, as in an airplane wing. Tho they use little material, their strength is immense, and to assemble a house from them you need no studs, no other framing.”

    The technological promise of the war is immediately linked to the corporate names of Henry Kaiser and Boeing.  They become the sites at which the future promise of home technology is invented and produced.  That production is tied to the promise of mass production, science, and engineering.  The future home is literally being produced out the wings of a bomber, or in another article, the technologies developed in the context of tank warfare in Africa.  The home is not only protected by the war effort through a discourse of security; it is reconstructed by it, rebuilt on a rationalized and accessible foundation.  In his later lectures, Michel Foucault notes that World War II was unique in the sort of social contract offered to the primarily working class participants who made up the rank and file of the military, offering financial stability and security in exchange for the risks and sacrifices made in the war.   We can see the work of the magazine in that light, both offering the social contract through the popular form of the journal, and linking it to the larger structure of the developing structure of Fordist state capitalism, linking its promise to the commodity form and the corporate state.

    We can see a mildly science fictional and even utopian investment in the future in the material discussed above, but those promises are magnified when the magazine begins to discuss the future of medicine and health care in the March 1943 issue of the magazine, in an article entitled, "Coming Miracles in Family Health."  The editors frame the article in a lengthy introductory statement.

    "You have everything.  The world’s at peace again, and your son or your husband is back from overseas.  Your home’s the way you want it, bright and cheerful with comfort and color.  Outside the growing things you’ve set out, waiting for spring’s touch.  You settle back in your chair.

                And then comes a sound from the children’s room—the tight, hacking cough of a child in pain, a child whose strength is burning out in a fever that routs sleep.
                Everything you own is suddenly drab and meaningless.  The gray finger of illness is pressing down on your home.
                In that picture lies the reason for this article, and its place in our stories of your home world of tomorrow.  We’ve talked about your car of tomorrow, and what television and lighting have in store for you.  We’ve laid before you some of the marvels that can be part of the postwar home your War Savings Bonds will buy—and we’re going to tell you much more about that home in coming issues.
                But none of it can mean anything while there’s sickness in your family.  This article will tell you about the wonderfully fascinating things that are being done to destroy the power of many illnesses to touch you and  yours.”—Editor

     Without going through the entire introduction, 'you' are once again offered to imagine the promised future of the post-war era, defined by domestic peace, happiness, and economic security.  That promise is interrupted by illness, which threatens to destroy that happiness and security, literally draining the color from the many bright commodities of the home.  Illness becomes the last remaining threat to the new world created by savings bonds and the technologies developed by the war.  We're quickly told that these threats too will be removed.  Author Donald Cooley notes just above the Editor's introduction, “You and your family will escape tomorrow from many of the ailments, great and small, which plague you today. From colds to cancer, illnesses are yielding their secrets to the men who are bent on destroying them.”  Technology, often linked to war production, will once again solve the problems of the current situation.  The article then lists the future maladies to be resolved through these new inventions, from cures of the common cold and cancer, to child birth without pain.  The connection to the war is made through a number of rhetorical choices of the publication, "light that blitzes germs," for instance.  If the war effort will translate into a new physical home, it will also translate into new techniques and technologies developed to combat and destroy the diseases that threaten it.

     We can see a series of domestic, commercial, and national discourses being created and enforced through a narrative that can only be called 'science fictional' in its emphasis on the future promise of social investment and new technology.  Even more than that, the very structure of the home and of domesticity is being constructed within that narrative, one that makes the extraordinary promises and demands that create the feminine mystique in the post war years.  We can see the construction of a post-war consensus that is built of the combination of domestic expertise, technology, and the labor of the housewife.  Is it terribly surprising that science fiction becomes a major literary form to challenge and re-imagine these structures?  After all, the codes of the domestic discourse they challenge and rewrite has its origins, in part, in the futurity of science fiction, and its promise linked to the forms of wish fulfillment offered in the utopian form.

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