A Bakery for the Modern Women of 1930s Wilmington
By Kate Budzyn, WPAMC Class of 2019
Last semester, I took WPAMC professor Catharine Dann Roeber’s class on historic American interiors. In preparation for an upcoming student-curated exhibition on shop interiors at Winterthur, each student researched a set of photographs from the Delaware Historical Society’s collection of historic images of local shop interiors. I was assigned to a gorgeous, Hopper-esque set of 1930s black-and-white images of Federal Bake Shop, a popular Wilmington business that remained open from the 1920s through the 1980s. Below are my findings about this stylish bakery that managed to thrive during the depression era thanks to a business strategy centered on both female clientele and female workers.
In April of 1929, Federal Bake Shop placed a half-page advertisement in Wilmington’s Morning News announcing the opening of their new bakery at 717 Market Street: “A great deal of time and effort has been spent to give the public of Wilmington and vicinity the most up-to-date—complete and sanitary bake shop in the State.” Since moving from its original location in Wilmington’s Masonic Building, the shop had reportedly spent several thousand dollars “renovating and altering the new location elaborately.” The newly designed bakery included a soda fountain and luncheonette, both public spaces that encouraged customers to come and spend time (and money) in the bakery.
The shop’s marketing often appealed directly to female consumers, and particularly to the housewives of Wilmington. In 1930, the bakery allowed the Ladies Aid Society of Olivet Presbyterian Church to hold a bake sale at the shop. A 1931 article in the News Journal promoting a national doughnut-week event at the shop mentioned that “Housewives in Wilmington are depending more and more each day on Federal Bake Shop products to relieve them of baking necessities.”
The shop coaxed Wilmington women out of their homes and into the bakery by advertising itself in the language of home economics, often offering “thrift specials” and package discounts. The company’s frequent newspaper ads used the silhouette of a woman’s head as decorative branding, not-so-subtly labeling the bakery’s weekly offerings with feminine imagery.
While the company beckoned female consumers to come purchase its confections, it also prominently employed female workers in its kitchens. Although American unemployment rates remained high throughout the 1930s, many women joined the outside workforce for the first time, in part because employers knew that they could pay women significantly lower wages than men. Federal Bake Shop employed enough female workers that they formed their own social club in 1935, calling themselves “The Federal Girls Club.”
By the mid-1930s, despite the economic challenges of the depression, the shop had already undergone major renovations, and in 1936, the bakery announced the installation of its new “modern open view bake shop.” Lush black-and-white promotional photographs taken by the Sanborn Studio in 1936 capture Federal Bake Shop’s newly renovated space in all of its clean, modern splendor. Female workers dressed in stylish white uniforms take center stage in these Hopper-esque scenes, as if modeling for the bakery. These images place female employees as central features of the new “open-view” kitchen interiors.
Although the Sanborn photographs show Federal Bake Shop’s female employees in their workplace, the women’s tidy uniforms and careful poses help create a familiar, unthreatening scene that likens the professional bakery to a home kitchen. The photos bear a notable resemblance to period advertisements for domestic kitchen furnishings, in which companies bombarded consumers with images of home kitchens that incorporated many of the same easy-to-clean materials and technical innovations used in professional kitchens.
1930s appliance advertisements emphasized efficiency, cleanliness and modern innovation, suggesting that the home kitchen could be held to professional standards. Companies simultaneously tried to appeal to domestic consumers’ aesthetic interests by offering utilitarian objects in confection-inspired colors like mint-green and butter-yellow. Female figures were shown happily at work in their colorful dream kitchens, often wearing fashionable outfits that matched their appliances or decor. These advertisements reinforced the idea that the kitchen was a woman’s domain—and that a modern woman needed to own the most up-to-date and stylish kitchen fixtures.
Despite women’s visible presence in the American workforce, their right to hold outside jobs still remained controversial during the 1930s. Public messaging across the country often framed female employment as a direct threat to men’s employment. Young single women were warned of the dangers and difficulties associated with attempting to find work in big cities, while married women were often encouraged to stay at home so that their husbands could fulfill their manly duty to support their families financially. Within this environment of conflicting messages, 1930 kitchens were a safe and adaptable space where advertisers could frame women’s work as either professional or domestic to suit their needs.
Federal Bake Shop welcomed female customers and employees into its business by advertising itself as a safe, sanitary home-away-from-home kitchen. Throughout the 1930s, the bakery continued to advertise “thrift specials” and to invite customers to come inspect their clean and modern interiors. The marketing worked; the bakery remained in business not only through the difficult depression years but also for many decades afterwards.
Interested in learning more about historic shop interiors? Stay tuned for the student-curated exhibit featuring business and craft photography from Winterthur and the Delaware Historical Society opening this September in the Society of Winterthur Fellows Gallery.
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