This paper demonstrates how as Europe became the site of the battle for hearts and minds, the cornucopia-like symbols of the fridge, kitchen, and supermarket were used in print, film, and exhibitions to articulate American values and way of life abroad.
keywords | Cold War, America, food politics, abundance, kitchen, culture, power
abstract | A long-standing theme of the American experience is the conception of the United States as a land of abundance. Following the destruction of Europe after World War II, American actors mobilized this theme against the communist threat in defense of the liberal-capitalist world order that they sought to create and maintain. Given the state of Europe following the war, abundance, especially regarding food production, was a very enticing aspect of the United States. This paper demonstrates how as Europe became the site of the battle for hearts and minds, the cornucopia-like symbols of the fridge, kitchen, and supermarket were used in print, film, and exhibitions to articulate American values and way of life abroad. The Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan facilitated America’s projection of itself as a land of plenty. In doing so, Americans worked to project their power, wealth, and way of life onto the world stage to manage and contain the Soviet threat of expansion in the early Cold War period.
During and following the Second World War, millions of people came face to face with hunger and starvation. At the end of the war, the overall worldwide amount of food was down twelve percent from 1939, yet this was unevenly distributed with millions of people in Europe living on less than half of what they would have eaten before the war started. Even though the war was over, destroyed infrastructure and loss of able-bodied men weakened agricultural production in many places in Europe. Germany for example, was only able to produce enough for its people to eat an average of 1,000 calories a day. Basic needs consumed the thoughts of individuals who had survived one of the most devastating struggles in human history. Tens of millions of people were displaced across various national borders, and it was up to the victors to ensure that chaos did not ensue following their victory. With Germany unable to feed itself, the Allies had to import supplies. This, however, only brought rations in the American zone to 1,135 calories per day, rising to 1,550 by January 1946. Food shortage threatened both sides: after the end of the Lend-Lease agreement with the United States, Britain was forced to keep rationing in place at home as late as 1954.
The people of Europe were starving, and in many ways it was up to the United States, in connection with the newly created United Nations, to prevent as much future suffering as possible. The elimination of this form of deprivation from the globe became an element of the proposed plan for a peaceful and prosperous world long before the war ended. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt outlined Four Freedoms in his 1941 State of the Union address: the freedom of speech and expression, the freedom to worship, the freedom from want, and, lastly, the freedom from fear. These freedoms would later become embodied within the Atlantic Charter and came to symbolize the Allied aims for a stable and secure peace. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) was formed in May 1943 with the express purpose of achieving Roosevelt’s dream of freedom from want everywhere in the world. Similar organizations like the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), set up in November 1943, began stockpiling food prior to victory and planned distribution throughout liberated areas.
State actors were not the only ones who realized that ending extreme hunger was an important war aim. Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting of the Four Freedoms in 1943 prominently illustrated this idea to the American people. Rockwell visualized the freedom from want as a happy family surrounding a dining table, about to enjoy a Thanksgiving meal. The image centered on a woman holding a very large roast turkey. This plenty was something to which many would not have had easy access at the time, given the wartime context of its creation. Rockwell’s decision to depict the freedom from want as access to bountiful amounts of food within a domestic setting made it clear that abundance was a deeply rooted part of the American psyche. The need to attain a high standard of living was a goal not only for Americans but for the world. This image of domestic happiness and abundance, the ability to be free from crippling want, was what many believed would bring peace and stability to the world. Inherent in this was an understanding that freedom from want actually meant the freedom to want—a better life, better living standards, and better access to food.
This article argues that the United States used to project American power during the aftermath of the Second World War. It looks specifically at the way in which abundance, inherently linked to America’s conception of self, was portrayed through food imagery in order to show a devastated Europe what modernity and success as a nation looked like: the elimination of want. While previous studies have looked at abundance in a domestic context, this study moves it to an international arena, evaluating not what Europeans thought of Americans but how American media, corporations, and the government projected themselves to the postwar European population.
Increasing the living standards of Europeans meant ensuring they had enough to eat. The country that could best help with that effort was the land of abundance: America. This study inserts itself into new debates on the role of food in international relations as well as scholarship on American empire, hegemony, and the power of American influence abroad, especially in the cultural sense. The historiographical debates and this study’s contributions are discussed first, followed by a summary of the relevant postwar context and broad governmental policies directed at Europe in this period. Next, the article turns its attention to specific examples of American abundance, notably the symbolism of food, by examining one of the most widely read American magazines outside of the United States, Life, as well as the Hollywood films that made their way across the Atlantic. Finally, the last section of the article analyzes the unique alliance between the state, business, and the press that formed to hold international exhibitions. By looking at how progress intersected with the concept of plenty in regards to food and food products in print media, films, and exhibitions, this article shows how American society projected its power on the European stage. Focusing on abundance and ideas about food within their cultural exports allowed Americans to project an image of their national prosperity, progress, and power abroad throughout the postwar period in order to limit the spread of communist influence in Europe following the devastation of the Second World War.
