The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
PREDICTIONS - THE FIRST LOOK BACK
The Future didn't work. It's full of wacky inventions and wackier outfits. It promised too much and delivered too little. It looks cluttered and stuffed. It's in black and white.
The Future that artists and caricaturists drew is a pretty silly place. We get it. But when did we get it? When did the Future turn from a glittering world we all wanted to live in to a distant past we all laugh at?
I suggest that it happened earlier than we think. By the 1950s cracks showed in our belief in the Future even as corporations became increasingly desperate to sell us an atomic-powered wonderland. Maybe Our Friend the Atom wanted to stick his hand down our pants. Did the Future really need to glow?
The first book I know of that cast a jaundiced eye on predictions of the future from The Good Old Days is by John Durant. In 1956 he was a 54 year-old writer and collector of historic illustrations. He and his wife Alice published a series of Pictorial Histories, of American Sports, American Ships, the American Circus, and their best seller, American Presidents, which they would expand, revise, retitle, rewrite, and repackage for two decades. He also did a number of books on sport subjects, including Highlights of College Football, the Olympics, and the World Series.
At some point while flipping through old newspapers and magazines the sheer volume of future stuff began to hit them over the head. As there was no Internet to inflict them on, Durant sensibly got a contract for yet another picture book, called Predictions: Pictorial Predictions from the Past. (Alliteration goes in and out of style, just like future fashions.)
In the Introduction, Durant stresses the accuracy of the basic ideas in the pictures:
Often with tongue in cheek these imaginative fellows of the drawing board glimpsed the future but just as often they saw it with clear and sober eyes, recording predictions with astonishing accuracy. As the pages of this volume testify, they foresaw such things as radio, TV, air conditioning in the home, the heavier-than-air flying machine, the automobile and the super highway, farming and rain-making from the clouds, the drive-in church service, the baby incubator, plastic surgery, racial integration in the classroom, sky-writing, the penthouse apartment, the trailer home, the four-day transatlantic line, women in military service...
One wonders who he thought he was kidding with this Orwellian inversion. His picks make it clear that they foresaw the changes coming in the Future not as a wonderland of benificent technology but as a dystopian nightmare precisely because of the horrors that technology would unleash. The majority of the images are drawn from Life, Judge, and Puck, the leading humor magazines of the day. Like the National Lampoon of the 1970s, these magazines, written for the college-educated few, aimed their barbs downward as much as or more than upward. Stereotyped minorities were their bread and butter; women were always ready to emasculate men; foreigners had odd and menacing ways; advertising was evil; cities were dangerous; old ways were the best and differences were bad. The elites liked their present in the pre-World War I gilded age. It took a generation of radical social change before the opinion-making elites decided that technological change might be beneficial. Max Planck's famed quote about scientific change is equally applicable here: "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." The moneyed elites that grew up with electricity, automobiles, telephones, and ease of travel were the first to realize how change could enhance their lives. As always, money allowed them to sidestep most of the negative effects that had earlier seemed so disruptive. But that generation is comprised of the children of the generation reading these humorists; in their time noise, chaos, and clutter were omnipresent in every large American city, ripe for the satirical pen.
Below are a number of illustrations from the book. All comments in the captions are mine unless explicitly indicated as a quote from Durant or the original. Some drawings, placed at the bottom, are offensive to modern sensibilities not because of the technology featured - there is none - but because of the social attitudes laid bare. The coming equality of those at the bottom of the social ladder; that's exactly the dystopian change the artists were warning their readers about. We're as far removed from Durant's day as he was from the original illustrators; most of us have lived entirely in a period of increasingly social equality. Yet the fears of technological change and disruption remain, just as strongly as fear and suspicion of the Other. The satire displayed is remarkably precient is some ways but remarkably timeless in others.
Let's start with a serious and excellent piece of extrapolation. Edmund C. Stedman wrote about "Aerial Navigation" for the Feb. 1879 issue of Scribner's Magazine. (Durant mislabels it as Century Magazine, but that name change didn't occur until 1881.) Stedman sensibly used a lighter-than-air craft, filled with hydrogen, although he predicted that a non-explosive gas might be found. A lightweight electric motor would allow it to swim through the air as a fish does through the sea. The one pictured is therefore logically called an aeronon, "a thing swimming in air." Air travel would link cities and continents, making even Decatur, Iowa, a "sea-port town" because it would be as equally reachable as any city along the Atlantic coast.
Does the name Life on a magazine mean anything to younger readers? Probably not much. If they know it at all, they remember the oversized picture magazine on their parents' coffee table. I'm sure few even of those older readers know that Henry Luce bought the name Life from an older humor magazine that foundered during the Depression. That magazine was started in 1883 and quickly became an institution, publishing the first work of Robert Ripley and Norman Rockwell. Charles Dana Gibson's Gibson Girls, the personification of gilded era beauty, were a regular Life feature.
In 1897, Life started ripping off the Glimpses of Futurity series drawn by Fred T. Jane for London's Pall Mall Magazine under the barely disguised variant "Glimpses of the Future." (See Menu of Chemical Foods.) This one, from 1898, is titled "Snapshot of Upper Fifth Avenue in 1930." The streets are empty except for pedestrians but the air is filled with sky gondolas flitting around tall buildings that look utterly normal to us but would have shocked a contemporary New Yorker, since Fifth Avenue at the time housed the mansions of the rich rather than skyscraper apartments.
Here's far more overt satire, from a 1909 issue of Judge, the main humor competitor to Life. Don't ask how this got into the air or if those wings are flapping. Flight changes everything, even farming.
