By Judy Gradwohl, the MacMillan Associate Director for Education and Public Engagement
It was like Christmas morning in 1968 when our Suzy Homemaker toy refrigerator arrived at the museum (new in box, with original staples!). It was Teaching Collection Object #1 for the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation Object Project, a new hands-on exhibition slated to open in July 2015. Object Project is about everyday things that changed everything, and in it we'll be inviting everyone to take a closer look at some things we take for granted, like electric refrigeration, which was introduced in the late 1920s. The Suzy Homemaker refrigerator "stores food like a real one" and its contents, a "complete set of plastic food items," will help showcase the rise of frozen food in the 1960s.
Although today Suzy Homemaker is an entry in Webster's dictionary, and either a pejorative or a point of pride depending on one's view of household work, in the 1960s it was a very desirable line of Topper Toys. "She's every little girl who wants to be just like her mother," exclaimed a 1966 advertisement. When the Suzy Homemaker line of toy appliances was introduced in 1966, it included miniature working versions of household equipment that helped girls practice homemaking skills. If a girl was lucky enough to collect them all she might have owned a working blender, mixer, oven, dishwasher, iron and ironing board, vacuum cleaner with multiple accessories, and clothes washer. The Suzy Homemaker line also included a girl-sized vanity. A television commercial summed it up by saying "With Suzy Homemaker you can entertain, wash dishes, clean house, launder, iron, bake… and always look lovely."
In ironic and somewhat unfortunate timing for Suzy Homemaker, the 1960s and 1970s also saw the rise of the women's rights movement and a focus on women working outside the home. The National Organization of Women was formed in 1966, and by 1968 feminists were organizing protests, with a major demonstration at the Miss America Pageant.
By the late 1960s, Suzy Homemaker ads started to sound a little defensive about the domesticity the toys promoted. In 1968 a print advertisement led with "Suzy Homemaker is a square" and continued "She doesn't wear love beads. She wears shoes. She even washes regularly. She gets more fun out of being a cook than a kook. She'd rather broil a hamburger or hot dogs on her Suzy Homemaker Super Grill or even cook a steak dinner for the family… Yes, your Suzy Homemaker is a square. And aren't you glad."
By the 1970s the Suzy Homemaker line was available in a range of vibrant colors and included sheets of flower stickers that could be used to make the appliances less "square." In 1981, Newsweek published an article about Future Homemakers of America entitled "So long, Suzy Homemaker."
Our teaching collection will be an important part of Object Project because it will put authentic objects in the hands of our visitors. Objects on view in the rest of the museum are from our National Collections, and because we need to preserve them forever, the objects need to be protected from excessive light and handling. Our staff wears gloves to shield the objects from the oils in our skin and carefully monitors light levels in exhibition areas. The teaching collection is intended to be handled and to withstand prolonged periods under brighter lights.
One can learn a lot by taking a closer look at the Suzy Homemaker refrigerator. It features a cornucopia of food very similar to the abundance seen in period advertisements for household refrigerators, like this 1960 Hotpoint ad.
Apparently there was a ham in every refrigerator and there truly was always room for Jello. Things like the ad and the Suzy Homemaker refrigerator help us think about how our diets have changed over time, who was preparing food for the family (and did she really cook in that outfit?), and even household size—who was going to eat all that food before it spoiled? This section of Object Project will also explore the explosion of frozen—"better-than-fresh"—foods, the introduction of frozen food convenience products and specialty fare for a newly-recognized African American market; and the paradox of hunger in a land of plenty.
Toys have always helped children prepare for aspects of adult life, and the Suzy Homemaker line of appliances provides an important slice of life from the 1960s. So our new Suzy Homemaker refrigerator is a lot more than a somewhat campy nostalgic toy. As it is joined by many more objects from the national and teaching collections, our refrigerator will encourage everyone to think differently about our everyday things and the interplay between innovation and society. Until then it is delighting visitors to my office.
Judy Gradwohl is the MacMillan Associate Director for Education and Public Engagement and the project director for Object Project. Her younger self would be quite embarrassed about her current enthusiasm for the Suzy Homemaker line of toys.