Food & Drink

How the Crock-Pot Saved 1970s America, Basically

Shutterstock

If/when you discuss radical inventions, the slow cooker probably isn't the first thing to spring to mind. You're more likely to rattle off the printing press, the steam engine, or the kegerator before the humble Crock-Pot gets a mention. But this kitchen appliance shook things up when it was formally introduced in 1971, and it wasn't just because your mom could finally make a decent chili. No, this small countertop electrical cooking appliance actually affected some pretty big stuff, namely ladies' lib and the environment. And if those sexy topics don't hook you, MAYBE WRITING IN CAPS LOCK WILL!

Although Irving Naxon, a dude, invented the Crock-Pot, it was his mother, Tamara Kaslovski Nachumsohn, a woman, presumably, who inspired him. When Naxon was growing up, she told him stories of running pots of cholent (a traditional Jewish dish) to the bakery in her small Lithuanian town on Friday afternoons. The bakers would put the cholent in their oven, where it would remain for a full day. The oven would then be turned off in observance of the Sabbath, but the residual heat as it cooled down would cook the cholent so it was ready for the family to eat by Saturday night.

This story stayed with Naxon. After he logged several other patents -- he had over 200 when he died in 1989 -- he secured one for a "portable electric roaster." The device maintained the same low, even heat of the cooling oven in his mother's story, and it was an early hit in his household.

"It helped [my mom], because for much of my childhood and teenage years, she worked," says Lenore Naxon, Irving's daughter. "So she, like everyone else, would put her food in it in the morning and then come home at night and have it done."

Naxon's wife Fern might've been the first working mother to use the slow cooker, then called the Naxon Beanery. But pretty soon, working women all over America were discovering the new appliance. Although Lenore notes that Irving had sold the Naxon Beanery through the Sears catalog and to diners ("they would use it for their daily soup and chili") on his own, it reached the mass market in 1971. By that point, Irving had retired and sold his business and many patents to The Rival Company. The company decided to debut the Naxon Beanery first, only they didn't like the name, so it was rechristened the Crock-Pot. It was aimed at busy wives and mothers from the start.

"When it was introduced, things were changing for a lot of people in that era," says Paula Johnson, a curator at the National Museum of American History. "This was an appliance that allowed you to produce a real meal for yourself and your family, while you were doing something else. People were already gravitating towards convenience, but this was different. You still had a sense that you were making something."

Consider this newspaper ad from 1975, which closes its pitch with, "Perfect for working women, on-the-goers!" Or this one from 1974, which calls it a "working woman's dream." Or this one from 1975, which promises a gizmo that "cooks all day while the cook's away." Variations on this theme would appear in Rival ads throughout the decade. It was so thoroughly a part of the sales pitch that by 1987, Roxanne Whittenburg, the manager of the Rival Home Economics Department in Kansas City, would tellThe Los Angeles Times, "The working woman, like myself, no longer has to feel guilty about not being in the kitchen all day because she can prepare a meal the night before or in the morning and not have to worry about it during the day."

The Crock-Pot has since been hailed an "unlikely symbol of women's equality" for the way it liberated so many career-minded ladies from the kitchen, but its arrival in the 1970s was serendipitous for another reason. Energy use was a huge issue at the time -- in 1973, OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) placed an oil embargo on the US for its support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War. This caused gas prices to skyrocket, and Americans to panic about energy consumption. The Crock-Pot, which proudly claimed to consume as much energy as a light bulb, was the perfect kitchen solution.

"It was [Rival's] home economist who chose the Naxon Beanery as the one thing that they wanted to debut first, out of all my dad's patents," Lenore says. "It doesn’t use much energy at all. And it keeps you from using more energy, because it doesn’t heat up your kitchen."

Johnson also notes that, while energy was not the main selling point, it is referenced in the "letter to the consumer" booklet that came with the original Crock-Pot. "And you’ll love the way it saves electricity because the Crock-Pot uses such low wattage," she reads. "Actually, it cooks all day for about $.04."

Although the original Crock-Pot's kitschy patterns are super '70s, the device itself continues to appeal to energy-minded chefs and working parents in 2015. According to Consumer Reports, 83% of American households owned a slow cooker in 2011. And they aren't just making the same old stews. "I have a niece who has three kids and one is vegetarian," Lenore says. "She sent me an Instagram photo of some kanji, which is basically rice gruel, she made with squash and muri -- it was absolutely exquisite. And that was all done in the Crock-Pot."

So Irving Naxon deserves our thanks for many things: helping moms rock boardroom presentations and feed their families, lowering our utilities bills, and facilitating hot, hot Instagram pics.

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Kristin Hunt is a staff writer for Thrillist, and loves slow-cooker season. Follow her to way too much chili at @kristin_hunt.