The easy chair — From the July 1939 issue
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
Mr. Thomas Beer once wrote a story whose plot turned on the bitterness felt by the owner of a department store when a newspaper commented unfavorably on the quality of the merchandise displayed in his show windows. He believed that comment of that kind was against the interests of society, but the newspaper reporter who wrote the story wondered why, if novelists and playwrights must take criticism of their products in the public interest, manufacturers and merchants should be immune. The reporter was acting on an excellent theory of criticism but it would not make sense to a manufacturer who has written in denouncing the Easy Chair’s discussion, three months ago, of various industrial products that give it pain. Such a discussion, the manufacturer says, is dangerous at times like these and its author is clearly a communist. That would be news to the literary left, if the literary left had not disbanded.
The Easy Chair was voicing what felt like a private grievance, but an astonishing number of letters have come in and they make plain that it wasn’t so private as it seemed. This column is not the Gallup Poll and does not know how to weight an average. It is not the New Republic and so refrains from announcing that a widespread uprising is at hand. But it knows emotional pressure when it sees the signs and does not hesitate to inform its friends the manufacturers that this month’s mail indicates enough dissatisfaction with manufactured goods that aren’t what they claim to be to vitalize several further crucifixions of American business in Washington. It will even name the area where pressure is highest: the first street barricade is going to be erected by the American housewife.
The housewife is not going to protest any mayhem that Washington may inflict on the cutlery business. True, some dissent has been expressed from what the Easy Chair said about it. The Boston Evening Transcript calls the Easy Chair fussy and says that the cost of putting enough chromium in steel to make it rustproof is prohibitive-but the Transcript misses the point. The Easy Chair and the American housewife are protesting about there being any chromium at all in a paring knife. It was put in to make the blade shine, to make a gadget of it, to make it sell. But we see no reason why a knife need shine– we want it to cut, and it won’t take an edge when it has chromium in it. Again, a retailer of hardware mourns, “People don’t expect a ten-cent knife from the dime store to cut but they raise hell with me because my twenty-five cent knife won’t cut. Why do they expect a twenty-five cent knife to be any good– why do they buy it? Why don’t they buy seventy-five cent knives?” But our point is that the seventy-five cent knife won’t cut, that you have to pay a couple of dollars to get a satisfactory knife–and we can remember when much cheaper ones were so good that the heirs quarreled over them when the estate was distributed. Any manufacturer who will provide seventy-five cents’ worth comparable to what came from Sheffield, or even Bridgeport, thirty years ago can, if the letters to this column mean what they say, discontinue his twenty-five cent line, crowd his competitors to the wall and help along the revival in heavy goods by expanding his plant.
He can save on paint too. The public-relations folk who persuaded the manufacturers to make shiny knives were also wrong when they decided that what American women want is color in the kitchen. It isn’t. They don’t give a damn about color and have an active aversion to green handles: what they want is kitchen equipment that will work. “Do you know, have you ever heard, of an egg-beater that won’t bend or get jammed or strip its gears?” No. “The one [vegetable slicer] I’ve got now is a lulu–three different colors of paint on it. But what goes into it as material for a soup or a salad comes out looking like the stuff on the bottom of a silo. Do you suppose there is any solution for this problem?” Yes: try grandmother’s wooden bowl and the best knife you have; the combination is better, neater, faster, and easier to use. And so it goes. Is there a teakettle that won’t separate from its handle? Is there a flour-sifter that will work? And, a question rising from the grassroots all across the continent, is there such a thing as a good can-opener? There isn’t; there is no attempt to make one; and one has an impression of a mass drift toward the Boy Scout Axe, which costs sixty cents but can be depended on to open cans. The movement could be halted– for a camp axe is bulky in a cupboard drawer– by anyone who cared to produce a smaller implement that would be as dependable.