An important work on the domestic discussion of abundance and America’s preoccupation with itself as a land of plenty is David M. Potter’s seminal study People of Plenty: Economic Abundance and the American Character (1954). He states,
Throughout our national experience, the most varied types of observers have agreed in emphasizing America’s bounty.
Those who built off this concept include Jackson Lears’ Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America (1994), Monica Presad’s The Land of Too Much: American Abundance and The Paradox of Poverty (2012), and Harvey Levenstein’s Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America (1993). These works deal with abundance and constructions of power. They illustrate the ways in which power can be diffused though avenues of society including culture, economics, technology, and communication. While American economics, politics, and culture have been widely studied for their relation to abundance, this connection has not been made for the way it was projected onto the world stage, using one of the most obvious symbols of the American plethora: food. While one of the central themes of Levenstein’s book is that Americans have unique conceptions of food due to their domestic abundance, he fails to take this point beyond American borders and into how that led various American actors to portray themselves on the world stage. Especially in the postwar period of 1945 to 1960, America continuously exported its image abroad and advertised its prosperity as the pinnacle of economic success, which other states could achieve only if they followed the American way. Abundance was a key image that was presented in this context for America’s promotion of itself as a beacon of progress for the world to follow.
Closely related to abundance was the ability to choose, and this was deeply ingrained within the American liberal-capitalist way of life. In her work Spreading the American Dream (1982), Emily S. Rosenberg was one of the first scholars to outline this process in the pre-1945 period, arguing that American economic and cultural expansion were inherently linked to the processes of technological advancement and mass consumption. Her study argued that American expansionism was backed by an ideology that she called liberal-developmentalism, the belief that the American way could and should be replicated by other nations. According to this belief, replication would be achieved through free enterprise, open trade, informational and cultural exchange, and the active participation of the government in stimulating interaction between nations. Although Rosenberg’s work highlighted an intimate connection between economic and cultural exchange on the international stage, her study ended in 1945. Moving into the postwar period is crucial as the relationship between culture and economics deepened during the Cold War period given the struggle between two very different economic systems that were each wrapped up in their own cultural assumptions about modernity and progress. The culture of American life was deeply entrenched in the idea of a freedom to want. Desire for abundance and choice is also inherently related to a nation’s economic organization, and America’s liberal-capitalist economy facilitated these kinds of desires. Lizabeth Cohen is one of the foremost scholars on the relationship between consumption and prosperity. In her work A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (2003), she argued that mass consumption—and with it the ideas of abundance and choice—became tied to what it meant to be American. It was also one of the many aspects of the American way of life that the government hoped to export and protect in Europe following the Second World War as it symbolized a way to bring a devastated Europe into a future of social equality and economic prosperity. As tensions rose between the United States and the Soviet Union, many came to see exporting the American way of life, specifically liberal-capitalist values of abundance and choice, as a potential bulwark against the communist threat. While the Four Freedoms had originally been directed against the Axis powers and their totalitarian regimes, they now were needed to defend against the Soviet Union’s opposing plan for modernity. One of the key freedoms was the freedom from want.
When the war ended in Europe in May 1945, the American government quickly realized that it could not so easily remove its presence from the European stage given the staggering amount of “want” that existed and made the nations of Europe vulnerable to communism. According to Victoria de Grazia, “Germany’s defeat paved the way for the European states to accede to an American peace premised on the free trade of goods and ideas.” Related to Rosenberg’s liberal-developmentalist ideology and Cohen’s arguments surrounding the importance of mass consumption, the idea of America as an abundant provider was also critical. Lizzie Collingam outlines the depths of food insecurity following the end of conflict in Europe, noting,
The rest of the world looked to America to provide the food supplies to alleviate its misery.
Caught between a desire to profit from their plenty and make sacrifices in the name of humanity, the American people and government continued the fight to end the freedom from want even though their own nation was no longer under threat. Plans were made, although ultimately never put in place, for a world food policy.
