But then American industry, for the sake of more efficient production, needed (and still needs) standards. Two decades after Frederick created her chart, standardization took over, and not just in the U.S., but in other parts of the world too. The tailor-made kitchen was gone. While it’s easy enough to make adjustable chairs and bikes, it’s much harder to build customization into an entire room filled with chunks of wood and granite wedged between heavy, expensive, factory-made appliances.
Standards crept in to guide not just activities, as Frederick had in mind, but physical objects too. And modernist aesthetics—simple forms with little ornamentation, clean 90-degree angles—became the norm.
That didn’t bode well for the woman for whom this new, uniformly-sized kitchen was being designed and made. The sink was the first kitchen object to be standardized. It became part of the continuous countertop—a single height dipping or lifting for no appliance, a look that fell in line perfectly with modernism’s minimalist lines. Everything else rose to meet the sink—the counters, the stove, the cabinets all converged at 36 inches above the floor, writes Leslie Land in her study of modernism and kitchens. That was much too high for the 5-foot-3 average-height woman of the time (and too high even for today’s average 5-foot-4 American woman).
Maybe that height was because that 31-inch sink base—which was actually close to a suitable height for a 5-foot-3 woman—made the lip of the sink an ad-friendly yardstick high. Maybe it was because, as Land writes, another engineer, Lillian Gilbreth, had a 5-foot-7 woman in mind when she designed demonstration kitchens, with their layouts based on motion studies of women at work. Maybe it was arbitrary. No matter—it was set, giving society a yardstick by which to measure the woman and her space alike. In ads, you can see her standing next to her sink, appliance-installation man on bent knee holding a ruler and looking up longingly.
These new kitchens may have looked different, but they posed the same dilemma: They were either a way to make unavoidable work less onerous, furnished with objects that supposedly fit women specifically, or a way to make sure the kitchen was fit for only women, specifically. Was the new kitchen a realistic response to the existing societal structures that held women in kitchens? Or did it end up reinforcing sexism by pronouncing the kitchen a space made specifically to fit women’s bodies?
With designs based on simplified ideals, not reality, women became misfits in their own kitchens and clothes alike. Today, our kitchens still have 36-inch everything, and they still have women in them, mostly; in heterosexual couples in the U.S., women cook 78 percent of dinners and buy 93 percent of the food. And though we eat fewer home-cooked meals and more commercially prepared foods, the ads for these foods still feature, for the most part, stereotypically nurturing women, smiling mothers whose primary concern is caring for their families and who, in their caricatures, stand for a commercialized version of the modern woman: someone who is productive but still feminine.