Such procedure, however, would violate sound business principles. If the grassroots rise in revolt against the kitchen-goods industry, convinced that its products have deteriorated, the thing to do is to beautify and educate. Paint the can-opener green and they’ll buy it because it’s pretty. Then, when it develops that they won’t buy a pretty one, the next step is to fire the advertising manager. Buy more display space, get out some demonstrators dressed in Red Cross uniforms, and see what can be done about a tie-up with the domestic-science departments in the schools. To approach the problem through metallurgy and mechanics, to make a can-opener that would open cans, would be a confession of weakness, and in times like these industry must maintain its morale.
The Easy Chair’s original assertion was that the women’s department of the household is being treated shamefully; letters call that treatment contemptuous. What is more interesting, the grievance includes foods. The intricate organization that has given us strawberries in December, insured the excellence of oysters in Oklahoma, and made the ordinary American diet more diverse and healthier than it ever was before, has some ominous weaknesses, and the housewife is aware of them. Cheese, for instance. One correspondent names a brand that is widely advertised and says that it looks like laundry soap and tastes like laundry soap (of a poor quality) but that she has found it worthless for dishwashing. She is quite right, but when she asks “Can nothing be done about it?” the unhappy answer is, not much. This pumpkin-colored atrocity is one of the greatest crimes ever committed against the American people, a lusty folk who have a diverse and healthy diet but are not allowed to enjoy eating as much as they once did. It is an abomination and so are the messes advertised along with it as “process cheeses,” which consist of the sweepings of the dairy eked out with what appears to be the pith of weeds–tasteless, indigestible, unfit even to bait mice with. But they are products of a system that has brought something like stability to both business and dairy-farming; the bank smiles on them and so does the Department of Agriculture and they are here to stay. Yet our native “mouse cheese” was one of the great foods, regional, individual, a vintage product of innumerable flavors and varieties. It is far gone toward extinction but can still be come by, if you search for it hard enough, if you can get about the countryside, if you have luck. You must find a dairy that is both independent and solvent, one that can afford to store its product long enough to ripen it–usually a small co-operative in a better than average farming district. Or you must find a rural grocery store that can afford to buy from such a dairy at least a ton of cheese at a time. Both institutions are getting rarer, and the cheese sandwich may soon vanish from our national life. It was a noble thing; its successor is just a slab of pulpy matter that might have exuded from a tree, between pieces of carbonated and probably pre-sliced bread.
For such deterioration there is no remedy; only the millionaire farmer and the subsistence farmer can make their own cheese. But remedies do exist for a number of the housewife’s dissatisfactions, notably those that are caused by packaged foods. We must take whatever cheeses we can get, but few manufacturers can go pot-hunting for us with a monopoly. Here (New England) is a breakfast food that was advertised to be a regal mixture of health-giving, life-sustaining, palate-delighting cereals combined with mysteriously irradiated ingredients straight from a laboratory of biochemistry–and turned out to be stale bread cut up in cubes. Unquestionably its advertising was misleading but, even supposing that one expected much from breakfast foods, the fraud was slight: at the price of a single package one learned not to buy that brand again. Here (upper New York) is a package of bread crumbs that turned out to be cracker crumbs– and so was altogether useless for cutlets, puddings, and the like. The remedy is at hand: there is time enough in the most crowded life to roll your own and room enough in the smallest kitchen for a glass to hold them. Similarly with many other products, including the one that has begotten a grievance as widespread and as virulent as the one created by can-openers. The American housewife hates sliced bread with a heartening violence. She regards it as a scurvy trick of the bakers, a blatant device to make bread grow stale faster. She is right. But she can patronize the small bakeries. If she can’t find any small bakeries she can choose the nobler way– she can make her own bread.
Making bread at home is easier, cheaper, and less time-consuming than the modern housewife has been systematically educated to believe. In a week’s time anyone, man or woman, can learn to make better bread than can be bought; in a month he can learn to make bread so much better than can be bought that that family will eat homemade bread forever after. Any housewife can mix, knead, cut down, and bake a batch of from two to six loaves without adding more than a half-hour to her day’s labor, and the manufacturer of dishwashers will be happy to make up that half-hour.
