The Subversive History of the KitchenAid Stand Mixer
When you envision a well-equipped kitchen, there’s probably a gleaming KitchenAid stand mixer sitting on the counter. The complex machine, camouflaged in Deco architecture and a cheerful color, is a sign that one’s made it in the sphere of adulting.
The KitchenAid mixer has maintained its place as a status symbol for a century, doing far more than modernizing countless kitchens. The very appliance that has shaped so many lives directly reflects modern American history.
The KitchenAid mixer didn’t just save time in the kitchen; it helped time move forward.
The story goes that Herbert Johnston, an engineer working for the Hobart Corporation, conceptualized the standing mixer after watching a baker mix dough and thinking there had to be a better way. Development started in 1914, and the first standing mixers went somewhere that desperately needed to industrialize its kitchens: the military.
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“A lot of the military and government for soldiers is a large part of how our food system developed,” says Kim Voss, author of Re-Evaluating Women’s Page Journalism in the Post-World War II Era: Celebrating Soft News and Women Politicking Politely: Advancing Women in the 1960s and 1970s. Military chefs needed to feed a lot of people and cooked in bulk all day long, and updating kitchens was the best solution. By 1917, all U.S. Navy ships were equipped with model H mixers.
Hobart then shifted gears to produce home models, and soon after the KitchenAid C-10 mixer was born. At the time, although a sizeable chunk of employed women were maids (More than half of employed women worked in “domestic service” according to the 1870 census, and that percentage continued to increase), the early 20th century saw a shift away from live-in servants, meaning many women were now cooking for their families for the first time.
“It’s difficult to look back at how cooking used to be compared to what we can do now,” says Voss. “At this time women were expected to have a several-course meal, always with a dessert. That was a lot of labor that went into cooking for your family.” Preparing elaborate meals was also tied to status. “How much you loved your family was dependent on how elaborate your meal was,” Voss says. “Having the standalone mixer wasn’t just a minor convenience. It could really change a woman’s day as she was doing all these various things that we take for granted today.”
However, that practicality didn’t come cheap. “You had to have the money in those very early years to have a standalone mixer,” Voss says, adding that in today’s prices, the C-10 exceeded $1,000.
The KitchenAid mixer didn’t take off immediately—the high price deterred retailers—but word of mouth started a sales momentum among the upper class.
“It was very much ‘I have to have this because so-and-so has it,’” Voss says.
In the early days, KitchenAid sales were conducted by an entirely female, door-to-door force—the first of its kind, and a precursor for entrepreneurship such as Tupperware and Avon representatives. Since KitchenAid targeted wealthy housewives, the best way to market them was by coming into a woman’s home, preferably when her husband was around.
“There was this idea that only a man could understand the engineering aspect of this appliance and how it worked, even though she’s gonna be the person using it,” Voss says. In that way, KitchenAid was just as much about the housewife’s relationship with her husband. “KitchenAid would sell it every Christmas. It was obviously the gift that was given to the housewife. In some ways, it seems demeaning, given today’s lens, but at that point in time it was a status symbol.”
After World War II ended and the era of mass consumerism dawned, broad industrialization of the kitchen emerged. Appliances indicated that a family had made it, and other companies developed their own standing mixers. Despite the more affordable competition, KitchenAid held its own for two reasons. First, the quality couldn’t compare. And KitchenAid’s secret weapon took that longevity even further.
“What was smart about what KitchenAid did that the others didn’t do was cross-generation accessories,” Voss says. “What that means is that if you bought a KitchenAid mixer in 1950 and kept it through the years, even though the appliance itself would evolve, you could still use the accessories with the mixer you had.” It also meant that women could pass down their KitchenAid mixers and extensions to their daughters.
“Whatever their design was at the beginning, they either smartly or were lucky to discover a concept that they could have evolve without having to start over with everything again,” Voss says. “As our food systems changed over time, they were smart enough not to change the model of the concept that they had. They didn’t try to talk down to their consumer or try to be trendy. And sticking with that traditional model is what’s made them so successful.” That combination of quality and commitment helped KitchenAid hold its own against competitors, and it’s a huge part of what keeps them successful today.
KitchenAid’s fate may have turned out differently without behind-the-scenes feedback from housewives. These women weren’t just the target audience, but also developers who emphasized that standing mixers should be in the home. “They often had a significant voice in food products and appliances because they were the ones that were using these things all the time,” Voss says, although they rarely received the credit. Even the appliance’s name came from a wife’s feedback: “I don’t care what you call it, but I know it's the best kitchen aid I’ve ever had!”
KitchenAid also helped women break outside domestic restrictions by giving them careers in home economics. We sometimes act as if women’s labor in certain generations made pin money, but a lot of women were supporting their families, Voss says. The KitchenAid mixer was its own Trojan horse: an industrial-grade machine disguised in a pretty color. “Women found all sorts of ways to make money and have careers using the concept that only a woman could understand such things,” Voss says.
And the opportunities that evolved out of door-to-door KitchenAid sales, such as Tupperware parties, allowed women to safely gather and discuss topics that expanded far beyond cooking. These meetings inspired women to run for positions of power, such as school board, and eventually political office.
“They had to work within what they had at the time,” Voss says. “They couldn’t go out and do certain things, but if you look back over women’s history, they found a way.”
It was amazingly progressive, but done in such a way that seemed safe. “It wasn’t just about the mixer itself,” Voss says. “It was about what it represented.”