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“Cooking Without Looking”: Visual-Impairment, Domesticity, and the Post-World War II United States

By Laura Micheletti Puaca

The post-World War II United States is popularly remembered as the heyday of domesticity, especially for white, middle-class Americans. Particularly pervasive is the image of the happy homemaker cheerfully tending to her new stove and cooking dinner for her family. During the mid-twentieth century, depictions such as this one abounded in the mass media and were routinely found in advertisements, popular publications, and situation comedies, to name just a few examples.  In addition to their widespread circulation, these representations were also bolstered and seemingly legitimized by a number of postwar developments, such as the return of male veterans, the resulting marriage and baby booms, and the expansion of consumer culture. The emerging Cold War, moreover, often times hinged on the articulation and elevation of these dominant domestic ideals as a means to differentiate the United States from the Soviet Union, where full-time homemaking was held in little regard.  Although we know that these images failed to capture the complexity of women’s lives and obscured undercurrents of dissent, they nevertheless exerted a strong cultural influence in shaping gender roles, societal expectations, social status, and even one’s sense of self-worth.

The degree to which American women could meet, or aspired to meet, these expectations, was influenced not only by race and class, as is commonly acknowledged, but also by ability. For women with blindness and partial visual impairment, carrying out domestic responsibilities, such as preparing meals for loved ones, presented particular challenges.  Trips to the grocery store often required a companion to assist with reading labels. Only a handful of cookbooks had Braille editions. And even some of those that did still contained stock phrases intended for the sighted cook. One Braille cookbook published in 1939, for example, included instructions to fry fish in hot lard “till golden brown” and to cook veal cutlets “until thoroughly done,” without providing timing instructions.[1]

The concerns of visually-impaired homemakers attracted increasing attention in the post-World War II period due to a confluence of factors. The expanding vocational rehabilitation system, which aimed to assist not only disabled veterans but also civilians live “normal” lives provided new sources of support for homemakers with disabilities.  The rehabilitation system both bolstered and benefited from the work of rehabilitation experts and home economists who helped to redefine the problems of disabled homemakers as an important area of academic inquiry. Although most of these specialists primarily studied women with limited mobility, a number of them focused on the blind and visually-impaired.

In the mid-1950s, for example, Esther Knudson Tipps, a Master’s degree candidate in Home Economics at the University of Texas, surveyed blind homemakers in the state in an effort to compile some tried and true tips for visually-impaired cooks. Freddie Henderson, a blind homemaker from Austin, advocated “test[ing] for brownness and good crust on casserole dishes by drawing the back of a fork across the top and listening for a slight crackling sound.”[2]  Another blind homemaker from Austin, Frankie Dearen, suggested “par[ing] potatoes under running water. The remaining skin can then be detected by the feel of the texture.”[3] Meanwhile, Birdie Sparkman, a blind homemaker from Dallas, explained, “One way to spread whipped cream evenly over a pie is to first pour the whipped cream on the center top of the pie and then cover top with Saran wrap, drawing the Saran taut and sealing it on the bottom edge of the plate. Then with the finger, the cream can be worked around under the wrap until it is perfectly smooth.” [4]

"Elaine Marken using a slate and stylus to create Braille labels for canned foods," “Courtesy of Iowa Blind History Archive at the Iowa Department for the Blind.”
“Elaine Marken using a slate and stylus to create Braille labels for canned foods,” “Courtesy of Iowa Blind History Archive at the Iowa Department for the Blind.”

What became Tipp’s 1956 thesis, “Cooking Without Looking—Food Preparation Methods and Techniques for Blind Homemakers,” was later reproduced and printed in both large print and in Braille by the American Printing House for the Blind.[5] This study served, in part, as a much-needed corrective to earlier cookbooks that failed to consider the needs of visually-impaired homemakers. By recognizing their particular needs, it also assisted visually-impaired homemakers to meet societal expectations by carrying out their culturally prescribed roles. Although this example as well as other efforts to rehabilitate homemakers with disabilities bolstered dominant gender roles, they also helped women with disabilities to see themselves and to be seen by others as important members of their families and society.

[1] Lois Virginia Cox, One Hundred and Three Selected Recipes, mimeographed and Braille editions (Louisville, KY: The American Printing House for the Blind, 1939), quoted in Esther Knudson Tipps, “Cooking Without Looking—Food Preparation Methods and Techniques for Blind Homemakers” (MS thesis, University of Texas, 1956), 4-5.

[2] Freddie Henderson quoted in Tipps, “Cooking Without Looking,” 87.

[3] Frankie Dearen quoted in Tipps, “Cooking Without Looking,” 91.

[4] Birdie Sparkman quoted in Tipps, 92-93.

[5] See, for example, Esther Knudson Tipps, Cooking Without Looking: Food Preparation Methods and Techniques for Visually Handicapped Homemakers (Louisville, KY: American Printing House for the Blind, 1959).