Unfortunately, international cooperation was overshadowed by the growing tension between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Truman administration realized they needed to promote an American economic model based on mass consumption and global markets to prevent a postwar economic depression, and food would play a significant role in that plan. However, this was in direct conflict with the Soviets’ communist economic model. As lines of influence began to be drawn, both sides of the Iron Curtain did not passively accept and internalize either of these models for their economic and cultural futures. This tension makes it very clear the role food can play in regards to international relations. Tim Lang and Michael Heasman’s work Food Wars: The Global Battle for Mouths, Minds, and Hearts (2003) deals exclusively with the interconnected nature of the global food market and illustrates quite clearly that there are far-reaching consequences for this integration, especially on the environment and our health. While this study called for change and sought to emphasize the necessity of coming together for the common good, it did not attend to the historical roots of global food politics, namely the end of the Second World War and the rise of the Cold War. This time period saw a distinct shift in the way in which states interacted on the international stage, falling into a bi-polar orbit around either the Soviet Union or the United States in an economic, political, social, or cultural sense. Integration into these orbits did not occur automatically. Many scholars have noted how there was pushback from European citizens regarding how they accepted, rejected, or altered American ideals. While this is certainly a critical part of the historiography of cultural imperialism, it is also crucial to evaluate what the ideas were that Americans were trying to project about themselves abroad, even if they were potentially rejected or altered once they reached other societies. This study evaluates the role of print media, film, and exhibitions in spreading America’s message about itself to the European stage. American actors used food imagery to promote an abundant, prosperous America at the forefront of modernity and to argue that this choice was superior to the Soviet Union’s model.
Writing as early as 1906, Werner Sombart sought to answer the question “why is there no socialism in the United States?” in a book of the same title. His assessment was that, among other things, roast beef and apple pie made it difficult for socialist movements to grow in America. According to Sombart, the general population of America ate too well and, therefore, had come to enjoy the abundance, quality, and choice the capitalist economy ensured for their society. This understanding of the power of food continued into the postwar period as American actors exported these ideas surrounding food and plenty to the world stage in the hopes of preventing the growth of socialism elsewhere.
The American government and private industry wanted to protect Western Europe from the communist way of life; therefore, they did not respond only with food exports and economic aid. The United States actively sought to project its own values and beliefs surrounding food through its cultural products. President Truman’s speech to Congress in March 1947 outlined what became known as the Truman Doctrine. He stated, “The foreign policy of the United States is the creation of conditions in which we and other nations will be able to work out a way of life free from coercion.” He went on to explain that nations needed to choose between two opposing ways of life—freedom or coercion—and that it “must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” In May 1947, a Life editorial stated, “Our number one weapon is not the atomic bomb. It is the so-called Truman Doctrine…The Truman Doctrine, insofar as it is clear, is aimed at restoring the economies and morale of those countries which would otherwise fall to communism.”
The Truman Doctrine would later grow beyond its initial aim of aiding Greece. In the 1948 State of the Union address, Truman urged Congress to expand and “authorize support for the European recovery program for the period from April 1, 1948, to June 30, 1952.” He saw the purpose as “following a sound, constructive, and practical course in carrying out our determination to achieve peace. We are fighting poverty, hunger, and suffering. This leads to peace—not war.” He went on to say the goal of the American people should be “to lift the standard of living for all our people by strengthening our economic system and sharing more broadly among our people the goods we produce,” and that this sharing would include not only food and other forms of material aid but also information regarding best farming practices and other methods to promote agricultural abundance. The American government made a pledge to extend economic aid, but what came with it was an implied acceptance of the social and cultural ideals of the United States.
The Marshall Plan, as it was called, was essential for the American government to ensure the stability of Western Europe and to prevent the potential spread of communism. The plan was based on the belief that “if Europe failed to rebuild her economies, then hunger, poverty, and depression would push open the door to communist influence.” According to The New York Times,
Marshall…did not talk about ideologies or armies. He talked about…food and fuel and their relationship to industrial production, the relation of production to the organization of Europe, and the relation of the organization of Europe to peace in the world.
This was aimed specifically at steering Western Europe from communist leanings. Photojournalism magazines such as Life promoted the image that American abundance had saved Europe from collapse following the end of the Second World War. Articles such as “The World and U.S. Food” from February 1946 and “The Harvest that Saved the World” from July 1946 clearly articulated this message. However, the Marshall Plan brought with it more than economic aid. According to de Grazia, the Marshall Plan was the bearer of new ways of thinking about how to produce affluence. For the countries that received it, the Marshall Plan spread ideas that came from America’s understanding of itself as an abundant and prosperous land.
