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March 13, 2024

The RCA Whirlpool ‘Miracle Kitchen of the Future,’ 1959

On July 24, 1959, then–Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev got into an argument about women, kitchen appliances and the American way of life. It wasn’t planned. But it was recorded on film and broadcast in both nations.

It was also the first high-level meeting between American and Soviet leaders since the 1955 Geneva Summit. In 1958, the two countries had agreed to a major cultural-exchange project: The USSR would organize a World’s Fair–style exhibition in New York City, and the United States would do the same in Moscow.

So, Nixon traveled to the USSR tasked with giving Khrushchev a tour of the American National Exhibition in Moscow’s Sokolniki Park. The two leaders had several conversations over the course of the tour, but the most iconic of these occurred while they were standing with a crowd in front of a model American kitchen.

It had all the modern conveniences you’d expect to find in the sort of new postwar home that would sell for $14,000 (about $150,000 today): stylish cabinets, a dishwasher, a range and a refrigerator. Khrushchev was cantankerous, waving his hand dismissively while declaring (through a translator) that the innovations in the American model kitchen were gadgets of little consequence. He then asked if there was a machine that “puts food into the mouth and pushes it down.”

If Soviet visitors to the fair were moderately impressed by the middlebrow gadgets in the model kitchen, they were wowed by the aptly named Miracle Kitchen, a joint venture between Whirlpool and RCA, first designed in 1956. The Miracle Kitchen traveled across the U.S. throughout 1957, then went on display in Moscow in 1959.

It was introduced to Soviet visitors at the American National Exhibition by a young woman named Anne Anderson, who was born in Illinois to Ukrainian parents and spoke fluent Russian. Photographer Robert Lerner took portraits of Anderson demonstrating devices and posing with appliances in the Miracle Kitchen for LOOK magazine, which ran a feature on it in July 1959.

Anderson looked as though she herself had been styled to coordinate with the kitchen’s brightly colored Formica panels. She wore a pale-blue shirtwaist dress, bright red lipstick and a red manicure; strands of pearls and a pair of black high heels completed the effect. She was wearing the mid-century uniform of a woman who keeps house on her own but also commands a small army of machines to lighten her workload.

The kitchen had been designed to intimidate Soviet visitors, and to engender in them a feeling of being have-nots, even as their government maintained an edge in the early years of the Space Race. But the Miracle Kitchen was a kind of appliance fantasia, more aspirational than realistic, even for wealthy Americans of the era.

It featured a compact vacuuming robot. The freestanding range could (theoretically) bake a cake in three minutes, using microwave technology. The dishwasher would slide on a track over to the dining table after meals for easy loading. Anderson demonstrated the kitchen’s push-button “planning center,” from which she could summon the dishwasher or the mini-vacuum cleaner.

If all of this sounds too good to be true, it mostly was: According to a 2015 interview with one of the kitchens’ designers, Joe Maxwell, who had worked with the Detroit-based design firm Sundberg-Ferar, a two-way mirror installed in the kitchen display allowed someone behind the scenes to move the vacuum cleaner and the dishwasher back and forth by radio control.

Perhaps some Soviet visitors believed this display represented a typical middle-class kitchen in the United States, but the closest we came during this period to a kitchen “miracle” was in Hollywood. 

(via Sarah Archer)


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