Man at the stove, an eternal struggle?
Man at the stove, an eternal struggle? Illustration: Marco Heer

A man at the stove

What images of a man’s role were disseminated in Switzerland’s mainstream visual media in the 1950s? After World War II ended, people were looking for alternatives to the traditional image of the family man, and a lot of men found themselves standing at the kitchen stove.

Anna Lehninger

Anna Lehninger

Anna Lehninger is an art historian and lives in Zurich.

A dashing young bachelor in striped socks, with a modish little hat perched on his head, a neat checked apron somewhat carelessly tied, intrepidly flipping a pancake out of the frying pan – who knows where it’s going to land! In any case, the whole endeavour seems to be great fun, and according to the special edition on home economics issued by Switzerland’s Familienwochenzeitung magazine, that’s what cooking should be: fun and frolicsome.

Average man – great cook

The Swiss graphic artist Donald Brun (1909-1999), who was famous for his advertising posters, created the cover image, and the drawings inside the magazine were produced by artist and illustrator Hanny Fries (1918-2009). These pictures introduce kitchen novices to the art of cooking, in a fun and entertaining way. With recipes ranging from easy to more ambitious projects, delivered in a humorous tone, the ABC of cooking is explained. From cauliflower to Wiener Schnitzel, from the secrets of boiling an egg to the art of washing a lettuce – it’s all here. After a course of careful study the well-trained cook, strutting about his fully equipped kitchen, will have mastered ‘variations on the schnitzel’. But he is advised to arm himself with a hat and gloves when turning an omelette, lest too vigorous a swing should make the omelette stick to the ceiling and then drop down again. Cooking can be a game for children, a game which the man masters both effortlessly and elegantly, without the slightest fear of contact with home and hearth.
Average man – great cook, special edition on home economics, cover illustration by Donald Brun, December 1950.
Kleiner Mann – grosser Koch (Average man – great cook), special edition on home economics, cover illustration by Donald Brun, December 1950. Swiss National Museum

Self-sufficient provider on his island

This househusband was following in the very capable footsteps of a man who was, at the time, more than 250 years older: Robinson Crusoe. A 1951 collector’s scrapbook produced by Silva Verlag, featuring pictures by Hugo Laubi (1888-1959) – now one of the classics of Swiss card collector scrapbooks – was dedicated to the famous shipwreck survivor. Forced by circumstances beyond his control to engage in the domestic arts, the castaway learns everything a man living alone on an island needs to be able to do: growing grain, harvesting and grinding it and making bread out of the flour – in an oven he built himself, of course. Left to his own devices, the unintentional hermit also has to wash, sew and cook: he makes clothes out of skins, and the famous umbrella and hat to protect himself from the scorching sun. Acquiring these skills is not entirely unproblematic for the islander, unskilled as he is in household chores, but despite setbacks he gradually learns how to do all these things. After all, he has no alternative.
The original househusband: Robinson Crusoe, illustrated by Walter Paget, 1896.
The original househusband: Robinson Crusoe, illustrated by Walter Paget, 1896. Wikimedia / British Library
Laubi depicts Robinson bent over his sewing, completely at home: placidly smoking, with his dog for company, he sits surrounded by household items in his cave, happily working away on his fur jacket. The rifle hanging within easy reach doesn’t seem out of place in the picture; it’s a reminder of the dangerous living conditions of a solitary man in an inhospitable environment. The inventiveness with which Crusoe set to work was a recurring subject of illustrations in other children’s books, and iconic images were created of a self-sufficient provider – despite, or perhaps precisely because of, his ability to take on tasks that were seen at the time as ‘unmanly’, he became an all-rounder. Only by learning to do tasks which for centuries had been considered part of the ‘female’ realm, such as finding food, making clothing and taking care of hygiene, is he able to survive.
Robinson Crusoe from a Silva Verlag collector’s scrapbook, 1951.
Robinson Crusoe from a Silva Verlag collector’s scrapbook, 1951. Silva Verlag /Hugo Laubi

A doll’s house

Just a few years later, however, an image from the ‘Schweizerische Ausstellung für Frauenarbeit’ (SAFFA), the Swiss Exhibition for Women’s Work, painted a very different picture of man and domesticity. Staged as a doll’s house scene, the man is lost in his thoughts, separate from the rest of the household: waiting expectantly he sits in shirt and tie, recently home from work, at the table of a trendy kitchen-dining room, and looks on idly as his wife and daughter work at the stove. There’s no trace here of the application of the skills that could be learned in the home economics magazines or any self-directed autonomy à la Crusoe. The message is clear – household tasks such as cooking are women’s work, and it’s best if the man just sits by and watches. What happened? Had the man – by the 1950s, long since home from the border duty he’d been doing in World War II – now suddenly slipped back into his traditional role as provider and family man? Had the patriarchal 1950s pattern of women and family once again overthrown the female emancipation achieved when the men were away at the war? The fact that this image was staged specifically at an official showcase on women’s work is no coincidence; it’s a conscious pointer to a grievance.
Model of a kitchen at the Swiss Exhibition for Women’s Work, 1958.
Model of a kitchen at the Swiss Exhibition for Women’s Work, 1958. Swiss National Museum / ASL
According to this scene staged with dolls, by the end of the decade the male affinity for domestic matters, like a pendulum, has swung from a tentative and curious approach to the stove back to an arm’s-length relationship. Iris von Roten’s book Frauen im Laufgitter (Women in the playpen), demanding equal rights for women, was published in 1958: likewise, not a coincidence. A year later, the SAFFA exhibition celebrated women’s work in Switzerland and, among other things, portrayed housework for what it is: work. Work which, unlike men’s work outside the home, is not remunerated. The pendulum didn’t swing back again until 10 years later in 1968, when the ‘new’ father (and househusband) entered the social arena and ushered in a new idea of masculinity.

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