Alice Naylor, University of Portsmouth and Science Museum Group
This blog reflects on a performance held as part of the 2022 Being Human festival, which won the Social History Society’s 2023 Public History Prize.
The Kenwood Manufacturing Company Ltd was co-founded by Kenneth Wood and Roger Laurence in 1947. It is a historic British brand whose kitchen appliances are well regarded by both design aficionados and consumers. Launched in 1950, the Kenwood Chef was at the forefront of food mixers sold to postwar British consumers. It was not the only mixer on the market – and Kenwood was not the only British company manufacturing kitchen appliances in the decades that followed – but its eye-catching appearance, performance and longevity has cemented its legacy.
One of the key threads of my PhD research has been investigating the performative selling practices of Kenwood demonstrators. These, almost always female, demonstrators were employed by Kenwood and trained at the company’s ‘school’ in Havant. Their job was to promote and sell appliances in sites of consumption such as department stores and electricity showrooms. Demonstrations were semi-scripted and a key asset for the role of demonstrator was ‘enthusiasm and complete confidence’. As one demonstrator told the Daily Mail newspaper in 1960, ‘After all, it is a form of acting, whether one tries to put over a story to an audience in the theatre or in a commercial store’. I am seeking to define and clarify the company’s singular methods of ‘performative’ selling and identify whether these mediation strategies contributed to its global success and position in British product design history. To date there are no in depth histories of female demonstrators in this period who sold kitchen appliances to audiences in public facing retail environments.
Kenwood – now owned by the Italian company De’Longhi – holds an informal archive which I have accessed but it is not in any way ordered or categorised. The Science Museum holds a more structured collection of the company’s business and publicity records. These archives contain a collection of papers (chiefly publicity) of the business dealings of Kenneth Wood and his company from 1947-1968.
Demonstrations as staged performances
The Museum’s holdings contain a ‘script’ developed by Kenwood in around 1947. It lays out exact details of how a demonstrator should operate the machine in front of her audience in the manner of ‘theatre’ where a scripted, semi-choreographed performance was played out to curious audiences. The materiality of the Chef is central to its appeal and demonstrators were trained to harmonise their movements alongside that of the machine: the click of the ‘on’ switch, the hum of the motor and satisfying whirr when the machine was activated were integral to bringing it to life.
There are practical difficulties in attempting to reconstruct the lives and careers of Kenwood demonstrators. The timeline of women working in retail outlets dates from the launch of the Kenwood Chef in 1950. But this script is an excellent example of how archives can be used as inspiration for new areas of research.
It shows that a department store can share a similar immersive landscape to a stage in a professional theatre: with trained performers, crucial props and a captive audience. Demonstrations, and by this I mean Kenwood’s demonstrations, were hugely popular and advertised in local newspapers across the country throughout the 1950s. Tickets were sold (and sold out) for the performances that at times involved singers and comedy routines. In some cases they were funded by organisations such as the Bacon Information Council and manufacturers of electric appliances including Kenwood and Creda who manufactured electric cookers. It was surely the case that the performative nature played a part in their popularity, along with the sight of individuals introducing audiences to aspirational consumer durables. These events appear to be a hybrid ‘information by way of entertainment’ and were I think a playful and engaging way of proposing ideas of modernity by way of labour saving devices for the home.
Putting on a show with the Kenwood Chef
The Kenwood script was the inspiration for re-enacting demonstrator performances. I saw this as an opportunity to undertake action research to further understand selling Kenwood appliances as a ‘theatrical performance’. I was also keen to bring elements of my research to non-academic audiences and extend the Museum’s remit for public engagement outside of the traditional museum space.
In collaboration with Dr Helen Peavitt, the Museum’s Curator of Consumer and Environmental Technology, ex-Kenwood demonstrator Pauline Bateman and students from the BA (Hons) Drama and Performance at the University of Portsmouth, we devised our version of a Kenwood selling demonstration. Our lead actor was a vintage Chef A701. Designed by Sir Kenneth Grange in 1960 this elegant and fashionable food mixer was one of the kitchen appliances that defined the Kenwood brand throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
The re-enactments formed the basis of the two live events that took place at The Spring Arts & Heritage Centre in November 2022. The Spring is a vibrant local arts space which holds a wide ranging programme of events across the year. We were keen to engage with audiences who had intergenerational connections to Kenwood. The company has a history of employing families in the area across all parts of the business from the production line to office and managerial staff. It opens up the connections to social and public history for the community who had the opportunity to see stories of their working lives reflected upon and how they are valued and historicised.
Workshops and our audience
Two events ran on 11th and 18th November as part of the programme for the Being Human Festival of Humanities 2022. The performances were initially developed in the theatre space at The Spring and the workshop was attended by members of the public who offered their own ideas and stories from which developed our version of a scripted performance. These were re-enacted in a separate event the following week, located in The Spring’s vintage kitchen and ran for fifteen minutes; the average length of a Kenwood demonstration. Running these events in The Spring was key to drawing on the social geography of the company. The Kenwood factory has been located here since 1962. Its arrival offered excellent job opportunities for the local community and continues to be a key employee in the area.
Our demonstrator team was located in the vintage kitchen and we ran 12 performances throughout the day. The Kenwood Chef was at the forefront and our demonstrators, who had developed highly individual performances of their own, fully immersed themselves and their audience in the spectacle of theatrical selling. With a combination of balletic movements and their own personal scripts, they communicated the general excellence of the Chef and how it was an essential kitchen appliance for every home. They made it click, whirr and hum and were so successful in conveying that the Chef was ‘so much more than a mixer’ that I believe if we’d had it for sale, it would have been snapped up. Audience participation was integral to the shows and the interactions between demonstrator, spectators and the Chef made a powerful case for the effectiveness of selling as performance.
Exploring my thinking and event outcomes
The premise – that re-enacting demonstrator events using archival objects and oral history testimonies would uncover the company’s imaginative and playful marketing strategies – consolidated my view that selling as performance was a powerful way of engaging postwar consumers with new ideas and innovations linked to the home.
The events substantiated my hypothesis that Kenwood’s hold on the market was due in part to product demonstrations. It enabled me to interrogate the potency of the company’s innovative selling strategies and the opportunity to reflect on the meanings, attachments and value placed on kitchen appliances and the emotional resonances that they evoke.
My research gives me the opportunity to contribute new and original research on the history of the food mixer, how it was sold to consumers and an enhanced and reconfigured inclusion in the history of ‘domestic technologies’ in postwar British homes.
About the Author: Alice is an AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Researcher with the University of Portsmouth and the Science Museum Group. She is in the final year of her PhD ‘Eye Appeal is Buy Appeal: the design, mediation and consumption of Kenwood kitchen appliances from 1947-1985′. Alice has a background in product design and graduated with an MA in the History of Design from the V&A/RCA in 2020.