Household appliances

Curious about the novel discussed in yesterday’s post, I did a little digging. You can’t find out much about it on Google (or on Bing for that matter), but a visit to the old stacks of the New York Public Library reveals some surprising things. It seems there was an entire literary movement in the early part of the twentieth century that featured illicit affairs between humans and their (then newfangled) electrical appliances.

A robust underground publishing industry sprang up to fill this need, in magazines with names like “Bakelite!”, containing shocking stories with plots ranging from dalliances between fair damsels and their alarm clocks to secret midnight trysts between ardent young men and their waffle irons. There was a certain sameness to these tales, an underlying dramatic arc that was rigidly adhered to. This is not surprising – structural predictability is common to all genres of erotica down through the ages. Invariably the human half, who is inevitably portrayed as young, attractive, with excellent prospects, first notices the appliance under somewhat hazy circumstances. There is generally an early scene of “plugging in” (my research indicates that this was the preferred term of art), a phrase which refers to the first moment that the appliance is seen to operate – at which point the young man or woman is instantly smitten.

The dearth of opportunities for conversation between human and appliance seems to be central to the allure of these romances. Apparently the enigmatic nature of the electromechanical Other is crucial to its appeal. Not surprisingly, there is little or no representation in the genre of dalliances between human and telephone, or radio, or any other household appliance that might incorporate a human voice. The possibility of true communication would negate the essential mystery.

The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 seems to have put an end to this odd form of literary expression, and for a time it was forgotten entirely. But shortly after World War II a new generation of scholars rediscovered the form. You may recall that the period immediately following W.W.II was a time of renewed interest in all things Freudian – fascination with the unconscious mind and its desires was finding expression in genres as diverse as feature films and comic books.

During this period a number of doctoral dissertations appeared, each positing a theory for the brief but spectacular popularity of Appliance Erotica, as it came to be called. Some of these theses are interesting in their own right, notably “Running Hot and Cold: The Water Tap as an Agent of Seduction” (Harvard Press, 1950), “The Auto, the Erotic and the Autoerotic: Mythopoesis of the Household Station Wagon” (Yale University Press, 1948), “The Brave Little Toaster: Kitchen Implement as Transgressive Seducer in American Fiction” (Princeton, 1951). This last thesis was eventually adapted into a well received animated film by the Walt Disney Company, although in a form so changed as to be essentially unrecognizable.

This show of interest in academic circles was, alas, short-lived. By 1952 the rise to power of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Unamerican Activities Committee made it politically untenable to pursue such areas of intellectual inquiry – even tenured faculty were not immune to scrutiny.

The government made it clear that household appliances were sacrosanct, a part of the wholesome American dream. Key members of Congress felt that any attempt to unduly eroticize an appliance must surely be symptomatic of a larger pattern of communist infiltration. It was during the widely seen “Waring Testimony” of January 1953, when Fred Waring himself – beloved bandleader and radio star, and inventor of the eponymous food processor – famously declared “I unplug my blender at night.”

Around this time the federal government began a stealth propaganda campaign to fight the pernicious threat of appliance love, thought by many to be a plot by the Kremlin to corrupt America’s youth. Young people were exhorted to “keep it clean with your machine.” In advertisements around this time, the iconography of the kitchen and its electrical appliances began to project a peculiarly – even perversely – wholesome image.

Soon the love of appliances lost its erotic frisson. Functional objects ceased to hold sexual allure, reverting back to the mere machines they were. Eventually everyone realized that the entire movement had been a form of collective madness, an aberrant loss of judgement on the part of otherwise sane and intelligent people. Americans would never again make complete idiots of themselves by foolishly looking upon a mere man-made object – a thing of buttons and electrical parts – with unbridled and wanton desire.

Except, of course, for the iPhone.

One Response to “Household appliances”

  1. Johannes says:

    Did you write these two blog post with the last line (the iPhone) in mind? Or did that idea come up towards the end? Oh. And guess with what kind of device I write these words. Its not made by Singer or Pfaff…

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