SUPER-TRANSPORT ON SUPER-HIGHWAYS
Part of a series of articles on ad campaigns prophesying futuristic inventions.
From 1942 through 1945 Americans lived unprecedented lives of frenetic suspended animation. A simulacrum of regular life filled the long hours of war work while the country's attention focused on an unseen conflict on distant continents. Around 16,000,000 Americans went into the armed forces and tens of millions of others actively supported the war in industry, agriculture, science, government, and other disciplines.
War fever subsumed ordinary life. For the average family this had its greatest effect due to the near complete suspension of consumer goods manufacturing. Families made do with the cars, tires, appliances, luxury goods, and basic necessities they purchased before the war. No replacements could be had for any price.
They lived on promises. That the war would end, and with the Americans winners, tacitly underlay every conversation, every announcement, every look into the future. When that day arrived, the boys would arrive home and the country would rise from its sleep and resume normal life just as if the war hadn't intervened. Better, the advances made invisibly by war plants would suddenly appear as part of everyday lives. Tomorrow the future dangled so often as a prize during the Depression years, postponed just slightly by the needs of total war, the glittering capital "F" Future of luxury, abundance, ease, and colorfulness guaranteed almost as an American birthright, finally, finally after all those years, would be theirs.
What surprises us today are the purveyors of these promises. We might think that Ford or RCA or Kodak would be the firms projecting their already magnificent technologies into a science-fictional wonderland. Instead, the ad campaigns emerged from makers of industrial necessities that few consumers thought about. Take this "home of tomorrow: from Celotex, a building products manufacturer. Or DuPont's Cellophane division anticipating a supermarket where the goods came to you.
Saturday Evening Post, February 27, 1943
Business Week, May 8, 1943
What do you do when your product is invisible in everyday use? Just what these firms did: associate it with the glorious future products that will depend on it. The Timken-Detroit Axle Company was a typical example. Founded in Detroit in 1909, it was run by Col. Willard F. Rockwell, whose slogan was "A big wheel is nothing without an axle." After an array of names due to mergers and acquisitions, the company grew into giant Rockwell International and then split with Meritor being today's successor company. It could use a marketing campaign of its own, since I've never heard of it. (Timken-Detroit should not be confused with the Timken Company, which made roller bearings.)
In 1943 Timken consulted with Lurelle Van Arsdale Guild, a leading industrial designer who had caught the contemporary streamlining bug. Guild smoothed the angles and squares of the day's transportation to create future transports of every variety, all smooth and shiny and glistening in colors somewhere between M&M's and jukeboxes. The headline, Super-Transport on Super-Highways" reminded readers of the glittering future landscape of super-highways that attracted millions in GM's Futurama at the 1939-40 New York World's Fair. Unlike the Fair's roads, Timken's were suspiciously empty and ran through oddly barren landscapes.
Cattle Hauler - Time, July 26, 1943
Truck - Time, August 30, 1943
Oil Truck - Time, October 4, 1943
Dairy Truck - Time, October 29, 1943
Confusingly, these ads are labeled fourth, fifth, and sixth of a series, even though another ad was run between the fourth and fifth and I can't find any earlier ads in the series in Time.
The ads appeared somewhere, to be sure, like Time's competitor U.S. News & World Report. I've tried to collect all I could find on the Internet.
Truck - US News & World Report, March 26, 1943
This open bed truck has styling that looks like it would slot in anywhere in the Timken series but I can't find an ad to confirm it. Same with the Trolley Coach at top. Both are labeled elsewhere as part of the Super-Transport series and I have no reason to doubt it.
Usually, heck, almost invariably, a company waits for the results of one ad campaign to roll in before starting a new one aimed at a similar audience. Here's one of the rare exceptions, showing that a good idea is too valuable to keep sequestered. Then again, maybe the audience for Timken's Silent Automatic Division (SAD) was entirely different from the audience for Timken Axles. The SAD did not make silencers for automatic pistols as the name implies today. It manufactured gas- and oil-fired furnaces, quieter and far easier to maintain than the old-fashioned coal-fired variety. Their cleanliness made them the fuels of choice for the suburban homes that millions would flee to after the war, making a campaign for future housing far more sensible and plausible than one for streamlined street sweepers.
Timken again hired an outside expert to be the face of the campaign, turning to architect D. Allen Wright to design a futuristic yet not outre modern home whose curves instantly make the image stand out from ordinary homes. Readers were invited to send for a free booklet containing plans for such a house.
Saturday Evening Post, March 6, 1943
I've never seen a picture of this inviting and sheltering house in real life, normally an indication that the campaign was a failure. That can't be the way Timken executives saw it. They kept the campaign roaring for two years, placing ads in magazines and in newspapers across the country, in cities large and small, tempting the pent-up masses with a multitude of carefully contrived designs. Each ad offered a booklet for the homes or, in some cases, additions that could extend the small square footage of existing houses.
Des Moines Register, April 4, 1943
New York Daily News, March 12, 1944
Waterloo [IA] Courier, June 14, 1943
Detroit Free Press, August 22, 1943
Note how small these houses are. Two bedrooms would be just large enough for a young couple and the inevitable baby or two. Yet they also feature the luxury of two bathrooms, a prize seldom available in city apartments. The size also helps keep the price down, to a perhaps unrealistic $2,500. That made the cost of a home equal to a year's salary. Imagine trying to find a similar bargain today. Have a slightly higher income? Timken had a house for you as well.
New York Daily News, September 26, 1943
Allen's designs were bold, no matter whether he used curves or angles, or modular units, anything to distinguish themselves from the boxes that real-world builders preferred, designs that helped lower costs and could employ less skilled help. That theme was continued in 1944 when Timken used another architect, Harold H. Ehlert, to sketch "A Recreation Room with a view ... to the Future!" Ultra-spacious, with vast curved plastic windows, the design was suited only to the Hollywood Hills. Admittedly only a concept intended to "stimulate thinking," the futuristic splendor was tempered by a second design, of four tiny rooms that could be built with concrete.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 27, 1944
A rec room or den would usually be the first move owners of these tiny houses made to increase square footage after their kids got out of rompers. Adults and kids found it difficult to cohabit in the jewel-box formal living rooms. Having one from the beginning was a luxury affordable only by the higher income bracket.
Des Moines Register, June 25, 1944
Reality set in after the war. The vast majority of new homes built in suburbs looked exactly like pre-war homes. Timken's last big ad in this series embraced this mundane world as if they hadn't been touting a different future for years.
Des Moines Register, June 25, 1944
Gone are the curves and jutting wings. Colonials and ranch houses, the most common and most boring housing types, are all we see. (The U-shaped house is just a ranch house with folded sides to fit on a narrower lot.) The finished basement helped up the square footage pre-rec room in the one-story ranches. Radiant floor heating is the only futuristic remnant. I've never been in a house that featured this, but some homeowners must have splurged for it, even though newspapers in 1946 mentioned radiant floor heating for new office buildings more often than for homes. One widely syndicated article did tout the system - in a converted Quonset hut. Even so, the 960 square-foot unit with appliances would sell for about $4,000. That was a bargain. The first houses in prototypical Levittown, NY, had four rooms in 750 square feet and sold for $6990. Timken's dream houses for half that proved to truly be dreams. The future was nice while it lasted.
February 2, 2019