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Jewish World Review June 25, 2002 / 15 Tamuz, 5762

Lenore Skenazy

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Pitching the fish fork


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Martha Stewart has a couple of ideas on how we should run our lives (if not invest our money).

Russell Wright had 'em first.

Yup, more than half a century before Stewart taught anyone how to carve a napkin ring, Wright and his wife, Mary, decided that our country was decorating, entertaining and just plain living all wrong. We were too finicky, they chided. Too formal. Didn't we know how to kick back?

And the answer in the '30s, '40s and '50s was: Nope.

All we knew then was what we saw in the movies: Ladies in formal gowns serving supper on fine china as chandeliers sparkled above. That's how we were supposed to impress the neighbors, right?

Wrong, said the Wrights. It was time we learned how to throw a barbecue - or at least a pot luck. It was time we became down-home Americans.

And so the trend-setting couple began designing everything we'd need to lead this new, simpler lifestyle, from funky chairs to mix 'n' match linens to perhaps their least successful innovation, the indoor picnic table.

This was rivaled only by their other less-than-successful invention, the matkin - a napkin that doubled as a placemat.

But anyway, this whole easy-livin' revolution began with something as simple as an all-purpose plate. "Before that, you had separate dishes for dinner and breakfast," explains Donald Albrecht, co-curator of the Wright retrospective at the Cooper-Hewitt museum. "Or if you couldn't afford it, at least you aspired to it."

Wright's rimless, earth-tone dishware was so sleek and smooth, it was revolutionary. And popular! From the 1930s through the '50s, Russell Wright American Modern dishware sold more than any other dishware ever. Period.

But sensible dishes were only part of the Wrights' grand plan.

After years of railing in newspapers and magazines against fish forks and dessert spoons, the Wrights finally wrote their anti-etiquette manifesto, "Guide to Easier Living."

"The traditional forms of entertaining have hundreds of rules and dictates, whereas the new etiquette has only one basic recipe: to make entertaining less work and more play for everyone concerned," said the Wrights.

In other words: Casual. It's a good thing.

It was also a timely thing. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, most middle-class homes could afford a maid. That meant someone else - not mama - was scrubbing the pots and polishing the silver.

But as servant girls started to find more satisfying work as office girls, homemakers were gradually becoming responsible for making their own homes.

Whoa! This was tons of work!

That's why the streamlining Wrights were so successful. They designed oven-to-table cookware so housewives wouldn't have to wash a pot and a serving plate. They came up with all-purpose pitchers that worked as wine decanters or milk jugs. But most important, they gave hosts the green light to hang loose.

Having a dinner party? Make it a buffet, not a sitdown affair, said the Wrights. Want to enjoy yourselves afterward? Have your guests join in the cleanup!

Wright-sanctioned informality actually made suburban life bearable. As young people left close-knit communities for the lure of the split-level, they needed some way to meet the strangers on their block. Formal soirees were intimidating. But a pot-luck picnic on Russell Wright plastic plates? That would be easy and fun!

So entertain Americans did - and do. Which is why today, when you're having the neighbors over for hot dogs and chips, you have Russell and Mary Wright to thank.

Martha may be teaching us all those picture-perfect crafts we've long forgotten. But it was the Wrights, G-d bless 'em, who let us forget them in the first place.

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JWR contributor Lenore Skenazy is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

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