Truman saw a critical need to manage the spread and content of information about America abroad. According to Jack Masey and Conway Morgan, “The cultural territory was as important as the political landscape, if the Russian threat was to be averted.” With the war over, the Office of War Information (OWI) was dissolved. In its place the Truman administration set up an interim international Information Services Bureau (ISB) with the explicit purpose of “informing the people of other nations about any matter in which the United States has an interest.” By 1949 there was a growing sense of insecurity forming America over the “loss of China” to communism and the Soviets’ successful detonation of the atomic bomb. While a “hot” war broke out in Korea in the summer of 1950, the “cold” conflict continued to brew on the European continent, and the struggle for hearts and minds seemed to be more important than ever. In a speech to the American Society of Newspapers in April 1950, President Truman outlined a need for a “Campaign of Truth” to deal with the “so false, so crude, so blatant” propaganda that was being spread by communists about America. The president spoke publically about the industrial complex that was responsible for American prosperity and additionally praised American agricultural production. Not only was American industry so powerful that it was able to provide Americans with the highest standard of living worldwide, but it also had the capability to support many other countries at the same time. It was clear that the American government was committed to projecting an image of American affluence and abundance while also ensuring this image was propped up in the face of negative communist propaganda.
Later, President Eisenhower also sought to influence the information that was being spread about America on the world stage. Shortly after being elected, he created the United States Information Agency (USIA). Its mission was “to understand, inform and influence foreign publics in promotion of the national interest, and to broaden the dialogue between Americans and U.S. institutions, and their counterparts abroad.” According to Reinhold Wagnleitner, these governmental policies had a preference for funding information initiatives like international broadcasting, motion pictures, and press publications over more cultural programs such as educational exchange, libraries, and institutions. Furthermore, the war had allowed American industries, such as film, to overrun protectionist policies that many countries had put in place. By 1947, America had overrun the French film industry, and Italy and Germany had become an open market; there was little these nations could do but accept a mass influx of American films. Not only did the American government and private industry have a desire to see Europe become economically prosperous; they also wanted to ensure these countries felt positively about the American way of life. Spreading information through culture was a joint venture between industry and the state and provided one clear method to achieve the goal of influencing Europe’s views on America.
This message was also propagated through private endeavors such as the popular American magazines that pushed into the European market. For example, in the summer of 1946 the Time-Life empire launched a new international division which had the explicit purpose of broadening individual access to symbols of American culture. Henry Luce, the owner of Time, Life, and Fortune, coined the term the “American Century.” Published in February 1941, Luce wrote, “We are in a war to defend and even to promote, encourage, and incite so-called democratic principles throughout the world.” He continued this line of thought into the postwar era, outlining at Temple University’s commencement address in 1953 how America needed to defend its great liberal traditions against the communist threat. It was America’s mission, Luce argued, to save the world from “injustice and poverty and cruelty and ignorance.” One of the key aspects of American life that emerged from the liberal tradition was the freedom of choice stimulated by a capitalist free market economy, one that relied on a global open market. Given the ideas held by its owner, Life magazine had a profoundly internationalist outlook. One way in which Western Europe had access to these kinds of cultural products was through U.S. Information Centers, later known as American Houses, set up by USIA. These centers acted as lending libraries, reading rooms, galleries, theaters, and lecture halls, housing among other things, American books, magazines, music, and movies. According to the operating assumptions of the libraries, the intent was “to achieve and maintain the illusion of objectivity…Information centers are intended to support the interests of the American people.” While this might have been a government-directed cultural offensive, many of the most popular cultural products, such as Hollywood films or Life magazine, were the result of private initiatives.
Within the United States, politicians and cultural figures called for raising the standard of living in Europe after the war was over. Prosperity was seen as the key to maintaining peace. While food aid could not help but be distributed on an emergency basis in the immediate postwar period, something needed to be done in the long term to deal with the obvious disparity between American and European production. This was one of the goals of the Marshall Plan, which received coverage in Life magazine in a June 1948 article entitled “Western Europe Wears a New Look.” In this article, the author spoke of how Western Europe was recovering from the devastating effects of the Second World War, noting that “there is more food and trade is brisk.” However, the article warned that people were not completely out of danger, stating,
Even with our aid, Europeans during the Marshall years will on the whole eat less than 10 years ago…Full recovery depends on our help and their energies.
The article not only described the continued responsibility America had in postwar Western Europe but also demonstrated that food had become a central indicator of stability.
American interests promoted images of the vast diversity and mass production of manufactured foodstuffs and food preparation and storage items. These images were meant to demonstrate the industriousness of America and illustrated the value of the American way of life. The American kitchen was a symbol of American modernity. Not only was it displayed prominently at international exhibitions; it was also continuously marketed and exported abroad in film and print media. Photographs, newsreels, newspapers, ads, testimonials, and radio segments flooded Europe between 1945 and 1960. These kitchens representing American technological prowess exported the American ideal of abundance, especially of food. Images in magazines, advertisements, and films showed how the kitchen, especially the refrigerator and the shopping cart, represented virtual cornucopias meant to hold the plenty that the American way of life could offer.
