Retrofuturism, Domestic Technology, and the False Promise of Utopia
A curious article was published in the September 1943 issue of American Cookery: Formerly the Boston Cooking School Magazine, a slim wartime volume full of thrifty recipes, illustrated rhymes about vitamins, and ads suggesting you eat Kellogg’s corn flakes for every meal.
The story, written by a white man called David O. Woodbury in a publication firmly targeted at middle-class white women, imagines a far-off domestic future of plastic and chrome. A future of impossible convenience, of portable machines that read aloud from the latest novel, automatic doors you never have to open, fridges that let you know when your meat is spoiled, baby monitors you can check from downstairs, video doorbells, and culinary contraptions that work “by high-frequency radio and generate no heat at all except inside the food itself.”
If you were wondering, you own one of those. It’s a microwave.
Not all of Woodbury’s domestic imaginings have come to fruition. We never did end up with disposable “smooth paper sheets” for babies to sleep on or “gay curtains of synthetic rubber.” No one has yet invented a “chrome-plated kitchen knife that never needs sharpening.” It will be a pretty big deal if anyone creates an air purifier as effective as the “portable precipitron, which cleans the air of floating particles however small,” and ensures that “draperies, upholstery, and walls only need to be cleaned every three years.”
But a staggering number of the ideas posited in “Here’s Your Kitchen of Tomorrow” are now real technologies. More than a few of them are accessible through your phone. You are quite literally experiencing the privileges of a future only dreamed of by your forebears.
Congrats, you’re a Jetson. Kind of.
Woodbury was by no means alone in his dream of a better tomorrow. Throughout the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, fantastical visions of future home and kitchen technology abounded in everything from science fiction to advertisements. 1956’s Forbidden Planet introduced us to Robby the Robot, a miraculous butler that could not only make unlimited quantities of whiskey, but also produced diamond-studded gowns like it was nothing, completely eliminating both scarcity and, presumably, housework. Corporations like Monsanto (yes, that Monsanto), General Motors, Frigidaire, and even Disney proposed houses so advanced that their inhabitants were, as the nameless protagonist exclaims in GM’s 1956 film Design for Dreaming, “free to have fun around the clock.”
In her book Perfection Salad, feminist food historian Laura Shapiro points out that in the early years of industrialization, “science and technology were gaining an aura of divinity, such forces could do no wrong, and their very presence lent dignity to otherwise humble lives and proceedings.” It’s easy to see why when you consider the sharp contrast between, say, growing up on a rural farm with an outhouse and unreliable lightbulbs and buying all your food at an air-conditioned grocery store when you weren’t watching your very own television set in the comfort of a house exactly like all the others on your street.
For the children of the Great Depression, seemingly quotidian inventions like JELL-O and canned pineapple—inventions that made former luxury goods instantly accessible to the masses—were revolutionary. Anything modern was immediately trustworthy.
As such, “Here’s Your Kitchen of Tomorrow,” addressed to a theoretical “you,” describes the future kitchen, and by extension America, as utopic. Your kitchen is a “gleaming little cooking laboratory, with its colorful plastic surfaces and aluminum trim, its automatic gadgets and scientific short cuts,” a place where, for its inevitably enthusiastic operator, “getting dinner is an adventure and a joy.” In the midst of a war that sent women into the workforce, Woodbury imagined a leisurely scientific homemaker delighted with unpaid labor because her chores have been made so simple they barely exist. She spends her days wondering if her next “two-week vacation should be spent on the beaches of Bali or in the lake country of northern Canada,” when she’s not wildly ecstatic at the idea of preparing a meal for her adorable family.
But it’s not exactly news that despite having computers in our pockets more powerful than those that took up whole rooms in the 1950s, the vast majority of Americans in 2021 do not live in a “future like this, with its right to argue over another future still.”
Some of this contrast is simply due to the rose-colored glasses of mid-century futurism, and, to be clear, the world at large has never had it better. Industrialization—especially when it comes to food—has given us everything from feminism to baby formula, reliably safe restaurants to vaccines. But our slavish devotion to gadgetry has also proved that technology on its own, as any citizen of our technochauvinist society knows, cannot fix all of our problems.
Unlike the endlessly beatific uber-modern housewives serving dehydrated treats in Woodbury’s essay or any number of similar pieces of “content,” our access to these miracles has not led to an ideal society. Rather, we find ourselves as, to quote him, “incorrigibly unsatisfied young Americans of the new era.”
Our lives—especially the ways we eat and how we care for each other—are more convenient than ever before, and it’s driving us crazy.
Were they to stumble upon a time machine and travel to, say, 2020, Woodbury and the many domestic futurists of his era would no doubt be surprised by what they found. Our lives are becoming more and more automated every day, and yet, as Laura Scott Holliday puts it in her essay “Kitchen Technologies: Promises and Alibis,” “New domestic technologies do not, as intuition would suggest, lessen women’s work in the home; rather, standards of hygiene and creativity rise, and new technologies also produce new kinds of labor.”
When we automate one thing, we move the goalposts, raise standards, and invent new worries and ways to work. Food, being the most fundamental of all things, is deeply impacted by these changes.
