Irma Harding, the Woman Who Taught Rural Moms to Kick Canning and Start Freezing

During the Great Depression, one of President Roosevelt’s infrastructure employment programs was the Rural Electrification Administration, which brought electric power to rural areas and farmlands across the country for the first time. This opened up an entirely new market for manufacturers of electric appliances. International Harvester is known for their tractors and farm equipment, but they also made industrial refrigeration units for dairy farms long before rural electrification. After World War II, IH developed a massive campaign to sell refrigerators and freezers to the newly-powered rural area. Their spokeswoman was Irma Harding, who pushed the idea of freezing food as an easier alternative to traditional canning.    

As the sales force’s fictional leader, Irma Harding was the company’s official face, spreading the gospel of frozen convenience. The face itself, however, belonged to a studio model named Ann Pfarr, who posed for the great Haddon Sundblom, the artist behind such American advertising icons as Aunt Jemima, the Quaker Oats man, and the Coca-Cola Santa Claus, as well as countless pin-ups and, at the end of his life, a cover for ‘Playboy.’ He did Irma Harding, too, who was rosy-cheeked but not cheeky, generous with her smile but a stickler, one sensed, for details and doing things right. In this way, Irma Harding personified the image of cordial, steady, dependability International Harvester wanted to project to its pragmatic prairie customers.

Collectors Weekly talked to Marilyn McCray, author of the book Canning, Pickling, and Freezing with Irma Harding, about how modern appliances came to small towns and farms through the magic of advertising.

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