Gizmos and Gadgets in the Cold War

While reading Elaine Tyler May’s “Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era” for an American history class, I was struck by a quote by Nikita Khrushchev about American consumption during the Cold War. In 1959, Richard Nixon went to Moscow to the American Exhibition. There was a model home there that was meant to showcase American ingenuity in the post-war period. The model home that was showcased was a “six-room ranch-style house” (May 12). According to Nixon, this was a home that was available to all Americans, regardless of class.

During the tour of the home, Nixon and Khrushchev had fundamental disagreements about the function of the home and the products within it. This disagreement between Nixon and Khrushchev is known as the “Kitchen Debate.” Khrushchev did not see the purpose of all of the gadgets, such as dishwashers, televisions and washing machines, within the model home.

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Khrushchev, scorning the American obsession with gadgets, chided, “This is probably always out of order… Don’t you have a machine that puts food into the mouth and pushes it down? Many things you’ve shown us are interesting but they are not needed in life… They are merely gadgets.” (May, 145–6).

An interesting component of the debate was the disagreement around the overall usefulness of gadgets. Nixon argued that these gadgets were “designed to make things easier for our women,” while Khrushchev countered that the Soviet Union didn’t have that “capitalist attitude toward women” (May 12). Gender politics aside (I could go off on a couple more essays about this), Nixon and Khrushchev seem to focus on the central purpose of gadgets and who they are intended for.

Though Banham did not examine the role of women and gadgets in “The Great Gizmo,” Banham was interested in the use of gizmos and gadgets. Banham’s article was published six years after the “Kitchen Debate,” and one could argue that the political and social atmosphere was not that different from what it was when Nixon went to Moscow in 1959. Banham’s focus on the gizmo emphasizes the role that it has played in American society. Certainly, during the period in which it was written, gadgets played an important role: they emphasized the strength of American ingenuity and capitalism.

Banham points to other important components of the gizmo. He spends some time looking at the connection between gizmos and their surrounding landscape and how they are fit for specific types of landscapes. He points to Jeep and Coca-Cola for examples of the difficulties faced when gizmos are removed from their original environment.

Ultimately, Banham raises concerns about the ability to critique gizmos and gadgets. It is easy now to see connections between the rise of the gizmo in the atomic era and the Cold War, but it was not so easy for people living in that time. I am curious — are we able to critique our use of gizmos and gadgets now, or will people living in later generations have a greater success at doing so? Gizmos and gadgets still prevail in our society; from the dozens of crazy gadgets in SkyMall to row upon row of strange gizmos in the “As Seen on TV” aisle at Walgreens, there seems to be a tool for every task you could imagine. Has it gotten ridiculous, or are these tools still useful?

Here is a fun modern day example of our obsession with gizmos and gadgets: