Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Instructions for Everyday Life: Homecraft & Romance

This past semester, I wrote a term paper titled Instructions for Everyday Life: Pornographies of Comfort and Instruments of Hope in Homecraft Magazines, 1945-2006. In it, I compared Popular Homecraft magazine to a more modern invention: ReadyMade magazine. It was an experimental sort of paper, full of ideas I was just barely starting to have. I learned a great deal from it, but I want to keep learning more. This is one in a long series of posts where I shamelessly lift material from term papers because I think they're neat. If by some miracle you'd like to read more, you know where to find me! diana (dot) kimball (at) gmail (dot) com. The thesis here is by no means set in stone, so please do send me your thoughts; I will refine accordingly. Here we go!

Instructions for Everyday Life
Pornographies of Comfort and Instruments of Hope in Homecraft Magazines, 1945-2006.

A woman stands, surrounded by flowers, in an ambiguous room. It is January, 1946, and World War II has just ended. The woman wears a blue, flowered dress that falls to just below her knees. She stands against an ivory curtain covered in orange blooms. Around her neck, there are three strands of pearls. To her right stand a chair, table, and a mirror; at first glance, she appears to be gesturing toward them. She looks straight into the camera. The smile on her face says that she is pleased. On second glance, though, it becomes clear that she is lighting a candle—the first of two. This furniture has been made expressly for her, by a man whose intentions are suspect. The man is visible in a black-and-white series of insets below, hard at work constructing a period framed mirror; a Sheraton style chair; an 18th-century console table. The finished objects, basking in the soon-to-be candlelight above, are beautifully turned-out. He has covered them in flowers, too. (No wonder the woman is happy.) Maybe she is his wife, maybe his lover. Maybe she is a figment of his imagination. But the chair, table, and mirror are very real to the man in the picture, and they mean something to him. They mean that the woman, figment or not, is happy, beaming, lighting a candle; ready to undress, remove her pearls, and abandon her flowers for his bed.

This staged fantasy was plastered onto the cover of the January 1946 issue of Popular Homecraft: The Home Workshop Magazine. Popular Homecraft was a magazine for homesick men. As such, it trafficked in the pornography of comfort. Whether these men were unsettled husbands or soldiers returning from war, Popular Homecraft invited them to cure their homesickness with instructions for building homes. Not houses; homes. After all, homecraft—like witchcraft—contains an element of trickery. Build the furniture, captivate the woman. The woman will make the home. Without her in the picture, it's just a room full of false and desperate flowers.

Almost 60 years later, we find another fantasy altogether. It is 2005, at Thanksgiving. Against a cool blue backdrop—more laboratory than dining room—a woman stands. A man sits. A beautiful, plasticine turkey looms in front of the man, on what looks like a spotless melamine table. The man could be, might be, a mannequin; his stare is forward and blank. Behind him stands the woman. She might be his wife, or his girlfriend. Either way, her intentions are suspect. Her tight, ruffled blouse is ivory, and covered in roses. She leans over the man's shoulder, wielding a cobalt-blue blowtorch. She gently flames the turkey, while the man sits immobile. He smiles vacantly into space; she flirts with the camera. It is as though she has stopped time. While she puts the finishing touches on an exquisite, eerie Thanksgiving dinner, the man waits patiently. His patience is a prop. The beautiful woman, cooking with power tools, is a vaporous role model. Her occult powers—the ability to stop time, to do everything, and to look good while doing it—are terrifying and alluring. She does not wear safety goggles. She does not need to.

This image is lifted from the cover of ReadyMade, a magazine for hopesick women. The hope in question is a doomed desire to do everything at once—make a home, make babies, make careers for themselves—while at the same time doing nothing, staying young and fresh and free. ReadyMade, a 21st century invention, offers "instructions for everyday life." Occasionally, these instructions veer into the territory of plywood and power tools; the Thanksgiving cover above promises not only a "simple holiday menu," but also instructions for pouring a concrete tabletop. More than amateur construction, though, ReadyMade is a magazine about homecraft for modern women. How does a 21st century woman create a home? With a blowtorch? By stopping time? The covers of ReadyMade are always the same: one handsome man and one lovely, mischievous woman. Ostensibly, it is a magazine that young couples can share. There is nothing about it that is overtly feminine. But this, too, is part of the fantasy: a romantic partnership, in which cooking, cleaning, and building are retrieved from their gender-specific domains and set adrift in the realm of togetherness. The men in ReadyMade are always well-groomed, always patient, always appreciative. They are rarely doing anything.

Advertisers in ReadyMade understand these hopesick women....

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diana (dot) kimball (at) gmail (dot) com for more! At your own risk...

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Practical Magic

1 comment:

Annemarie said...


i like it. i also like that you're blogging more. i do not like that you're so far away. :(

but i like you! bittersweet.