“Remember – You can be sure…if it’s Westinghouse!”
The Betty Furness Westinghouse Cook Book was published in 1954. Depending on when you were born you might remember Betty Furness as an actress for her small parts in RKO films, a spokesperson for the Westinghouse brand in the 1950s, a consumer advocate, first with the government and then on TV, during the 1960s through to the early 1990s, or quite possibly not at all. She was a pioneer in many ways carving out niches for herself when parts of her career came to an end. Today I am going to focus on Betty Furness’s time with Westinghouse and the cookbook that carries her name.
Betty Furness was born Elizabeth Mary Furness on January 3, 1916. She had a rather wealthy upbringing being raised in New York City on the famed Park Avenue. In 1932 she dropped out of school to pursue acting. She first got a job at John Robert Powers Modeling Agency. It was Powers who took notice and arranged for a RKO screen test. She started in Hollywood at the age of 16 which she made 35 movies over six years. Betty Furness actually hated most of the movies that she made as she called them all “appalling” except for Swing Time with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire and the first Magnificent Obsession film.
In 1948, she moved to New York to work in the new medium of television, as her film career had not garnered much success, where she got a job on Dumont Television Network. Her first show was 15 minutes and called “Fashions, Coming and Becoming” where she earned $50 a show. Westinghouse approached her to be a spokesperson for the brand. Betty Furness in an article recalls that “My career was going along in bits and pieces – nothing brilliant. Then one day I was doing a small part on Studio One. One of the advertising men saw me sitting around rehearsals and suggested I might do the commercial. At that time they had no one doing them regularly and were not sure they wanted someone.” Obviously it worked out as Betty Furness demonstrated Westinghouse appliances live on television from 1949 to 1960.
Through these spots she became a household name to millions of TV watchers in the mid century but she didn’t want to be known as “the Queen of the Commercials”. What she did want was the commercials she made for Westinghouse to be “good, make sense and please people” and believed that “it took just as much talent and experience to get across a sales message or a demonstration as it did to commit murder or make love convincingly before a camera”. This was before commercials as we now know them. In the fifties, a company would sponsor a TV program and then have live ads throughout the show. On typical day doing a Westinghouse commercial, Furness first worked with an agency script writer and then planned the demonstration with a sales promotion manager. Following that she posed for pictures in which after she did a rehearsal with the director for a couple of hours. Lastly, she did one final dress rehearsal with the TV show in the studio. When the commercials happened she worked all alone with a camera and no one giving her cues.
The Betty Furness Westinghouse Cook Book was supposedly the brain child of actress Betty Furness if you believe the introduction in the cookbook. It was the actress who proposed the idea to Julia Kiene who at that time was the the Director of the Westinghouse Home Economics Institute. Furness, in the preface for the cookbook, admits though she may not be the worst cook, you definitely wouldn’t confuse her with the best either. Nonetheless, Julia agreed to “pool her experience and knowledge” with Betty’s “enthusiasm” and, let’s face it, name recognition to create the cookbook. The more likely scenario is that it was the brainchild of advertising executives at Westinghouse.
The cookbook was created not only for the “experienced Homemaker who needs a little inspiration” but also for the novice or as a 1954 newspaper article put it the “young newlywed”. The article goes on to say that you will find “the old fashioned chicken and noodle recipes, but you’ll see on the next page, quick chicken continental for the younger Mrs. John Q”. The recipes are written in the traditional way with many being followed with a helpful hint or tip at the end. One example of this was the recipe for Apricot Tapioca where the “trick” was to buy a can of baby food apricots instead of apricot pulp.
The most amazing part of the cookbook is the fact the besides the title and introduction, Westinghouse is not advertised throughout the cookbook. For a company who sold a variety of appliances, it is surprising that their fridges and stoves are never mentioned or shown. Nor any pictures of Betty Furness can be found through out. It is a very curious thing.
The other item that surprises me, given the popularity of Betty Furness, is that this cookbook did not do well in sales. It is a shame that more people back then did not give it a chance as it is actually a great cookbook. While some recipes do utilize convenience foods such as canned soup or frozen vegetables, these are not recipes that rely on those products. It really wants to teach fundamentals and give the reader either a good base or to fill in gaps missing from their cooking knowledge. Though that does not mean it does not have some ardent followers. Many readers have written in to newspapers all over the country submitting recipes from The Westinghouse Cookbook that became their tried and true. One such reader called her cookbook that she had been given as a bride in the 1950s “dog-eared and food-stained”. Two other women who still had the cookbook in their collections remember fondly getting the cookbook as a wedding present as well. If you run across this cookbook, I say you should definitely check it out!
“Betty Furness’ Job: Open Door for Consumer”. The Milwaukee Journal. April 30, 1967.
“Betty Furness is Back Again”. Life Magazine. 1967.
Bradberry, Mary. “Home Cookin’: this Orzo Salad Makes Entertaining Easy”. Sarasota Herald Tribune. May 1, 2001.
Cart, Sarah A. “Our Good Cooks” When She Wants Something Good, She Just Asks Betty”. The Vindicator. June 9, 1999.
Cicero, Linda. “Chinese Chews- What’s In A Name For Date Nut Cookie Bar”. The Evening Independent. March 26, 1986.
Furness, Betty and Kiene, Julia. The Betty Furness Westinghouse Cook Book. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954.
“New Cookbooks Are Time Savers”. Lodi News-Sentinal. October 13, 1954.
Oliver, Myrna. Betty Furness; Ad Star, Consumer Advocate. Los Angeles Times. April 4, 1994.
“Profits from Cookbook Benefit Charities”. St. Petersburg Times. December 19, 1954.
“‘Queen of the Commercials’ on Television is Blonde and Beautiful Betty Furness”. The Free Lance-Star. October 27, 1952.
Severo, Richard. Betty Furness, 78, TV Reporter and Consumer Advocate, Dies. The New York Times. April 4, 1994.
Thomas, Rob. “Betty Furness Appears on TV”. Kentucky New Ear. November 30, 1954.
Tolliver, Melba. Betty Furness: Today’s Buyers More Savvy.” Lawrence Journal-World. October 13, 1985.