In 2011, Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History collected a Rival Crock-Pot in a distinctly ‘70s hue of avocado green. The electric cooker with a ceramic crock shows a few signs of wear, in part on the graphic print of onions and veggies galloping around its base. The scuffs came from its years of service in the household of former owners Robert and Shirley Hunter, where it cooked stews, sauerkraut with kielbasa, and chicken and dumplings, among other dishes.
The Crockpot, and its many modern slow cooker iterations, has become ubiquitous in American kitchens thanks to its ability to ready perfectly prepared dinners while families are away from home. The cookware debuted in 1971 at Chicago’s National Housewares Show alongside a booklet of professionally written recipes. It was a hit, earning $2 million in sales its first year on the market. Now, 50 years later, its history has faded into the harvest gold–colored haze of pot roasts past.
The Birth of America’s Cookware
The kitchenware traces its origins to Vilnius, Lithuania, in the 1800s. On Fridays before the sun went down, Vilnius’s Jewish families toted crocks filled with meat, beans, and vegetables to the town’s bakeries, where they’d tuck them into warm-but-cooling ovens and allow the lingering heat to slow cook a stew called cholent, which they’d eat on the Sabbath.
First-generation American and Jewish engineer Irving Nachumsohn (a.k.a. Naxon) learned about this tradition from his mother. As Michelle Delgado writes at Smithsonian magazine, he created the Crockpot’s first iteration—the Naxon Beanery—when his family was searching for a way to cook summer dinners without overheating the house.
Under the umbrella of his company, Naxon Utilities Corp., Nachumsohn applied for a patent for the portable cooker on May 21, 1936, and was granted one on January 23, 1940. The product finally hit the market in the 1950s, but Nachumsohn’s focus wasn’t homes; instead, he chose to focus on selling to luncheonettes and coffee shops, where the device was used to make soups and chilis.
Nachumsohn (who passed away in 1989) was a prolific inventor who held around 200 patents. He was responsible for other ‘70s marvels such as the electric frying pan and the hula lamp, the forefather of the Lava Lamp. In 1970, he retired and sold his business to the Kansas City, Missouri-based Rival Manufacturing, which would take the Naxon Beanery to new heights.
Bust to Boom
At first, the Naxon Beanery didn’t seem like a market-changing product; in fact, it nearly escaped notice among Rival’s sundry acquisitions. “No one paid any attention to it,” the company’s then-president, I.H. Miller, said in a 1981 interview. “We almost forgot about it.” But after one of the company’s home economists spotted the crock’s ability to cook much more than beans and whipped up a cookbook to prove it, the company saw the pot’s potential.
Rival rebranded and refreshed the family-friendly kitchenware for a debut at the National Housewares Show, where the Crockpot was launched with a squat frame, removable fitted glass lid, ceramic crock, and signature wrap around heating element that cooked dishes evenly. Advertisements boasted that the kitchenware “cooks all day while the cook’s away.” The included cookbook for comforting soups, stews, and roasts was a key selling point. After its debut, the Crockpot—which sold for around $25 (around $169 today)—was a runaway success with sales doubling each year. Early sales peaked at $93 million in 1975.
The Crockpot’s launch was well suited to America’s changing appetite, says Paula J. Johnson, curator in the division of work and industry at Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. As women increasingly joined the American workforce, they were still expected to have home-cooked meals on the table for dinner. “More women were working outside the home and the Crockpot helped facilitate mealtime,” Johnson tells Mental Floss in an email. “And being able to keep food warm when family members weren’t able to eat together (a phenomenon that escalated in the 1970s) still gave cooks the peace of mind that they were providing nourishment to folks in their care.” Because it facilitated women’s movement to work outside the home, some view the appliance as feminist.
The Crockpot’s release also coincided with a particular moment in America’s food history. At a time when processed foods such as TV dinners were being heavily marketed, the gadget offered home cooks something different: “[They] could make a nutritious, affordable, home-cooked meal without having to spend a lot of time standing over a hot stove. It was easy. It was foolproof. It made tough cuts of meat more tender. It made the house smell great,” Johnson says. The Crockpot is also easy to use, allowing those without any culinary training to prepare nutritious, often comforting, meals. That the cookery could also be cleaned easily clinched its spot in cooks’ hearts.
The Crockpot became a staple for American families. Although it’s had a few iterations over the decades, including a removable, dishwasher safe crock and an oval shape that allowed for cooking larger meals, the basics have remained unchanged. Its omnipresence led many to use its name to refer to any slow cooker. The Crockpot was the game-changer that launched a fleet of look-a-likes.
Despite a dip in the 1980s that coincided with the rising popularity of the microwave, the Crockpot is still a homey favorite today. In 2019, Americans purchased 11.6 million slow cookers—a few million less than the high of 14 million in 2016 and 2017—and there are slow-cooker recipe books by the thousands. The devices have even taken social media by storm: The slow cooker recipe section of TikTok has 7 billion views.
The Crockpot is part of some regional cultures more than others. “As a Midwesterner, I can attest that the Crockpot is still indispensable for family meals and special events,” Johnson says. “Potluck dinners, graduation parties, tailgating events, or supper at the cabin generally involve a crock pot or two. The Crockpot and, more recently, the [Instant Pot] are two culinary devices that answer the needs of many Americans.”