Print media such as Life ran numerous editorials on American abundance, and the magazine’s wide international readership exported these ideas to the world. The magazine reached millions of Americans and was one of the most popular American magazines abroad once the war ended. While the war was wrapping up in the Pacific, Life ran an article in July 1945 on beef entitled “Beef: Its Dearth, Amid Plenty, Perplexes the U.S.” It noted that there were more cattle being raised for beef on American farms than ever before. While the article focused on consumer shortages, it noted that the bulk of it was still being shipped overseas due to the war. The article’s underlying message spoke to American agricultural skill and the long history of cattle raising in America. Such coverage presented America as a land that could produce a great deal of goods—the quantities of which surprised even those within the specific industries. Later that month, another article made a similar claim about clam surpluses, depicting diggers overwhelmed by the “big juicy clams” being harvested in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Articles like these projected the ease with which America produced abundant surpluses of foodstuffs and portrayed America as a land of plenty.
Just days before Japan’s capitulation, Life’s photo of the week was of an Ohio General Motors production plant where airplane propellers were being manufactured next to Frigidaire refrigerators. The image not only captured America’s industrial capabilities but also illustrated how industry would easily transition to the production of consumer goods following the war. Additionally, the item used to represent consumer goods was the defining feature of the modern American kitchen—the refrigerator, which was meant to hold the food products that could be produced from the nation’s agricultural plenty. For Life’s tenth anniversary in November 1946, the magazine sought to assess the state of the nation. The first page of this special editorial showed an image of a young boy standing next to a massive corn harvest that was almost quadruple his height and many times wider than he. Placing the small boy next to such an abundant haul of food was meant to symbolize the bounty of American agricultural production. Given Life’s international readership, this was a message not only for domestic consumption but also for external audiences. Such coverage revealed that America had recovered from the Great Depression as well as from the war and was producing at a rate that far surpassed individual need. In the same edition of Life, the magazine noted that the U.S. had become a world superpower and was fully aware of its newfound role. When taken together, these two ideas reveal a perception that abundance led to progress and success both domestically and on the world stage. Americans had triumphed over difficult times, and through export of their way of life, the nation would bring its ideological companions into an era of prosperity. Exporting these kinds of messages was one way in which American industry projected the country’s power on the world stage.
Advertisements also ensured that these kinds of values and ideals reached people abroad. Jackson Lears wrote,
Advertisements did more than stir up desire; they also sought to manage it—to stable the sorcery of the marketplace by containing dreams of personal transformation within a broader rhetoric of control. The urgency of that project was rooted in circumstances peculiar to Anglo-American Protestant culture: extraordinary natural abundance.
Advertisements were central to demonstrating America’s image as a land of abundance with the ability to manufacture and produce a vast array of consumer goods. Two key symbols that clearly portrayed this message were the refrigerator full of food and supermarket aisles with overflowing shopping carts. These were virtual cornucopias overflowing with the spoils of American prosperity. A trend in A&P supermarket ads following the war was that the size of the store being portrayed and the number of goods on display increased as the years progressed. An ad from July 1945 depicted two shoppers standing in a supermarket setting with their carts in the foreground. These people used carts that were much smaller than today’s traditional size, and each cart had an approximate average of seven unique items. While the size and number of visible items in the carts stayed roughly the same, another A&P ad from two years later clearly increased the number of visible items in the store and also increased the size of the store on display. This increase presented an image of American abundance but also facilitated the ideals of liberal capitalism, the vast freedom of choice that was possible within that kind of society.
Manufacturers advertised fridges full of food, and companies consistently emphasized just how much their models could hold. The increase in size of progressive refrigerator models followed the same trend as supermarket size. Westinghouse’s new fridge model for 1947 advertised that it could now hold food for seventy-six meals stored at two varying temperatures. This not only indicated the technological innovation of American manufacturing in regards to temperature control but also illustrated that the ideal was to pack as much food as possible into these machines. General Electric also boasted how its models increased capacity from year to year. A full page advertisement for the 1948 Space Maker Refrigerator illustrated how their earlier model had held less food than the new “Space Maker” by laying out the vast quantity of food that could be stored in front of the appliance.
