What I call the Consensus Future, the vision of Tomorrow that seemed to be everywhere in the mid 20th century, wasn't just a promise to adults suffering through the Depression and WWII. Kids took it home with them via their textbooks. Dick and Jane-like children, usually blond and always white, appeared in their striped shirts and plaid skirts, scrubbed squeaky clean, as proxies for their grubbier real-world analogues. They had all the fun, gadding around the country and the world, seeing all the interesting sights, and learning about the latest and greatest innovations.
Never more so than in the Easy Growth in Reading series, a set of 14 texts from pre-school through the sixth grade, masterminded by Gertrude Howell Hildreth, one of the foremost expects in elementary education in 1940. The image above is from their sixth grade reader, called Moving Ahead and published in 1945. The section on Tomorrow is remarkably clear-headed and matter-of-fact about the changes sure to come, although a few tiny things never came to pass, like commuter rocket ships.
I'll get back to Tomorrow in just a moment. But first, a quick digression.
Gertrude Howell Hildreth isn’t considered famous enough to deserve a page in Wikipedia. A shame, since her life is both distinguished and fascinating.
She was born in 1898 in Terre Haute, IN. The household moved north to Naperville, IL, where her mother’s family, the Smiths, were the intellectual elite. They were part of the American mania for establishing colleges in villages that in Europe were considered barely large enough to house a grocery. A. A. Smith, Hildreth’s great-grandfather, was the first President of Plainfield College in the tiny Illinois village of the same name. Three years after its founding in 1864, the college changed its name to North-Western College (not to be confused with the already existing and now famous Northwestern University outside of Chicago; probably to lessen confusion, the school changed its name to North Central College in 1926), and in 1870 moved a few miles up the road to Naperville. Grandfather H. C. Smith taught at the college and his daughter Fanny Smith graduated from the school and taught in its music department. Fanny was Gertrude's mother.
Hildreth was in the first generation to take full advantage of her heritage. She naturally attended North-Western College and received a Bachelor’s degree in education in 1920.
Gertrude Howell Hildreth, second from left, in 1919, as Vice President of her class at North Central College.
Unlike most women before the Great War, she didn’t have to stop there. A scholarship let her continue on to the University of Illinois and a Master’s in Education the next year. She scaled the peak with a Ph.D. in educational psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University in 1925, becoming the first female graduate from North Central to earn a doctorate. The four-year gap between her M.A. and Ph.D. doesn’t seem long, but it hides the amount of accomplishment those years contained. During that time she moved to the oil boom town of Okmulgee, OK, and became the state’s first school psychologist. With her Ph.D. in hand, Dr. Hildreth made a much shorter hop of a few blocks and for the next twenty years was a psychologist at the Lincoln School, an experimental coeducational school affiliated with the Teachers College.
Her specialty lay in the study of school testing. North-Central says of its alumna:
Gertrude Hildreth is perhaps best known for her development of the Metropolitan Readiness Tests and for her contribution to the Metropolitan Achievement Tests, both widely used in schools today. However, many no longer recall her monumental Bibliography of Mental Tests and Rating Scales, published in 1933 and 1939, the latter covering a 50 year time period and over 4,000 titles. She issued a supplement containing an additional 1,000 items in 1946.
In her spare time, she churned out Psychological Service for School Problems (1930), Learning the Three R's; A Modern Interpretation (1936), Helping Children to Read (1940), and The Child Mind in Evolution: A Study of Developmental Sequences in Drawing (1941), and started the set of fourteen reading textbooks, known as the Hildreth Series.
Not enough? In 1948, she moved over to Brooklyn College as a professor in their School of Education, and the next year became President of the American Psychological Association’s Educational Psychology Division. She stayed at Brooklyn until her retirement in 1964, except for the 1959-1960 school year when she taught at the University of Istanbul as a Fulbright Scholar. Her “retirement” resembled her career. She joined the faculty of the American University in Beirut from 1964 to 1968 and then spent a year teaching at Voorhees College, a historically black college in Denmark, South Carolina. Along the way came another outpouring of books, most of them aimed at the general public, with titles like Understanding the Gifted, Child Growth Through Education, and, unfortunately, “The Development and Training of Hand Dominance,” which promulgated the notion that no child was naturally left-handed and that all children should be encouraged – but not forced – to write right and rightly. Hey, she wrote over 200 articles in her career; a few clunkers have to be expected.
Hildreth finally retired retired to her long-time home in Sea Cliff on Long Island, one bay over from where The Great Gatsby is set. She died in 1984, and got a brief obituary in the New York Times.
Moving Ahead is a mixture of stories, poems, and nonfiction articles, part instructional, part entertaining. The stereotypical youth are whisked off to a movie studio, given lessons on the power of water and the horrors of the Dust Bowl, and introduced to the daily lives of other kids from around the world, including an Indian and an Algerian, both brown-skinned. One shouldn't mock. This was broad-minded by the standards of the day.
