The midcentury flower of choice: red geraniums

vintage-kohler-kitchen

Longtime readers may recognize this photo, it’s one of my favorite images of idealized 50s family life ever. And ooooh, I like that colonial-modern kitchen, too! But look, it also includes pots of red geraniums on the window sill. In my detail-focused time travels back into retroworld, I have most definitively noticed a trend to include red geraniums in postwar kitchen designs. I have a few theories why: 1) Geraniums are big and bold – in synch with the times. 2) They are middle class… egalitarian. 3) They need sun, and we were California-livin’. 4) They look really good with cool colors like aqua and robin’s egg blue. 5) They also play into the patriotic sensibilities of the time. I run a flickr group called Midcentury Modern Red Geraniums –  take a look at about 50 images in all. The majority of them come from flickr friend American Vintage Home, who has quite an online archive of vintage photography. Thank, you American Vintage!

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Comments

  1. Robert says

    Hello,

    Oh how I remember. As a 70’s child, my grandma had two cement pots painted white, on either side of her front stoop with geraniums in them. I remember the smell too. She also had the “spikes” in them around the geraniums. Every year.

    Robert

  2. sumac sue says

    I think red geraniums also were a connection to the past for postwar households. The housewife in this kitchen probably saw red geraniums in the kitchens of her mom and grandma. (Remember the red geraniums on the windowsill of the Putney farmhouse kitchen in the charming book “Understood Betsy, from the early 1900s?) Postwar households, as we’ve learned, leaned toward the future, but saluted the past.

    Geraniums also are plants that can be “wintered over,” thus making them an economical plant to have. Back in the 50s, households didn’t necessarily have a lot of extra cash, so keeping a plant alive for a long time was thrifty. Even in the 60s and 70s, my dad would bring in the red geraniums from our outdoor planters, and keep them in front of a sunny basement window through the winter, to be replanted in spring. I am not a big fan of red flowers, leaning more toward pinks and purples, but I always have a red geranium or two in a concrete planter outside, just like Dad had. It’s a must!

  3. says

    Pam – Have you ever done any posts on midcentury outdoor decorating/landscaping? I’m trying to do some yard and exterior rehab on our 1954 Minnesota rambler and am looking for some retro inspiration. I’ve already noted the geranium thing; any other ideas or tips?

  4. says

    It’s one of my favorite images too; that yellow sink in a black countertop (or is that really cobalt?), her perfect figure, her pose. It’s all too sexy.

  5. Elaine says

    I love geraniums, particularly scented ones. I would love to see some ideas for MCM landscaping. Here’s what I remember from “helping” in my grandma’s garden in the 50s. For outside, pansies along the borders! Nowadays you can get cold hardy pansies that will survive long into the fall, and they are perennials, too. She had tiger lilies along the back of the beds and bulb plants like iris,. tulips and daffodils, and coral bells, and oh, yes, petunias. We have a neighbor with a MCM garden along her circle drive, with iris and coral bells. Our early 60s house had junipers and yew planted along the foundation in front with myrtle groundcover underneath. We took them out as they had gotten completely overgrown, and replaced them with smaller versions of yew and boxwood, which I remember from the 50s, and coral bells in front of them. Oh, don’t forget the roses! What else?

  6. Retrocat says

    My mother loves red geraniums, and has them at her house. I’ve carried on the tradition, as well. To Meghan Wilker….I live in Texas, and grew up during the 50s and 60s. I don’t know if plants down here would thrive up there, but I’ll tell you what I remember. Monkey grass (border grass for the flowerbeds) was hot. Box shaped hedges close to the house (the perimeter of the house) were popular. Others were banana plants, mimosa trees, day lillies, althea bushes, gardenias, and kumquat bushes. Another popular thing was letting ivy grow on one exterior wall of the house.

  7. Retrocat says

    I almost forgot…….some other popular landscaping plants of the 50s and 60s were caladiums (red and white) and elephant ears.

  8. says

    My grandma (aka: Granny) always said a woman could make a home with just 2 things: curtains and flowers. Pam of course yours would be pinch pleats and red geraniums. Lot of wisdom in that statement. She had started out in a literal shack on the oil fields to a mid century modern pink home with a view. Thanks to your inspiration, I have red geraniums filling my window boxes of our very rustic unpainted farmhouse. They were the 1st flower I had success with and I think that’s another reason for their popularity: they’re easy! For Elaine, a few of Granny’s favorites (quite a mid century gardener!) were pansies in the spring, purple clematis vine (jackmanii) in summer as well as white calla lillies, petunias, and lobelia all with red geraniums. She loved the red and purple combinations.

  9. sumac sue says

    My memories of mid-century flowers include irises and lily-of-the-valley in spring, marigolds and four-o’clocks in summer, and chrysanthemums in fall.

  10. Propagatrix says

    Ah, the ubiquitous geranium-phormium-bacopa outdoor urn! Sometimes vinca was substituted for the bacopa, but only a philistine would omit the geranium.

  11. Deb says

    Did you know that this very picture is featured in the musical movie version of Little Shop of Horrors? As Audrey begings to fantasize about how her life would be if she were married to Seymour she sits at her vanity table and opens up a Better Homes and Gardens to this ad. This leads into a film sequence of her perfect life, complete with plastic furniture covers, a knotty pine den with TV trays and TV dinners, , their two children playing with a Howdy Doody puppet and an incredible Tupperware party. It’s worth watching the movie just for that sequence, but there’s so much more too.

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