There is here no wish to restore the shackles that women have struck off, but only to point out that any consumer who is impatient with the bread she is forced to buy-and considering what most of it is, impatience widens out to disgust and horror-has the answer in her own kitchen. It happens to be also an answer on the side of the angels, for it works toward the restoration of a fine art. You can make bread to your individual taste and in many more varieties than the delicatessen will ever carry. And you can also, with little trouble, make jams and jellies and marmalades superior to any that can be bought. Preserving time was a dreadful season at grandmother’s house, for she had to work hard and long when fruits were ripe. But whereas grandmother made fifty or a hundred pints of strawberry jam at a time, her granddaughter can count on finding strawberries at the corner grocery during many months of the year, and can preserve a couple of cups of them while a roast is browning, with no extra time consumed beyond that of washing and stemming them. That is not slavery; it is only an intelligent use of our economic system. It is recommended to everyone who is optimistic about American civilization and to everyone who likes to eat. Crusading spirits also should think highly of it, for it provides an effective leverage. If enough housewives were to begin making bread and jam there would be an abrupt change for the better in the products sold in stores.
The Easy Chair will not again interfere with the function of Consumers’ Research and has undertaken to instruct the housewife only with a reluctance bordering on panic, but, thus committed, may as well defend its favorite manufacturers against an unrest that appears to be sex-linked. Only one male has dissented from the praise printed here of the modern automobile. He admits its mechanical excellence but says, “I have never had a car that failed to leak in some window or in the windshield, that failed to have some cranky window that would not go up or down properly, that failed to have some door that shut improperly or that failed to have upholstery of very dubious quality.” He has had worse luck than the Easy Chair, whose only objection to the upholstery, that it is not proof against a young son’s Good Humor bar, seems hypercritical. It is true, however, that the doors and windows of automobiles look good only in comparison with those made for houses. The automobile is our finest machine but remains far from perfect as a carriage, and manufacturers are advised to spend less time making the front end look like something from the World of Tomorrow and devise a window that will keep the rain out while it lets the air in.
But a number of women complain about the automobile’s liability to squeaks and rattles, and here the Easy Chair must refuse to bring in a true bill. There is a limit, girls, to what Detroit can do. The modern automobile is made to take and thrive on a disregard, an abuse, a contempt even that would horrify the repair crew of a railroad shop. But it remains a machine, and as a machine it must have some attention. If you will have the car greased every two or three thousand miles, if you will have the body bolts tightened twice a year, put a drop of oil on the hinges now and then, keep the accessories screwed down tight, and have the springs looked at occasionally, there won’t be any squeaks and rattles. An instruction book comes with every car, and every garage and oil station has a set of charts that show the manufacturer’s prescriptions. They are honest– so honest that they recommend less oil and grease than the garage would like to sell you. Few women buy and use cosmetics without reading the instructions on the package.
Here, however, we touch on an essential conservatism of the female sex. Automobiles are not the only machines that women subject to what is, in men’s eyes, intolerable abuse. The households of America shriek with vacuum cleaners, mixers, electric fans, and other appliances that have not been lubricated since they were bought. Many more women may be converted to a belief in the immediate perfectibility of the human race than to a belief in the existence of friction or the principle that moving parts should sometimes be oiled. That jewel of her sex who knows the location and function of the fuse-box is not likely to have learned the use of an oil can, though she may have used a sewing machine since her childhood. The manufacturers are guiltless here; they are even praiseworthy, for more and more they are producing appliances with sealed lubrication. But the lubrication system of an automobile can never be completely sealed and the effects of wear can never be automatically taken up. Women’s instinctive skepticism and distrust of the machine age are certainly justified, but are also futile if women desire to use machines. They are better drivers than men: they should learn how to take care of their cars.
More from Bernard Augustine De Voto: