Ladies and Gentlemen: Ida Bailey Allen
(Ida Cogsworth Bailey Allen for those sticklers for propriety.)
As a vintage lover, I am naturally a collector. My key collection focuses on cookbooks, homemaking guides and home economics textbooks from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day. I have so many gems that it’s time they took a walk into the world! So welcome to the first of a series:
The History of Homemaking: An Occasional Series from a Private Collection
First up: 104 Prize Radio Recipes (1926) by Ida Bailey Allen
Apparently, Allen’s amazing homemaking radio program shot cooking rays right onto your stovetop. Talk about a time saver!
Born in 1885, Allen was a celebrity lifestyle guru who sat atop a multi-media empire–an early 20th-century Martha Stewart if you will. (One of the key takeaways when studying history is that our sense that we are living in new and innovative times is really just an innate part of human psychology, rather than fact.) Allen was a prolific cookbook author (she wrote over fifty cookbooks, and the last one was published the year of death in 1973, when Allen was 88,) a radio and television host, a champion domestic advice giver, and one of the first to recognize the power of spot advertising as a way to build audience and media power.
104 Prize Radio Recipes leads off with a wish (and the motto of The National Radio Homemakers Club, an organization founded by Allen):
“Let us have better, happier homes and mutual helpfulness.” A sentiment that doesn’t feel particularly dated taken by itself. Of course, that’s not always the case in a domestic advice guide from 1928.
The most revealing section of the book considers mixing homes and careers. On one level, Allen’s advice seems to be a cheerleader for the cause. On the other, here’s how Allen closes out this essay:
“There is something you can do somewhere.
Perhaps you an shop. Professional shoppers earn good livings.
Perhaps you can make good cake, jam or doughnuts. Superlative cooking has made many fortunes.
Perhaps you sew well and rapidly–make original children’s clothes, dance extremely well, are successful in supervising servants, know the care of face or hair, how to get together lovely costumes for little money. Maybe you can grow flowers or do beautiful embroidery.
The world is full of things for women to do.
There is a place for you.”
Unless, it seems, your talents lie in the sciences, for example.
I’m not here to condemn Allen, because part of the lost history of early homemaking proponents was an attempt to legitimize women’s work in the home. The idea was that homemaking was a profession as worthy of study and rigorous analysis as any other, and I don’t necessarily disagree. What offends is he limitation of this role for only women, the extreme division of labor into “men’s work” and “women’s work,” and the tiny sphere that this movement allows women.
Even so Allen’s influence was wide-reaching, and I do love that even my random copy of this book features the pencil markings of a previous owner:
At the end of the day, what attracts me most to the books I collect, and 104 Prize Radio Recipes is no exception, are the extreme contradictions and troublesome history of the home economics movement.
Here’s Allen quoted in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (December 29, 1939):
“Most of the heads of radio corporations haven’t considered women at all. I have met women all over the country and found them possessed of a high order of intelligence.” That sounds alright, no? Then the Post-Gazette writer (Mrs. Walter Ferguson) goes on to say herself that “Homemaking these days is not a job that can be successfully carried on by a romantic nitwit,” which leads us to Allen’s famous quote, “good home cooking was an antidote to the rising divorce rate.” Oh, Ida.
Still, Allen knew a thing or two about building a media empire, the power of building a networked legion of fans (modern mommy blogs, anyone?) and cooking on a budget.
I don’t wish her to be forgotten.