American corporations successfully exported the pleasure, progress, and prosperity of the American way through the kitchen, the supermarket, and the refrigerator. Once modern consumerism emerged in Europe, the kitchen became the household’s new center of operation. It was managed by the housewife, and “Mrs. Consumer” was responsible for stocking her kitchen with the products of mass consumer society. The years from 1945 to 1960 were a time of great prosperity in America. Society and culture reflected this prosperity, further allowing America to showcase their abundance and wealth to the world. However, this was also an era of anxiety. The American public feared the threat of communism, which prompted mass conformity. Within this conformity, the image of the household and especially the happy housewife became central. Consumerism was not only a way to conform but also a means to protect both American and European society from the looming threat of communism.
Food products promoted this idea to other nations in order to persuade consumers to appreciate American goods. Instilling the desire for these items was a preventative measure against these societies’ potential move toward communism. David Potter, writing in 1954, noted that abundance “obviously must be a factor of immense importance in the daily lives of people that some habitually have more to eat, while others are habitually hungry.” He went on to say that Americans in 1949 consumed an average of 3,186 calories per day, while European national averages were between 2,200 and 2,700. He saw American abundance as a product of human endeavor and realized that freedom and abundance were fused together in American thought. In her study of women and American culinary culture that in the fifties, Sherrie Inness wrote,
The well-stocked kitchen became a symbol of the American dream.
This dream was clearly visible within the advertisements and editorials of Life magazine in the postwar years. “Mrs. Consumer” would stand smiling in awe around these wide open cornucopias. In this way, the fridge not only was the symbol of American abundance; it also came to symbolize domestic joy. In a Frigidaire ad from shortly after the war, a smiling mother and her three children look with delight into a well-stocked fridge. The ad asked, “Do you want these advantages in your next refrigerator?” The ad projected the belief that these kinds of kitchen appliances held the abundant bounty that American society could provide and that having these kinds of appliances literally brought happiness into the home.
Other kitchen appliances were also depicted as having the ability to provide these immaterial advantages. An ad from November 1946 for Hotpoint Electric Ranges depicted a husband, wife, and young son enjoying the benefits of American technology and stated that a new stove would “make good homes better!” Advanced technology led to better cooking and eating as well as overall better living. In Life’s tenth anniversary special edition of November 1946, the magazine ran a two page photo of a ranch-style home with the caption “Family Utopia.” The front lawn was scattered with an abundance of household appliances being moved into the house, and flying above the home was the family’s personal helicopter. While this was obviously not the reality of the average American, it was the goal. The fact that personal appliances such as fridges and stoves were placed on the same utopian level as a helicopter indicates just how much value American society put into these items. These goals of American society were transferred through print media to the eyes of European consumers through Life’s private push for international readership as well as the efforts of the American government through programs like USIA’s reading rooms. Print media aspired to project the success of the American lifestyle characterized by abundance, choice, prosperity, and progress in the hope that the people of Europe would reject communism and embrace the American way.
Prior to the creation of USIA, the Information Services Bureau (ISB) of the United States worked closely with Hollywood’s Motion Picture Export Association to ensure the flow of American productions into European markets. Created in the late 1940s, the association worked to “pool the best American films which best portray the American way of life.” The Motion Picture Association of America’s 1947 annual report stated that “the American Motion picture will carry the ideas of Canton, Ohio, to Canton, China; the point of view from Paris, Maine, to Paris, France.” The Hollywood film carried with it key elements of the American way of life, including individualism, competition, and the freedom of choice.
While American movies could carry overt anti-communist themes, such as I Married a Communist (1949), My Son John (1952), I was a Communist for the FBI (1952), or Red Snow (1952), many other films appeared to be largely devoid of ideology. However, within seemingly benign pictures with plot lines that appeared unrelated to the global power struggle, scenes of the American way of life and strongly held American ideals were subtly communicated to the European public. Films used food to spread American ideas about abundance and affluence.
According to Steve Zimmerman and Ken Weiss’s study Food in the Movies, there are three ways food can be used in film: first, as a prop; second, as a transition device (for example, to show time passing); and third, to reveal a person’s character. Another way in which food can function in movies is to reveal the national character of the country that produced the film. Moreover, food in films creates “an increased awareness of the links between production and consumption.” The choices about how food was portrayed reveals information not only about the characters but also about the society from which they originated.