Advertising of the future from a 1904 Life magazine. Making the balloons resemble their products is a delightfully surreal touch, and anticipates the fad for roadside stands constructed that way. The potato-looking thing at the bottom is actually a pickle, from Heinz and its "57 varieties."
The past future usually looks so odd because it extrapolates technology linearly and incrementally rather than accounting for the transformational, quantum leap, improvements that it couldn't foresee. While this Life future is stuffed with 1911 technology, the artist, Harry Grant Dart, caught the flavor of future communications in all its ubiquitousness. Listening to an opera "delivered at your door," the seated gentlemen is able to watch his "son Willie" on the Observiscope, bask in sunlight provided by the Metropolitan Sunlight Storage Company, breath in delicious air from Atlantic City or the Alps, keep track of the outside temperature, await a book held by a robot footboy, or partake of the drink held by his haughty robot butler. The technology is primitive and clunky, but they'll be saying that about ours in 2111. What Dart correctly conveys is the cacophony of universal access. Though the gentleman is completely connected with the outside world, there is no room in the room for another actual human being, perfectly capturing the complaints pundits make about today's world.
Baseball mascots? Deep sea divers? No, merely a couple out for a stroll in their full-body rubber suits needed for protection from all the live wires dripping off that pole in the center. Even the horse is fully draped. We're so insulated, pun intended, from the problems that technology caused in the past that this 1889 Judge cartoon, published just a few years after the first electric system wired New York, is incomprehensible without explanation.
More rubber suits? No wires. Robots? Aliens? The only way to ensure abstinence? Out of its context, modern-day readers couldn't possibly guess what these outfits from a 1901 Judge were making fun of. The answer: automobiles. Early cars - almost all of them open air - sent dust flying on the mostly unpaved roads of the era. To survive a country ride took heroic measures. Hermetically sealed as the mayonnaise jar on Funk & Wagnall's porch, the well-to-do automotive couple of the future was sure to wear protective gear.
Hard to believe how fast times changed in the slow, easygoing past. A mere decade later Life magazine in 1913 showed that autos had gone from a near-alien invader into an irresistible force that would transform city life. Highways in the sky towered over a modern city and nary a horse is to be seen. You were still taking your life in your hands, though. The circular platform catches those "dashed to death on rocks" and an undertaker's advertising sign is prominent along the road.
A rare charming portrait of the New York of the future. This is Life in 1903, when New York had only one building of 30 stories, but the race for the skies was already obviously its destiny. We're so far off the ground that only sky transportation is viewable. The wife is saying to her commuter husband, "Now John, don't lose that parachute. It's the only decent one I have." Nobody would have thought twice then about the kids sitting with their legs over the edge but I'm sure it's giving parents palpitations at their computers.
Americans were obsessed with flight, obviously just around the corner in this 1902 Life cartoon. In a wonderfully prescient observation, the artist saw that technologies were going to pile on top of one another and cancel out their advantages. The caption for this reads, "Confound this wireless telegraphy. My wife has been calling me ever since I left home."
Women were to be a perpetual problem in the future, what with all that talk of suffrage. Give them an inch and they wouldn't become equal but dominant, as in this portrait of a grotesquely large and mannish wife and her tiny and thoroughly ground-under-heel husband waiting for, what else, an air taxi in a 1915 Life cartoon.
By 1920 the feminization of society would be complete, suggests this 1912 Life piece. The hefty lady on the right - smoking in public! - is Governess O'Toole of New York inspecting the troops at West Point during drill. Though the soldiers are ridiculously feminized, a similarly feminine governor wouldn't make the same point; she has to be large and physically dominating. It's exactly the same anxiety seen today: any equality by the downtrodden doesn't merely lift them up, it tears down the ruling classes.
A masterfully subtle study in bigotry. Can't figure out what's going on here? The caption, "The Theatrical Season of 2001" probably isn't any help. Here's a clue: this is Broadway, in New York City. The Jews are taking over. Note the canopy with dollar signs all over it. Such was Life in 1915, a magazine that would hear accusations of anti-Semitism until its founder and editor John Ames Mitchell died in 1918.
There's something to be said for subtlety, especially when paired with its total lack. Harvard had just added its first Negro to its football team in 1904, leading to this cartoon of the football team of the future in Life. The illustrator was a young James Montgomery Flagg, later celebrated as the highest paid artist in America and the man who drew the iconic Uncle Sam "I Want You" recruitment poster for WWI.
Predictions starts in 1856 with images from the American edition of Emile Souvestre's The World As It Shall Be and stops in 1929, although the bulk of the entries are from well within those outliers. The only constant was the constant bias that in the future the lower classes would be getting uppity and thinking they had the right to share in the spoils on an equal basis. This portrait, from an 1883 Judge, shows an "equal" schoolroom of the future, in which the only white boy is the dunce. Once again, we see the real fear of coming equality, that the masters will be treated by the slaves as badly as the slaves were treated by the masters. That's why even the tiniest of forward steps were resisted so fiercely.
I couldn't stand ending on that sour note, so here's the book's last image and it's a beauty. Harry Grant Dart drew this one for Judge magazine in its last gasps in 1929. The woman is presumably dressed in future garb, although a Freudian and a Jungian working in tandem couldn't explain the meaning of that hat. People make a fuss about science fiction writers who didn't merely predict the automobile but the traffic jam as well, but they were no match for cartoonists seeing the comic possibilities of future technologies. Television would provide two-way communication in the manner of picturephones. As everyone knew, the telephone always rang as soon as you stepped into the bath. The caption:
A POSSIBLE DRAWBACK OF TELEVISION
"Central, you've given me the wrong number!"