Two compact shows at the Wolfsonian-FIU examine how profoundly women’s lives changed in the first part of the 20th century, through advances in technology and industrialization, wartime realities and social expectations. Since this is the Wolfsonian, the stories are told with posters, design objects and household items, but each show is centered around a specific theme.
Modern Meals: Remaking American Foods from Farm to Kitchen isn’t entirely about women. However, as food production and cooking has traditionally been the province of women, any changes in how we eat would affect them first and foremost. We discover this in the four sections in which this exhibit is divided, each highlighting significant trends and events that changed history.
In colorful images of rural farm scenes in the first section, Food Industries, the mighty, shiny new machines, the tractors and threshing machines that would transform not just farming but where we live are depicted. As the small farm disappeared, several things occurred: People moved to the cities, and our ability to produce massive quantities of food skyrocketed.
For the woman of the house, a move to suburbia meant kitchens equipped with modern appliances and stores stuffed with frozen and prepackaged food — shaving off hours of time spent cooking up meals. We see some of the handsome stoves — electric ranges they were once termed — one of which is quaintly called “The Modern Maid for the Modern Mother.” One poster titled “The Great Minneapolis Line 1917” shows the transport of tons of grain from the vast Midwestern farms, the breadbasket that would feed the exploding urban population.
An interesting section, “Food is a Weapon,” may surprise visitors as it lays out the extensive repercussions the two world wars had on food production and consumption, and therefore again on women’s everyday lives. One example: Feeding huge armies stationed all over the globe meant developing sophisticated preservative and shipping technologies. When the wars ended, it left America eating some foods they never had access to before, items that would last in the cupboard for years.
As a small sidebar to this section is the regional one, about how oranges from Florida citrus groves found their way into every kitchen by the 1950s in the form of juice, frozen and in cartons. There’s a great, early Sunkist juicer here. Other items in the show include some funky 1920s tableware and a gorgeous toaster.
The second exhibit is called Women in Motion, about the 20th century phenomenon of women joining sports and more metaphorically becoming active. This is a the slighter of the two exhibits, the examples not as strong. But what’s interesting is that images of the “new” fit woman are not just concentrated on the United States but come from Germany, France, Russia and — running across a large screen on one wall of the sixth floor — from Hungary. Thousands of Hungarian girls are marching, synchronizing their aesthetic moves in an eerie black-and-white film from 1937; a fascist Hungary would join Germany just a few years later.
With the two exhibits, we see how women in a relatively short, 50-year period increasingly left the kitchen, took jobs and even participated in what was once purely a man’s world, sports.