For today's reader, the highlight is the section called The World of Tomorrow. Their tomorrow is the world most Boomers' parents would grow up in, the same world so confidently predicted by the 1939 World's Fair and futurists in and out of science fiction.
The house at top has a flavor of Frank Lloyd Wright, with both the pros - the clean lines, the multitude of windows - and the cons - the flat roof and the lack of gutters that would devastate his houses in snowy states. The artist is already looking toward the great internal migration from the Rust Belt to the South. (The cactus at the bottom is another clue.) None of the windows look openable, so the planners must assume air conditioning, which would indeed transform the southwest. Nothing out of the ordinary until we hit that incredible floating staircase, which resembles nothing more than looks more than an alien tongue waiting to swallow the tiny humans. All the kids would nevertheless immediately imagine themselves sliding down the banisters (is that why the chair is placed as it is, to catch them?), but think of the poor parents trying to twist their king-size mattress up it. Nor could it possibly fit into the low-slung house at top. Perhaps it's best to consider the scale a prediction of the cathedral ceilings that would dominate suburban McMansions and pretend the stairs are a vision out of the pulp sf mag the girl is reading.
That's not a house: it's a solarium. After the war, millions of homes would be needed for the baby boom families, a market that had been frozen by the years of depression and war. They had to be built quickly and cheaply, which meant that they were tiny by today's expectations. The original houses in archetypal Levittown, NY, had only 750 sq. ft., smaller than a master bedroom suite in a modern home. This house looks tiny even by that standard, and lacks the "expansion" attic that bulked out a Levittown home.
Why radiant heating? Not surprisingly, given the influence already shown, that was one of Wright's pet solutions. More efficient than forced-air heating, the paucity of systems in America comes as a surprise, since radiant heating is found in about 80% of Asian homes and almost half of those in Europe, several times their percentage in the U.S.
This section doesn't mention air conditioning after all. The ridiculous amounts of glass walls will condition everything, allowing sun warmth to enter in cold weather while the double-paned thermopane windows block the warm air from leaking. Insulating the non-glass walls is presented as if it were a brand new idea.
Hey, you can open the windows after all. I'm wiling to place money on those tracks sticking or failing in two years tops. And the southwest is totally free of insects, right?
The next section is called Furnishing the House of Tomorrow.
Glass is ubiquitous through the house, used not just for floors but for upholstery, ovens, refrigerators, and fluorescent lighting.
No future is complete without television, so here it is, in color and viewable on a large, rectangular screen.
If the house owes its inspiration the Frank Lloyd Wright, vehicles of the future will be the product of Norman Bel Geddes and his fellow streamliners.
More glass will wrap around the suppository-shaped auto. Air conditioning makes its appearance here, probably because you can't lower a curved window into a curved side panel. Cars will have two radio receivers, one for entertainment, the other to get traffic info from the police. Headlights will automatically dim when other cars approach. "Plywood, plastics, aluminum, and magnesium, ... strong, lightweight material ... will [make cars] so well built for speed that people can drive faster and still be better protected from accidents. Not on tires made from "synthetic rubber" they can't.
Superhighways are not, a vision straight out of the Futurama in the 1939 World's Fair, symbolized by a clover-leaf intersection so Georgia O'Keefe in explicitness it's almost pornographic. For once, the predictions fail to be as bold as future reality. "The planned system of highways will connect all the larger cities in our nation and more than half of the smaller cities having a population of 50,000 to 60,000." How visionary such plans were hits home with the obvious awed amazement behind such sentences as "Detroit has a highway that has underpasses at what formerly were road intersections."
Just as distancing is the section on trains and busses, given more pages than "Future Air Travel." Both the superhighways and the airplanes must have seemed like visions of a utopia that few of the writers expected to live to see. All they could hope for as improvements to mass long-distance travel was the double-decking of trains and busses, like the one in the earlier picture. The concept of the masses using airplanes for everyday travel is never broached. The once-popular notion that helicopters would be as common as cars for personal travel, with larger versions suitable as taxis.
The rocket ship depicted in two separate illustrations is never mentioned. Why? Didn't the writers talk to the artists? (Allie Lou Felton, Alice Meighen, and Marjorie Pratt also contributed to the words; Corrine Malvern and Mary Highsmith did the art.)
But something else is, something near and dear to our hearts. Flying cars.
Some of these new models [of planes] have a four-wheel landing gear and folding wings, making it possible for them to be operated either as a plane or an automobile.
Flying cars and personal helicopters, flat-screen televisions and see-through refrigerators, fiberglass sofas and pre-fab kitchens. What more could a kid want from the Future? Except, maybe, a rocket ship or two.
January 23, 2020