Of 'Gals' and Gadgets

Design and marketing often go hand-in-glove. A utilitarian object may be designed to appeal to a specific sector of the market (men, women, teens, children), and its advertising - as this enchanting old Bell Telephone ad amusingly demonstrates - will reinforce the intention.

In 1993-94, the Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design in New York staged a feminist exhibition called "Mechanical Brides." These two illustrations come from the slender accompanying book (now being republished and distributed by Chronicle Books).

It explores the gendering of everyday machines, from toasters to telephones, from washing machines to irons. It questions the belief that women are necessarily freed from demeaning labor either at work or at home by the notion of "inexorable technological progress."

Author Ellen Lupton's comment on "The Telephone Way to a Happier Day" ad of 1958 observes that while a man using the phone at home assumes a posture of uninterrupted domestic relaxation, a woman can only take a break from "ongoing domestic chores - a vacuum cleaner lurks behind [her] armchair."

The ancient dictaphone ad (1952) is included to make another point about male-female differences vis--vis machines. The ad suggests that an efficient office machine is worth two secretaries (female, naturally!). However, the book observes that "executives" (male, naturally!) "often have resisted relinquishing their personal assistants" who are "sources of consistent, customized help."

These images look delightfully outdated to us today. But before we congratulate ourselves on our enlightened outlook, it is salutary to learn that as recently as 1993, "approximately 90 percent of phone operators and 75 percent of service representatives were women." And - naturally - they are far more efficient, and much more pleasant, than men or machines.

As Lupton writes: "Much of the craft and pleasure of office work lies in human interaction."

Which should seem obvious, really.

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