Martha’s message came with social sting

  • Froma Harrop / Providence Journal columnist
  • Saturday, March 13, 2004 9:00pm
  • Opinion

Marked by four felony convictions, Martha Stewart faces a doubtful future as Kmart spokeswoman. The queen of the domestic realm has been hobbled, leaving big retailers to wonder whether they can slip her crown onto some other head. Lifestyle advisers Barbara Smith and Katie Brown have been named as possible successors. Chris Casson Madden has made an alliance with J.C. Penney.

Such discussions miss the point of Martha Stewart. No offense intended toward the heirs apparent, but lots of people can expound on table settings and stencils. Martha was about a lot more than that. She may have talked about doorknobs and orange chiffon cakes, but her bigger message was rather subversive: Americans were getting richer, but their lives were getting shabbier.

Martha had exposed the underside of American prosperity. She put into words a gut feeling shared by many: that purchasing power wasn’t buying happiness. Under all her chirpy banter, Martha was delivering a harsh memo, and we know what happens to bearers of bad news.

By the time federal prosecutors got around to Martha, blood was already in the water. Although a judge dropped the insider-trading charge — and the amount made in the fishy transaction, $50,000, was laughably small — prosecutors attacked her for trying to cover up the non-crime. They wanted to show that celebrities couldn’t get away with lying to them, so they staged a show trial. Had Martha been a beloved figure, they would not have taken such liberties with her.

But Martha had made a lot of people crazy. In promoting an older value system, Martha was implicitly criticizing the current one.

Today’s couples may work several jobs. They submit to long commutes so they can buy bigger houses. Combining multiple incomes with heavy borrowing does put lots of dollars in the pocket. So the moderns can afford the enormous kitchens and fill their houses with electronics. But they arrive home late and exhausted. They eat junk, and their children raise themselves. American family life has become super-sized but utterly lacking in grace.

Martha had grown up in a working-class family in Nutley, N.J. Like other children of the ’50s, she experienced an America in which families amassed a fraction of the stuff people have today, but seemed to live better. Mom was usually a full-time housekeeper, so she didn’t have to do the laundry at 10 p.m. Dad’s job let him get home by 6 p.m. Meals were home-cooked, the house was clean, and everyone had dinner together.

Although Martha’s grownup vision bore an upper-class look, gobs of money were not required to achieve it. Her projects were mostly inexpensive affairs, employing such simple ingredients as fabric glue, sponges and parchment paper. Her advice on cleaning blinds and removing rust from cast iron was about maintaining what one had. Her instructions for fixing chipped china and turning worn tablecloths into napkins spoke to the virtues of economizing, not spending.

These activities all take time, of course, and that was a big part of the message. With a little know-how, time can be as valuable an asset for the good life as money, and everyone is born with the same 24-hour day. Martha also put in a good word for quality, be it in an old garden tool or a string of pearls. Her followers could see the craftsmanship in a 1920s Cape Cod that is missing in a new McMansion selling for twice as much.

The rat-racers had traded time for money. Needing to justify their life choices, they’d go after Martha for spending half a day to refinish an old chair. Martha understood this.

Speaking before the National Press Club in 1996, she touched on the raw feelings she aroused. "With women, particularly, going to work," she said, "and leaving our families in the care of others, leaving our houses to housekeepers’ care or nobody’s care, I know that we had sort of lost touch, that we had kind of unbalanced our lives very seriously."

So Martha was really delivering sharp social criticism, which went well beyond advice for making window boxes look nice in winter. The philosophy attached to the household tips is what made her controversial. It also makes her hard to replace. And that’s why her fans may rest assured that Martha Stewart will be back.

Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist. Contact her by writing to

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