Entertainment Curator Remembers ‘All in the Family’ star Jean Stapleton

Dwight Blocker Bowers discusses the show’s iconic donation to the American History Museum and its place in television

The cast of the popular television
The cast of the popular television show goofs off at a donation ceremony in 1978, which added Archie and Edith Bunker’s chairs to the “A Nation of Nations” exhibit. (L-R): Jean Stapleton, Secretary (1964-1984) S. Dillon Ripley, Norman Lear, Sally Struthers and Rob Reiner as they peer into the case where the chairs are displayed. View Full Record for 92-1711. Photo by Richard Hofmeister

The housewife that Jean Stapleton portrayed on “All in the Family,” was, by her own words, “very naïve, and she kind of thinks through a mist, and she lacks the education to expand her world.” The actress, who died Friday at the age of 90, offered the show a moral compass. Where her on-screen husband Archie, played by Carroll O’Connor, was known for his small-minded bigotry, Stapelton’s Edith represented a more enlightened view on the show, known for breaking with television tradition, showing social strife, marital discord and the growing generation gap.

Bruce Weber wrote in her obituary for the New York Times:

Edith was none too bright, not intellectually, anyway, which, in the dynamic of the show was the one thing about her that invited Archie’s outward scorn. Ms. Stapleton gave Edith a high-pitched nasal delivery, a frequently baffled expression and a hustling, servile gait that was almost a canter, especially when she was in a panic to get dinner on the table or to bring Archie a beer.

But in Edith, Ms. Stapleton also found vast wells of compassion and kindness, a natural delight in the company of other people, and a sense of fairness and justice that irritated her husband to no end and also put him to shame.

In a 1978 ceremony, the American History Museum acquired both Edith and Archie’s set chairs. The objects are among the most visited and beloved in the collections.

Edith and Archie’s chairs, on display at the American History Museum, 2008.
Edith and Archie’s chairs, on display at the American History Museum, 2008. Photo by Wikimedia user, RadioFan (Talk)

“They are the equivalent of the Appomattox chairs in many ways because Archie’s chair and Edith’s chair are the point of debate in the conversation that goes on,” says entertainment curator Dwight Blocker Bowers. He cites the show’s comedic bickering that connected to a larger social context as one of the reasons it did so well and remains relevant today.

“They’re very, very popular with all ages, I’m surprised,” he says, “even kids, because of television syndication, which keeps the show on the air and in the public eye.”

Of the actress, he says, “Jean Stapleton’s legacy embraces her appearances on Broadway – in such shows as Damn Yankees and Bells Are Ringing, her recreations of those roles in those shows film versions, but uppermost her legacy is as Edith Bunker – a ditzy voice of reason and temperance that constantly balanced her husband’s prejudicial point of view.”

Note: Currently, only Archie Bunker’s chair is on display in the American History Museum’s “American Stories.”

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