The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
DISNEYLAND'S BATHROOM OF TOMORROW
If you were a kid in the early 1950s, you were glued to your black and white television set every Wednesday night at 7:30 to watch the magic that unfolded on Walt Disney's Disneyland. (If your memories are Sunday and Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, you're at least seven years younger.) During a short season of 20 episodes from October 27, 1954 through March 9, 1955, you fell prey to twenty hours of commercials for the Magic Kingdom. The first episode of Disneyland was called "The Disneyland Story" and told kids all about the "park" that would be called Disneyland, an all-encompassing vacuum cleaner of parents' pockets, comprised of four sublands: Advertureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, and Realityland - just kidding marketing department - I mean Tomorrowland. The next 18 episodes mostly illustrated the first three sublands and launched the Davy Crockett craze that made Fess Parker the most famous man in America. Not until the twentieth episode, "Man in Space," did Tomorrowland get its own show, but what a show, all about rockets and space travel. About 40 million people watched it, more than half the country with television sets. A super-colossal triumph, it earned an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Short.
Disneyland the park opened on July 17, 1955, preceded by a special Wednesday night preview on July 13, 1955. If you weren't among the 28,154 who attended opening day (almost half of them on counterfeit tickets, overwhelming the still half-built attractions) you looked forward to the next summer, when your folks could pack all you kids into the back of the station wagon and make the trek to see the sublands, especially the future coming alive for you in mega-exciting Tomorrowland. And a good thing it was that you waited. By doing so, you got to see an exhibit that didn't open until April 5, 1956: The Crane Company Bathroom of Tomorrow! Yay!
I can see this will require a bit of explanation.
Walt Disney Productions was not the world-girdling media behemoth that it is today. In truth, Disney was a tiny niche player in the Hollywood hierarchy, famed for its cartoons and other children's entertainment, but whose glory days were fading rapidly from memory. Walt's brother, Roy, the company money man, had no intention of sinking millions that the company didn't have in another one of Walt's famously outrageous ideas, especially since Walt couldn't even coherently describe what he wanted the end product to look like.
Walt sought financing on his own. He sold a half interest to the ABC television network, perhaps the most profitable win-win in corporate history. Walt got twenty hours of commercials on the network and his dream project, while ABC, then a third-place also-run, got Disneyland, the most successful and publicity-garnering program of the 50s and also Disneyland, the culture-changing theme park.
Yet that still didn't come close to paying for Walt's megalomania and perfectionism. Tomorrowland, the last and most nebulous of the sublands, came close to not being part of the opening. Walt essentially rented out space to manufacturers to exhibit their wares. Monsanto Chemical Company, American Motors, Kelvinator, Richfield Oil, Kaiser Aluminum, the American Dairy Association, and National Lead Paint all bought in. Only three attractions were operational on opening day, one being the combined Hall of Chemistry and Hall of Aluminum.
The Crane Plumbing Company wanted on this gravy train. Paradoxically, the fewer exhibits, the more attention one of the few would receive. They needed to do something.
Bathrooms were frankly boring and utilitarian. And tiny, despite the acres of space shown in that 1946 ad. My 1954 bathroom is 6" x 11" and was the master bath for the model home of an upper-end subdivision. The walls were - and are - covered in pink tiles. You stop noticing them after a while.
Crane thought hard and decided that giving pizazz to a bathroom meant getting rid of the empty space and filling it up with stuff. Lots and lots of stuff. Everything and anything that might plausibly be of use in a bathroom so full that it could probably double as a bunker in case of atomic war, and several things that were utterly implausible as well.
Crane called in one of the leading industrial designers in the country, the unsung hero behind the Bathroom of Tomorrow, Henry Dreyfuss.
At age 50, Dreyfuss had already been a name in his profession for half his life. The collage above shows many of his product designs. He wasn't as radical as Buckminster Fuller or as showy as Raymond Loewy. His products were smooth, pleasing to the touch and the eye, and eminently workable. He may, in fact, have been a poor choice. Crane may have been working with him since the 1920s, but that was for his standard sleek designs. They now needed a radical show, but what they got was busyness.
The entrance was stripped down, true, but how enticing is a line of giant valves? They worked. In fact, the grand opening showed Walt, Henry Dreyfuss, and Crane Company president Frank Elliot turning the valves to get the water flowing. Inexplicably, the opening was delayed until August 24, 1956.