Ray Bradbury, in his infinite wisdom, expected this. Bradbury’s terrifying short story “The Veldt” imagines the Hadleys: George, Lydia, and their children Peter and Wendy (who are appropriately disinterested in growing up.) The Hadley family are well-off, and thus they live in a Happylife Home, a smart house so smart—and so fun—that it robs its inhabitants of their agency and eventually their lives. Reading it, it’s frankly amazing the story was written in 1950, since it almost feels like an episode of Euphoria crossed with Black Mirror.
The Happylife Home fries your eggs for you. It mends your socks. If you need a bottle of ketchup, it makes sure one appears in short order. Heck, it even cleans itself. And that’s to say nothing of the nursery.
You see, the HappyLife nursery is a marvel of endless entertainment. Reminiscent of the evil VR company from Hank Green’s A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor in its ability to cater to one’s every whim while concealing a sinister undertone, the nursery is an impossibly entertaining playroom on hypermodern steroids. The children being raised by it (for their parents are “beginning to feel unnecessary”) are fixated on a simulation of the African grasslands complete with lifelike lions and hyenas. This, understandably, disturbs said parents.
The Hadleys are eventually so disturbed by their endlessly luxurious smart home that they decide to “unplug,” if you will. Have you ever taken a digital vacation in the woods with no Wifi? Well, when the Hadleys try to “shut off the house for a few days” and go to Indiana, chaos ensues. The children have mysteriously gained control over the simulation, and their parents don’t survive.
But Bradbury was prophetic in ways the forward-thinkers of his generation often were not. To be fair, most of them were selling something.
See, mid-century marketers frequently used visions of technology that did not yet exist to sell their wares, or at least positively impact public opinion. In one of the most famous examples, Walt Disney debuted the Monsanto House of the Future; a model home visitors could tour, as one of the early attractions in Disneyland’s Tomorrowland in 1957. This is only one among many, many futurist projects dreamed up by the animation mogul and his compatriots (check out the Carousel of Progress, the Disneylicious “Sandwich of the Future,” or the original plans for EPCOT for a deeply weird rabbit hole) but it was one of his most successful—as many as 10,000 people a day are estimated to have visited the attraction at its peak.
The House of the Future imagined what life might be like in the far-off year of 1986. Monsanto was primarily a plastics company in the 50s, and thus visitors walked through a plastic house with plastic plates, plastic cabinets, a (distinctly ornamental) dishwasher supposedly operated by “ultrasonic waves,” three “cold zones” instead of a refrigerator (“one for irradiated foods”), a microwave cooktop (no, those don’t exist), and plastic “floors, walls, shelving, and furniture” for good measure.
The House of the Future is the tip of the marketing iceberg. Tons of industrial films—elaborately scripted infomercials—were made throughout the mid-century period to advertise the modernity and wondrous convenience of home and kitchen products. They implied that new tech—real or imagined—was the end-all and be-all for a modern household. It was a necessity for a woman who wanted to entice an intelligent, educated man to have a kitchen with all the newest electrified appliances. In researching this essay, I watched a film about an enterprising young lady who learns everything she can about efficient appliances to catch the eye of a “time study man” fresh out of engineering school. It literally included the line a woman’s place is in the home.
But marketing and reality are two different things, and the endless toil of housework has rarely actually made anyone’s heart sing, despite what the distinctly male mid-century futurists might have thought. By the 1980s we were bored by our appliances (and middle-class women had firmly staked a claim outside of their houses). Movies like Back to the Future II and Time Bandits presented us with bored, distracted inhabitants of plastic-coated futuristic homes with retractable gardens mounted over the dinner table, contraptions for rehydrating prepackaged Pizza Hut pizzas, and even the “Moderna Wonder Major All-Automatic Convenience Centerette,” which boasts an “infrared freezer/oven complex that can make in you a meal from packet to plate in 15 ½ seconds.”
Both films include an edge that the imaginings of their mid-century counterparts lack, framing food preparation as simultaneously feminine and quotidian, devoid of the promised joy that technology was supposed to bring to drudgery. The goalposts had moved.
Most of the technologies I’ve discussed thus far were invented by men like David O. Woodbury, men who had rarely ever made their own breakfast. But around the same time that Time Bandits came out, polymathic inventor, ceramic artist, and jeweler Frances Gabe used technology to actually solve her problems. Gabe understood the joylessness of perpetual labor better than anyone (she started working on the house that made her famous when her child smeared fig jam on the wall one too many times), and once said in an interview that “housework stuck in my craw even when I was a kid.”
She fixed this particular annoyance by creating the world’s first self-cleaning house. No, really.
Gabe’s washer/dryer deposited clothes directly into the closet when they were done. She installed sudsy sprinklers that could clean every room from top to bottom with the push of a button. The dishwasher was also a storage area for dishes, the upholstery was made from a waterproof fabric of Gabes’ invention, books wore special jackets of her design. The house included sixty-eight original inventions in total, and was considered such a curiosity that Gabe eventually started giving tours, once prompting a group of furious housewives to knock on her door, indignantly telling Gabe that “if they didn’t have to clean their houses, their husbands wouldn’t need them anymore.”
