FIFTY YEARS AGO this month, 10 retail stores in Springfield, Mass., displayed 26 items of frozen foods. Springfield had been chosen by the Postum Co. as the test market for the experiment. Life has not been the same since.
The idea had occurred to Clarence Birdseye, a man who looked much like his name, while he was on a biological expedition to Labrador in 1912-15. He had noticed that fish which was frozen naturally by subzero temperatures was still fresh when it was thawed. For 10 years he labored to discover the method by which this process could be repeated arificially. His name is, of course, now a brand.
This was one of those small inventions which in fact have caused revolutions. Even at the time of the introduction of frozen foods, the Ladies' Home Hournal foresaw at least something of what would happen. There would in the future be, "not a grocery store, or a meat market, or a fish market, or a delicatessen. It will be all four rolled into one. It is a food store in the broadest sense."
Frozen foods were the heralds of the supermarket.In the years after the Second World War, British visitors to the United States wrote about the supermarket in their journals and letters homr, and were enthralled and a little shocked by it. As late as 1965, when I first came to America, a supermarket was the first thing my English hostess took me to see the morning after I touched down at Dulles Airport.We had monuments and art galleries and fine buildings at home -- we even had a Mall -- but we did not have these cathedrals of a new civilization.
I did indeed walk around it as if it were Chartres. The aisles and transepts seemed to stretch as far as in the greatest cathedrals in Europe. The roof valuted above me. There was even the faint sound of organ music, and I looked about me to find the organ loft. Deacons and deaconesses took the collection as one left. The congregation moved in an intricate but orderly procession. Clearly this was not a trifling innovation in the history of man, but told of changes as great as when he first became a carnivore.
And always down the aisles are the long rows of freezers, laid open to our eyes, the soul of the supermarket, still the magnet that lures the worshippers to it. We venerate Edison for his electric light, Marconi for the wireless. Why not Birdseye for his wondrous invention?
Let us try to measure the revolution. Whenever the changes in the institution of marriage are being discussed, an American friend of mine will usually cut through the cackle with the observation: "My mother and father never thought of getting divorced for two reasons: They both thought that they would burn in hellfire if they did, and there had to be someone to make the preserves to get them through the winter." We no longer feel the flames of hellfire licking at our backs, and the preserving is done all year round by the followers of Birdseye.
It is interesting to see the number of men who are shopping for themselves in a supermarket and, when they empty their carts at the checkout counters, it is even more interesting to see how much frozen food and how little fresh food they are buying. They need no one to make the preserves, and year by year this is true of more and more people, of the singles of both sexes who now teem in the supermarket, and of the married women who now to to work, and so of the families with two wage earners.
It is too often not recognized that one of the causes of the new feminism in recent years has been that wives have become more and more unnecessary in the home. It is not so much that women were being kept in the home in the 1950s -- the main burden of Betty Friedan's lament in "The Feminine Mystique" -- as that they were being kept there when creasingly there was less and less for them to do. There was certainly less for them to do that was rewarding because it called for the exercise of many skills.
The work of a housewife once was as much tied to the seasons as that of a farmer out in the fields. Vegetables came in their due seasons, and had not only to be prepared for eating then, but had to be preserved for the winter. Modern homes do not have larders. I remember them as a boy and indeed well into manhood: places of stone floors and stone shelves, which used to be emptied by the end of each winter, and then were filled with glass jars and earthenware crocks, until by November they were bulging.
The plums would seems to bulge in their jars, and were arranged in patterns as intricate as a mosaic. This was not only because, if they were packed carefully in the jars, they would be less likely to spoil; it was also an expression of pride in a job that was worth doing, and so doing well, no less than the care with which the reaper in the field would bind the shelves.
When each layer of the beans had been salted down in their crock, they were again arranged as carefully as a pattern of the fanciest needlework, and again there was a purpose in the pride, because the more evenly they were arranged, the less likely that any would go bad.
Of course this was labor, if one likes to call it that, but it was labor as dignified as any man's, in field or factory, and perhaps more dignified than in most offices where women now work.
Then there was the baking. My grandmother used to set aside a day for the baking. She did not leave that to the servants. At 8 o'clock each Monday morning, she sat down in the kitchen, the pots and the bowls and the pans, the flour and the sugar and the currants, all arranged about her in arm's reach, and she did not finish until 4 in the afternoon, when breads and cakes and biscuits galore, enough for a large household for a week, stood on their racks on every tabletop in the kitchen, rank upon rank of them, which made the eyes of a small boy grow as large as saucers.
My own enjoyment of cooking was absorbed, without any teaching, by watching my mother as a boy, when I came home from school and sat on a table, my legs swinging as I chattered of school, and she cooked and baked. I remember one of her arts in particular. She had only the oven of a coal-fired range in which to bake. There was no thermostat to tell her the heat. She would just pass her hand through the oven, stoke the fire again, or bank it down, until her hand told her that the heat was right.
She had no prepared or frozen ingredients, yet not one of her spongecakes was ever flat, ever too dry or too moist or too brown or too light, even though she might decide just to whip it up on the spot, as six children trundled home one by one from school. Dignity? It would be hard today to find the equal.
So by the 1950s in America, and to a lesser extent now also in Europe, the women at home had been reduced to idleness. Such chores as remained had none of the reward or dignity of labor about them. In performing them, the housewife was the adjunct of her gadgets, the creature of them. It was not that housework was labor that was intolerable, but the labor had lost its vitality and meaning. The idle housewife had in face become a drudge.
And at the heart of this revolution was the invention of Birdseye, just as the larder has been replaced at home by the refrigerator and the freezer, and the jars and the crocks by packaging that is thrown away. It may all seem to be progress, or at least to make possible some new progress, but it is worth understanding what has happened, and it is not that housework is demeaning, but that the kind of housework left to most women has lot its purpose. It used to be as life-giving to the housewife as to those for whom the labor was done. It drew its own life from the seasons.
Many of the false directions in which the women's movement has started in recent years have been due to this failure to understand the nature of the real revolutions in our lives, and this applies no less to others: to changes in the family and in marriage, which need not necessarily be attributed to alarming shifts in morals or even mores. The importance of remembering Clarence Birdseye is that it helps us to look at the real things that are happening to us, just as Pandit Nehru's sister once said to me, "The only birth control device that we need in India is the electric light in every home at night." Today she could add television.
But that is another anniversary.