Looking Over Our Shoulder: The Cold War Comes Home for Supper

This post is part of a series pertaining to SCRC’s current exhibition, Looking Over Our Shoulder: The Cold War in American Culture. The text was borrowed from the exhibition.

Not only were American politics and diplomatic relations greatly affected throughout the Cold War, but so were the home lives, shopping habits, and domestic pursuits of Americans. This trickle down effect manifested in some of the most recognizable design motifs and elements of American consumerism that came to define the 1950s and 1960s specifically, also known as the Atomic Design Era and the Space Age. For more than two decades Americans lived, ate, and entertained in spaces directly influenced by this international conflict.

Detail from National Lumber Manufacturers Association advertisement, LIFE magazine, September 13, 1963. Note the starburst door handles. Francis J. McNamara papers, C0024, Box 87, Folder 1, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University.

In the 1950s, Atomic Design was all the rage. Architecture, fashion, and advertisements were influenced by the Atomic aesthetic, its hallmarks being atom motifs and abstract organic forms. With the Space Race underway by the end of the 1950s, Space Age design began to overlap with Atomic Design, and eventually overtook it by the 1960s. Featuring starbursts, sputniks, and all things space-related, Space Age motifs graced everything from coffee pots to cars, heavily influencing American homes, inside and out.

General Electric Spacemaker refrigerator advertisement. LIFE magazine, September 13, 1963. Francis J. McNamara papers, C0024, Box 87, Folder 1, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.

During this period, homemaking was elevated to a new status with “the technology of Tomorrow,” such as shiny new Frigidaires, improved microwaves, and fancy dishwashers, making the American housewife’s job easier than it had ever been (or so it was advertised to her). Holidays were no exception, and with aluminum trees, reflector ornaments, and greeting cards featuring Santa in a rocket instead of his traditional sleigh, the Cold War seeped into Americans’ Christmas memories. 

Starburst design punch bowl, manufacturer unknown but possibly made by Blendo Glass, circa 1960s. Private collection of Amanda Brent.

Images of Atomic Design and Space Age homes tend to look kitschy nowadays, but the widespread influence of this American response to the Cold War cannot be understated. Just note this heated exchange between Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon in 1958 as they toured the “Miracle Kitchen” at the American National Exhibition in Moscow, which perfectly encapsulates this particular pocket of the Cold War: 

Kruschev: “Your capitalistic attitude toward women does not occur under Communism.” 

Nixon: “I think this attitude toward women is universal. What we want to do is make life more easy for our housewives…”*

*Archer, Sara, The Midcentury Kitchen (New York, NY: The Countryman Press, 2019), 63-65.

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