The water served a purpose. Those modernistic sculptures in the background gushed water when the handles turned. They were interactive! Unfortunately, this was the only interactive part of the whole exhibit. Little wonder that Crane tried to convert the dull reality into a positive on the cover of their exhibit brochure. Fun with Water! indeed.
Five to one none of those kids could even turn the valves.
This is the only other color photo I could find. Who the women are is unknown.
The ducks in the background aren't futuristic versions of Donald. They are mechanical cranes. Get it?
(NOTE: You'll sometimes see references to Crane's Bathroom of Tomorrow and sometimes to Crane's Bathroom of the Future. Both are correct. The name changed partway through.)
Another brochure trumpeted the fact that the bathroom was both heated and air conditioned, advances present in only a tiny minority of American bathrooms in the 1950s. The end of the brochure flipped over to list part names if visitors wanted to order them back at home.
So, what would you have actually seen if you somehow took a wrong turn from the far more interesting Hall of Chemistry and landed in the Bathroom of Tomorrow?
Unlike the stark white fixtures in the 1946 ad - white appliances signified cleanliness in the first half of the century - the bathroom of the future would glow with color. The photo at top fails to convey how closely that future of bathrooms resembled the inside of Scrooge McDuck's money bin. The fixtures were all painted in Crane's citrus yellow. The bathtub was a billionaire's fantasy: gold-plated fixtures. The true tomorrowness of the room included a feature virtually unknown in America, which undoubtedly needed explaining by the guides: a bidet, also gold-plated.
The huge room gave space for both the luxury bathroom and a separate glass shower. Sinks were built into the wrap-around vanity. No need for a step to allow the kneehuggers to wash and brush their teeth. Hydraulics made the sink rise and fall. In a time when many homes, including mine, were still on party lines, a stand-alone telephone allowed conversations to continue in the bath, just like a Technicolor movie musical. Shelves and tables and niches provided display room for whatever you thought might enhance the room.
The pièce de résistance was a feature that must have come to Dreyfuss in a dream. A set of dumbbells were attached to a wall. I guess the thought was that if Mom could gab with her friends during a long soak, muscular Dad could efficiently use his bath time to double down on exercise. Or something. The Bathroom of Tomorrow is a code for reading the social mores and expectations of the 1950s, and those are almost as distant from today's thinking as those of the Assyrians.
Don't leave with the impression that the bathroom, mesmerizing as it was, constituted the sole exhibit in Crane's world.
The backside of a Crane brochure tells us that visitors also could see the massive boiler that supplied hot water to meet the needs of a bathrub and shower; a citrus yellow Launderette; the "Tear Drop," - "a dramatic story of valves in industry;" and, in Believe It or Not fashion, a twenty-foot mural imparting to the unaware "The Story of Flow Control."
No matter how many valves they added, though, Crane could never interest the public in flow control. The press tiptoed past the Crane corner and hyped the gorgeous colors and interactive exhibits in Monsanto's Hall of Chemistry. I found few than a dozen mentions of the Bathroom of Tomorrow in papers from 1956 through 1960, and most of them were literally no more than mentions.
The August dedication, though, prodded a minor paper, the Long Beach Independent, to publish a Disney press release tricked out as an actual news story. Why did they run it? Probably because the Disney publicist handed them a photo of "A Space Girl from Tomorrowland" dutifully smiling as she contemplates the bathtub.
Crane shut the exhibit for good in 1960 and Disney replaced it with a Fun Foto location. Fun Fotos were almost aggressively non-futuristic. Old as the hills, they offered nothing more than painted backdrops with holes cut out so that you could stick your head into the scene. The biggest difference between them and the Bathroom of Tomorrow was that "guests" at the park loved them. I'm sure traffic at the Hall of Chemistry went up by a thousand per cent. Crane went back to sleek designs, now in color. Yes, Henry Dreyfuss did them. The toilet paper matched the toilet color, desert tourquoise.
Wall-to-wall carpeting in a bathroom. Now that's radical. Also crazy.
Speaking of which, Walt was already dreaming of his City of Tomorrow, EPCOT. He died long before Disney World opened and Roy simply ignored any such experimental and utopian projects in favor of making money, money, money, with complete control over every aspect of the park except the weather. Disney World made Disneyland look like a toy. But all of its bathrooms are designed to be used.
December 18, 2020