Many of the Hollywood motion pictures that were exported had scenes of affluent life set in America. One of the key symbols of this prosperity was the display of abundant food. Giant (1956), starring Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson, depicted numerous family meals including an elaborate fourth birthday party and a Thanksgiving dinner. Both of these meals illustrated not only the affluence that the American way of life could provide for its citizens but also the abundant food that was available to be consumed. This kind of imagery was also present in Holiday Inn (1942), which was released in Europe following the war. Starring Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, and Marjorie Reynolds, this musical revolved around an inn that was only open for holiday festivities. The luxurious New Year’s Eve party included scenes within the kitchen, shown overflowing with different types of food. The way the scene was shot placed the food at the forefront of the screen, making it the center of the viewer’s attention, literally between the viewer and the actors. Another scene depicted one of the leads eating a Thanksgiving dinner alone with a massive turkey and multiple sides all to himself, demonstrating the abundance even individuals could enjoy in the United States.
Films also presented the image of domestic happiness in connection to the abundant lifestyle of Americans. One way this was depicted was through images of vast agricultural land and the wealth that could come from this kind of industry, as in The Egg and I (1947) starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray. MacMurray plays Colbert’s husband who decides to buy an abandoned chicken farm. While this film was meant to show the comical trials and tribulations of Colbert and her husband struggling to make the adjustment to rural farm life, their business took off despite numerous accidents and setbacks. Scenes of a neighboring farm and its advanced equipment also provided images of America’s technological achievements. Furthermore, after a wildfire destroys the main character’s farm, neighbors come to help the couple get back on their feet with donations of livestock, feed, and equipment. This, while obviously showing the good nature of the community, also presented the idea that these people have enough extra to give away. Another film where individuals appeared able to give away large amounts of food is Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). Cary Grant stars in this film about his two aunts and a cast of other strange characters. While food is not the central plot, the movie takes place on Halloween night, and when children come trick-or-treating, the aunts hand out whole pies and pumpkins. The fact that these two single women could just give away large amounts of food indicated that it was hardly scarce. These ideas about food may not be as blunt as some forms of propaganda that were used in the postwar period, but they clearly had a purpose. The export of ideas about food would have appeared very different to Europeans who had literally almost starved to death following the Second World War. Because of this, the abundance of the American way of life may have carried even more weight abroad.
The government also directly sought to promote the idea of American abundance abroad. Promoting U.S. technological innovation in the area of food preparation, production, and storage demonstrated American progress and prosperity to the world. The European exhibitions that the United States participated in between 1945 and 1960 represent some of the best examples of how the government endeavored to project its version of modernity onto the world stage. One early example came after the introduction of the Marshall Plan. In a 1952 household exhibit entitled “We’re Building a Better Life” was put in place at the George C. Marshall House in West Berlin. This house within the Marshall House presented not only an “ideal dwelling” but also propaganda for American technological advantages and consumerism. The kitchen within this “ideal” house was an “appliance-laden paradise” stocked full of food. Pictures of the exhibit show the fridge abundantly full, noting the American ideal of plenty and increased storage of goods at home, as opposed to the European lifestyle that involved more frequent trips to local markets. The exhibit was a huge attraction in Berlin; over half a million visitors attended with approximately 40% coming from East Germany. In this case, the American way of life, including the concepts of consumerism, technological innovation, and abundance were used as propaganda tools not only to protect Western Europe but also to entice those within the Soviet sphere.
Under President Eisenhower, the United States made efforts after 1956 to make “People’s Capitalism” the central theme of all overseas trade fairs. While this initiative was largely put in place in areas outside of Western Europe, it represented the administration’s desire to counter Soviet propaganda with America’s economic system. According to Walter Hixon, “People’s Capitalism” dealt with “man’s age-old dream of a life free from want” and the idea that dreams could be achieved through American science and technology.
At the Brussels Universal and International Exhibition, the American government attempted to project these ideals to the rest of the world, especially Europe. European countries also made a similar attempt: “Expo ‘58 represented for the host country and for Europe generally an opportunity to demonstrate the reconstruction and economic development that had taken place since the Marshall Plan.” While Americans did not have a model home at the Brussels Expo as they had had in Berlin, they did have “islands” of kitchen appliances which were meant to show the latest in kitchen and food preparation technology. What these “islands” in fact displayed was the abundance of choice available to American consumers within a liberal-capitalist economy. The ability to choose, to personalize, and to individualize one’s home was seen as critical to the American political and economic system and central to American culture overall.