Gabe pointed out that not cleaning would give them more time to spend with those husbands, which apparently did not go over well. The more we get used to a technology, the less exciting we think it is, and the more we let it replace the admittedly tedious tasks that have made us feel useful. That sense of accomplishment is important.
Perhaps if you, like Frances Gabe, were to invent all the tools that make your life easier, malaise would never set in, but the essential tasks of our lives have been made so simple that we not only have begun to take them for granted, we are bored out of our skulls.
In his remarkable comedy special Inside, Bo Burnham elucidates the digital paradoxes of modern life through the extreme lens of lockdown. His song “Welcome to the Internet,” framed as a triumphant Disney villain’s libretto, states that not only can you find “a trick for straining pasta” and a “nine-year-old who died” online, but that “boredom is a tragedy and apathy’s a crime.” When you have access to “anything and everything all of the time,” the abundance begins to grate on you.
Making sourdough bread or a big pot of beans is one way people deal with this, but others spend their days playing games like Stardew Valley, maintaining a fantasy farm where certain tasks have to get done every day to distract from their barren studio apartments. Animal Crossing’s recreational labor was the coolest thing to do last summer, and culinary video games like Overcooked are stunningly, paradoxically popular.
We’re yearning for more substantial work and “simpler” lives. Perhaps nothing illustrates that yearning better than the rise of Cottagecore. Characterized by pastoral TikToks of Gen Z girls in flowy dresses harvesting eggs from backyard chickens and making paints from crushed dandelion flowers in their remote cabins, the Cottagecore aesthetic gives people a deliberately revisionist fantasy of a time when work—be it domestic or otherwise—was harder but more satisfying, the Internet didn’t exist, exercise was just part of doing other necessary tasks, and there were (in theory) fewer things to worry about.
As more and more technologies begin to replace human labor, we need to start finding new ways to stay engaged with the real world. We already have smart kitchens full of devices that claim to help you by tracking your calorie intake, photographing the contents of your fridge so you know exactly what to buy at the store, or controlling your stove, Instant Pot, or any number of appliances without you in the room.
The first fully automated kitchen was launched by Moley Robotics at CES 2021. It required a mere six years of “research and development by an international team of 100 engineers, product and luxury interior designers and three award-winning chefs” to bring it to fruition, and, “allows you to save time, free up your day from routine cooking, plan and adapt your menu according to different diets and lifestyles, enjoy international cuisine anytime, control calories and get cooking tips and recipes from chefs around the world.”
Flippy, a robot burger flipper and French fry fryer, is already being implemented at White Castle restaurants across the country, tabletop lab-grown meat machines could be on the horizon, and the episode of Black Mirror where John Hamm’s job is to torture a computerized clone of your brain to the point that it becomes your slave-like virtual assistant, creating toast that’s just barely on the lighter side every single time, doesn’t feel like an impossibility anymore.
Seems like a totally great way to “get the taste back into your toast,” like Marvel’s Wanda Maximoff might do with her Stark Industries ToastMate 2000, right?
Most of us don’t have access to this kind of futuristic tech yet, but think about it, how did you live during the interminable slog of COVID-19? How often did you order dinner from an app on your phone? Did you also find yourself meticulously analyzing your brand new sourdough starter, trying in vain to understand why the mysterious microorganisms wouldn’t do what you wanted? Maybe you were fretting over a brand new vegetable garden while a bunch of celery delivered by a drone disintegrated in the back of your fridge?
Folks like Walt Disney and David O. Woodbury, and indeed most futurists, have tended to forget about human nature in their imaginings of endless luxury. It turns out that as much as having it easier sounds like a great idea, when we get everything we think we want, it often just makes us listless and upset.
In Evan S. Connell’s 1959 novel Mrs. Bridge, the eponymous main character has everything handed to her on a silver platter. She’s rich, she has the freedom to spend her days however she wants, and she’s utterly miserable. Her husband has hired a housekeeper who does all the cooking and cleaning, and thus:
There were mornings when she lay in bed wide awake until noon, terrified to get up because there was nothing to do… At breakfast—lunch if she chose to call it so—she would consider the newspaper with sober apathy, sighing at the events in Europe, lethargically eating whatever Harriet prepared—toast and orange juice, chipped beef and cinnamon rolls, fruit salad, bacon and tomato sandwich, a dish of sherbet, whatever it happened to be Mrs. Bridge would eat some of it though it seemed tasteless. Summer had come again, another summer, another year.
Automation has the potential to truly transform human life. Fewer high risk, backbreaking jobs—especially in the food industry—are almost certainly a net good for humanity. Slaughterhouses and strawberry farms staffed primarily by robots would eliminate low-wage, dangerous, and often exploitative work that leaves a bad taste in your mouth. I can tell you that I’d love to have a Fallout-inspired robot butler who could do my laundry, clean my kitchen, and vacuum my floor. But as we continue to bring technological solutions into more and more aspects of our lives, we need to find new ways to keep people not just busy, but fulfilled.
Making our own sauerkraut isn’t going to cut it.