50 Years Ago, Kansas City Introduced The Crock-Pot. These Women Taught America To Use It
No Midwestern cookout is complete without a delicious chili or dip simmering in a Crock-Pot. But when the device was first unveiled by a Kansas City company in 1971, it promised something more: freedom.
Before the Crock-Pot was a household name, it was called the Naxon Beanery — and offered a more specific, bean-centric purpose.
Patented by prolific inventor Irving Naxon, the Beanery was originally intended for a Jewish stew of meat and beans called cholent, which is slowly cooked on Fridays in preparation for the Sabbath.
A nifty creation, for sure, but the "bean pot" never caught on with the masses — so in 1970, Naxon sold his device to Rival Manufacturing. The Kansas City company was already famous for kitchen gadgets like the Juice-O-Mat juicer and the Knife-O-Mat sharpener.
Purchasing the slow cooker was actually an afterthought for Rival.
"No one paid any attention to it," Rival president Isidore Miller told the Kansas City Times in 1981. "We almost forgot about it."
As the story goes, Miller handed the Beanery over to Rival's test kitchen, where an employee named Marilyn Neill had an immediate epiphany: This can cook way more than just beans.
“From that point on, I believe they gave those home economists in the test kitchen a lot more attention than they ever did before,” says Roxanne Wyss, a former Rival home economist.
The newly-renamed Crock-Pot made its official debut in 1971 at the National Housewares Show in Chicago, sharply dressed up in colors like avocado and harvest gold. Print ads and television commercials flaunted the Crock-Pot as a miraculous, time-saving device, assuring women in no uncertain terms: You can have it all.
The pitch worked. Crock-Pot sales hit $2 million the first year it was introduced. Four years later, that number exploded to $93 million.
“When a company comes up with a product like a Crock-Pot, those are kind of a once-in-a-lifetime product development for a corporation," Wyss says. "And it does then put a tremendous amount of pressure and weight on that home economics department."
Rival's home economists took on the task of teaching people how to use this novel appliance. The internet didn’t exist, of course, so employees like Wyss spent hours testing soups, stews and roasts for inclusion in the recipe book that accompanied each brand-new Crock-Pot.
“The food was probably Midwest in that you look at who was in those test kitchens," says Kathy Moore, another former Rival home economist. "But at the same time, that was comforting, old-fashioned food. And beef stew transcends all of the United States."
Flip through those ‘70s cookbooks and you'll find recipes like "Busy Woman's Roast Chicken,” which basically amounts to chicken, carrots and a package of stove top stuffing. An entire can of cream of mushroom soup goes into “Pork Chop Abracadabra," while a trifecta of bacon, sausage, and ground beef unite for "Male Chauvinist Chili." Other recipes centered ingredients you can't find as easily today, like stuffed beef hearts and chicken livers.
And multiple recipes took heavy influence from their Kansas City hometown, like steak soup, and brisket cooked low and slow.
"By the time I entered the picture, we were busy creating recipes that were convincing people that perhaps the slow cooker or the Crock-Pot was something more than just a piece of meat with a can of soup on it," says Wyss, who started at Rival in 1981.
Moore and Wyss loved developing recipes together, but they spent a majority of their time doing quality control and putting the Crock-Pot through its paces with Rival's engineers.
“I just remember lots of high-pressured meetings where [they’d say] ‘It's got to do more! You've got to come up with more!’” Wyss says. “And we would come back and just shake our heads and say, ‘We're trying!’”
Before they left each day, Rival's home economists would do things like set up eight Crock-Pots with whole chickens and carefully measured-out proportions of carrots, onions and celery. They'd wheel the slow cookers over to the engineering department, which would thermocouple the chickens to monitor their temperatures overnight.
"We would come to work at 8 a.m. the next morning... and we would spend the morning evaluating those chickens to make sure that those pots were performing acceptable," Wyss says. "It was very scientific."
To this day, Moore and Wyss say their biggest disappointment is never figuring out how to cook pasta or sour cream in the Crock-Pot — at least not up to their high standards.
Rival also deployed its home economics department as brand ambassadors. They regularly sent cease-and-desist letters to unauthorized sellers and responded to frustrated Crock-Pot users, who lamented about breaking their devices after cooking a completely frozen chicken or trying to melt wax.
"Don't even get us going about putting that can of sweetened condensed milk in the slow cooker," Wyss warns. "It only takes once for it to explode."
Outside of the test kitchen, the U.S. economy was wrestling with big questions — and the Crock-Pot marketed itself as the answer.
A major oil crisis in the 1970s made Americans especially concerned about their energy usage. “Energy was such a huge buzzword," Wyss says. "The question we answered a million times a day was, 'How much did it cost to run this all day? It must cost a small, poor fortune.'”
In actuality, the Crock-Pot cooked all day for a mere 4 cents — making it far more efficient than an oven.
Most importantly, the decade saw far more women working outside the home, and Rival marketed the Crock-Pot directly to them.
“These women embraced the Crock-Pot as a way of providing a nutritious and affordable meal without having to spend a lot of time during the day or in the early evening standing over a hot stove,” says Paula Johnson, curator of food history at the National Museum of American History.
To working women, the Crock-Pot claimed to offer freedom. But it didn't benefit everyone equally.
"I think it's important to establish that the Crock-Pot had an impact on women of a certain demographic in the 1970s," Johnson says. "We're talking of generally white, middle-class women who could afford the device, which in 1971 cost $25.”
Even in the fantastical future promised by purchasing a Crock-Pot, the responsibility for maintaining a family's health and diet remained in the hands of women. In many cases, these "magical" devices just set women up for even greater expectations, rather than actually give them a break.
"Scholars have pointed out how home appliances, from vacuum cleaners to washing machines, all change our expectations surrounding the outcomes,” Johnson says. "We may dream of a device or a machine that makes our lives easier, but there are always trade-offs and unintended consequences.”
That's not to say the Crock-Pot didn't have a real impact. In her research, Johnson talked to teachers, nurses and factory workers who called the Crock-Pot "a lifesaver."
“It was easy. It was foolproof,” she explains. “It made tough cuts of meat more tender with a long braise. It made the house smell great.”
Half a century after the Crock-Pot's debut, nearly 12 million slow cookers are still purchased every year.
Moore and Wyss eventually left Rival Manufacturing, but they never stopped creating recipes together. They're still in Kansas City — they just cook on their own terms now.
The two women authored nearly 20 cookbooks together, from "Toaster Oven Takeover" to "Rice Cooker Rival." There's even one solely dedicated to slow cooker desserts; to this day, Wyss swears it's the "perfect medium" for making a flawless cheesecake.
If you ask Moore and Wyss why the Crock-Pot endures today, they'll tell you convenience plays a big part, but it's not everything. The Crock-Pot has an emotional appeal, too — that feeling of coming home to a hearty meal, already simmering away.
“I don’t think that any meal delivery or any of the frozen products can ever replace the aroma, the comfort, the emotion and the memories that come from a home-cooked meal,” Moore says.
Support for Hungry For MO comes from the Missouri Humanities Council.