Martha Comes to Harvard

Harvard On My Mind

Why did Martha Stewart come to Harvard? At the dinner honoring her Wednesday night I polled the audience, trying to come up with an answer.

Some women simply liked her style. "She's so imaginative, so creative," said one attendee. Others cited her enormous success as a businesswoman and entrepeneur. But when it came time to give the thank-you speech, a middle-aged professor spoke excitedly about the colors of Martha Stewart paint she uses in her homes. Yes, homes, plural. Apparently Martha buys homes like I try on shoes (her words, not mine).

The professor, notably, spoke about her guilt at not being the kind of homemaker that her mother was when she was a little girl, and how Martha has helped raise the standard back up to those "good old days" of her childhood.


Hearing these reactions to Martha and not being a Martha-phile myself, I was confused. Was Martha supposed to come and teach us Cliffies how to make house? Or was she there to show us how, as successful career women, we can make millions?

In some ways, it seemed that Martha wasn't there for undergraduates at all. Her guilt trips and perfectionism don't work as well on girls brought up by working mothers, as most of our generation was.

Then I realized, Martha is really about nostalgia. Like Restoration Hardware, Martha offers us the opportunity to buy a little upper-crust of American culture.

Luckily, Martha Stewart isn't purely about nostalgia for Sally Homemaker of the '50s. Note her corps of gardeners and army of staffers, and it quickly becomes apparent that she is selling nostalgia for the decadent '20s, or perhaps the Gilded Age of innocence. The miracle is, unlike the J. Peterson catalogue, Martha sells it for the price of a mass-produced appliance. She flawlessly melds nostalgia for the do-it-yourself mom of the Cold War--who single-handedly built and stocked a bomb shelter with attractive canned goods--with nostalgia for the Great Gatsby mansions of an earlier era where elaborate parties and swirls of ribbon and beads decorated everything from hats and dresses to cakes and ballrooms.

Martha's brilliant because she says you can buy opulence at Kmart, thus allowing your sensible '50s wallet to purchase the decadence of the roaring '20s. And, at that price, who wouldn't?


Recommended Articles