With The Great Gatsby in theaters and everyone suddenly falling in love with the glamor of the 1920s, now’s a fitting time to take a look at one of the Machine Age’s legendary machines. What’s more, unlike Model A’s and Victrolas, this one never went out of style. It’s the KitchenAid stand mixer, introduced in the ’20s, made famous in the ’40s and still the king of the countertop.
At first glance, these ads from 1946 and today are emblematic of the power of heritage branding. The mixer that was a sleek, solid appliance in kitchens of yesteryear has, with very few changes, magically become the consummate retro status symbol. How else to explain the shift from busy-baking housewife to the sexy close-up shot of that buxom, seven-quart bowl? But according to Janie Curtis, lead brand architect for the Telocity Group, the resurgence of retro styling is just one part of the mix here.
“On the surface these are very different ads,” she said. “But if you look closer, you’ll see that they’re both saying the same thing. What’s being reflected is stylistically different but strategically similar.” Put another way, while this mighty little mixer represents all the good things that progressive modernity implies, it’s also an uncomfortable reminder of how far we haven’t come.
In 1919, a housewife invited to test a new countertop mixer called the H-5 exclaimed, “I don’t care what you call it, but I know it’s the best kitchen aid I’ve ever had!” That’s how the machine got its name. It got its following when an all-female sales force—unheard of at the time—sold the 65-pound machine door to door. Pricey as it was, the KitchenAid was an enormous hit: 20,000 sold in three years. Its many innovations included a “planetary action” mixing bowl and a slew of attachments that cut baking time in half. One early promo even promised men that they could “keep your wife young” by buying her the labor-saving appliance. It’s a theme that carries through the 1946 ad here: The wife with the KitchenAid enjoys “more power” to her.
As Curtis observes, the promise of top performance has, like the mixer itself, remained largely unchanged. The 2013 ad speaks of power, too—the ability to make “more batches” with a “magnificent mixing muscle.” And yet, even as a beautifully styled photograph of the machine has replaced the stereotypical happy housewife motif, Curtis finds a chilly undercurrent to consumers’ love affair with chrome-slathered industrial appliances like the KitchenAid.
“Everyone is falling in love with retro design, but my perspective is that the marketing is polarized,” Curtis said. “While we love the sleek, clean, vintage lines, we’re also at the human stage right now where we’re all a bit insecure and are looking subconsciously back to remind ourselves of an old time when everyone was in love with grandma and cookies.” Curtis adds that, while there may be no housewife in the 2013 ad, the copy is still addressing her—and whispering the same message: cook more, bake more, work more. “There isn’t much difference between ‘More Power to You’ and more power to help you make more recipes,” Curtis noted. “The message to women, sadly, is unchanged.”
Still, you have to admit, it’s one beautiful looking mixer.