One of the most successful initiatives within Cold War foreign policy is the cultural exchange agreement signed by the United States and the Soviet Union in January 1958. This agreement, initially put forward by the Soviets, allowed America to display their version of science and technology as yardsticks of progress directly on Soviet territory. Along with the exchange of students, instructors, and professors, the agreement arranged for reciprocal exhibitions to take place in the summer of 1959. The Soviets would host the Americans in Moscow, and, in turn, the Americans welcomed the Soviet Union to New York. This initiative allowed Washington to use the opportunity to “appeal to the peoples behind the Iron Curtain on the basis of the allure of Western ideas, symbols, and consumer culture.” Within these reciprocal state exhibitions, kitchens and kitchen technology became a contested area between the mass consumerism of America and the welfare state of the Soviet Union. At the Soviet exhibition, there were displays of kitchen technology. The Soviets had set up row upon row of kitchen appliances next to satellites and heavy machinery. This illustrated the Soviet perception that the kitchen was a critical site of technology. The way Americans displayed these items differed in the sense that they were not artifacts in and of themselves but existed within the American culture and value system. Americans displayed not only the theme of abundance and prosperity but also its technological achievement in areas related to food. According to Walter Hixon, the American national exhibition “signaled the ascendancy of the West in the Cold War.” Consumerism was not a sideshow of military or scientific technology but actually an internationalist ideology that took center stage at the Moscow Exhibition.
There were three model kitchens throughout the American exhibit, and the most well known is the one in which the “kitchen debate” between Vice President Richard Nixon and Premier Nikita Khrushchev took place. This was in the General Motors’ “lemon yellow” kitchen situated within a ranch-style home. The iconic debate between Nixon and Khrushchev took place on July 24, 1959, the opening day of the Exhibition. The two presidents broke from their discussion on military superiority to argue over household consumer appliances, demonstrating their importance on the world stage. Nixon specifically wanted to show Khrushchev the kitchen within the house and noted this was the newest model, which was available to even those in American society with modest budgets. While Khrushchev noted that the Soviet Union also had such things, this display was central to America’s conception of self as innovative. Nixon explained,
American houses last for more than twenty years, but, even so, after twenty years, many Americans want a new house or a new kitchen. Their kitchen is obsolete by that time…The American system is designed to take advantage of new inventions and new techniques.
In regards to the rate at which both superpowers were progressing, Nixon continued to put weight on consumer goods, stating, “There are some instances where you may be ahead of us—for example, in the development of the thrust of your rockets for the investigation of outer space. There may be some instances—for example, color television—where we’re ahead of you.” What the debate revealed was that both superpowers viewed kitchen technology as important but in different ways. America was clearly more concerned with the material prosperity of its society, and this was strongly tied to consumer technology. One of the reasons the kitchen became such a focus was because of the rate at which kitchen technologies were changing in this period. Furthermore, given the importance of food for survival, these places were seen as storehouses to protect the family from the potential dangers of starvation. Nations that produced such elaborate and technological methods to store food evidently had an abundance of goods, which projected the image that their people had prosperous lives.
The American exhibit in Moscow was such a success because it was essentially American tourism in reverse. It attempted to entice Soviet citizens into desiring American consumer goods, especially food and food preparation products. Furthermore, the vast variety of choice available to those with access to American consumer goods was put on display. Home economist Barbara Sampson used the Whirlpool gas kitchen to “serve 110 varieties of food including beef pies, fish dinners, biscuits, and Boston cream pie.” While this display was meant to demonstrate the ease with which one could cook using American-made kitchen technology, it also presented an image of American abundance and plenty. The excessive variety indicated the power of choice and that freedom to want and choose went hand in hand with American abundance and affluence.
The end of the Second World War created the opportunity for both the American and Soviet systems to lay claim to Europe. The Americans sought to contain communism, and one way that they attempted to do this was through the export of the American way of life. Previous scholarship has examined various spheres in which the United States sought to project power, including through politics, culture, economics, and food. This study differs in that it combines the long-standing conception of America as a land of abundance with its role in the international landscape. This theme was mobilized against the communist threat in defense of the liberal-capitalist world order that America sought to create and maintain in the postwar period. Given the state of Europe following the war, abundance, especially abundance of food, was a very enticing aspect of the United States. The Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan facilitated the spread of ideas regarding food that came from America’s projection of itself as a land of plenty. As Europe became the site of the battle for hearts and minds, the cornucopia-like symbols of the fridge and the supermarket acted as key tools used by film, print media, and the American government, to articulate their values and way of life abroad. Americans successfully portrayed their nation as a land of progress and prosperity through the invocation of this theme of plenty and the spread of American ideas about food. In the case of Western Europe, the United States’ projection of abundance successfully contained the Soviet threat of expansion.
Samantha Desroches is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Western Ontario, Canada. She holds a MA in history from York University, where she graduated with distinction. Her research interests include the power and politics of food in connection with holidays and consumer culture. Her dissertation looks at Christmas in twentieth-century America to evaluate the way the holiday functions within the public sphere and the power it has over individual lives.