The idea of writing a book about the history of American housewares might strike most people as a big yawn, but not Victoria Matranga. "I love all this stuff," said Matranga, an avid collector of 20th century housewares. "The challenge was narrowing it down."
And where others might see only a stream of lamps, toasters, irons and skillets, Matranga sees a lively chronicle of how a nation has shopped, cooked and cleaned over the past century: The fact that wooden clothespins were long a household staple says a lot about women's work.
"The theme I was working on from the start was how all these household tools reflect our behavior," she said. "I am not an anthropologist, but this is what interested me."
Her book, "America at Home: A Celebration of Twentieth-Century Housewares," is being unveiled this week at the National Housewares Manufacturers Assn. Centennial Show in Chicago's McCormick Place. Not only does Matranga have a bachelor's degree in the history of architecture and art, she has run the association's student design competition since 1992. And as a museum consultant on the history of industrial design, she said, "I had a vision in my mind about American life and particularly the life of women."
Her collaborator was designer Karen Kohn, who helped her focus on what kind of images to seek for the 208-page, richly illustrated book. "I have three children and she has two," Matranga said, "so here were two moms writing about housework and cleaning when neither of us does much of either one."
Haunting estate sales, museums and corporate offices, she discovered it was easier to find items from the 1920s than from the 1980s, when so many mergers led to the disappearance of corporate archives. She treasures such social indicators as the 1914 egg cooker that plugged into the light socket: "That means you had to make a choice--eggs or the light?" It also had a replacement fuse because of the burnout rate.
Sometimes products got a push from the manufacturer. Although electricity was produced only during the evening in the early 1900s, (lights being the only appliance), the maker of the Hotpoint iron built demand by convincing the utility company to provide electricity on Tuesdays, the traditional ironing day.
Not only food preparation, but food choices have changed, Matranga writes. Appliances for cooking six eggs or hot dogs at a time are no longer needed, but tools for squeezing orange juice haven't changed much.
"America at Home" is a story of accelerating change. Suburbs mushroomed after World War II; kitchens grew, shrank and grew again; and technology increasingly invaded the home.
From the early 1900s when appliances were heavy, expensive and a sign of wealth to today's $58 billion outpouring of stylish products for every conceivable need, Americans have been the consumer society, she said. "No other country has even had the space we have to fill with things."
And although everybody wants, and expects, the latest, many housewares are treasured for their nostalgic value, such as the Art Deco-brushed aluminum cocktail shakers and smoking accessories of the post-Prohibition 1930s.
Some objects have disappeared (a lumbering three-level 1924 "table stove" cooked toast, eggs and gravy) and others have lasted, she said: "People still love the swing-away can opener, made since 1965."
* "America at Home," published by the NHMA, can be ordered ($40 plus tax and shipping) by calling (800) THE NHMA, Ext. 175.