THE FIRST METROPOLIS
It was to be the ultimate city, a metropolis literally named Metropolis, built to house every human being in the whole of America. Money would be banished. Leisure would be plentiful. Every human need would be catered to. Metropolis was envisioned to be the ideal city. It could be sited only in the ideal location. The ideal city would have to encompass Rochester, New York.
The city of Metropolis is lovingly described in perhaps the oddest utopian work to emerge from an era when a new vision hit print every month, on average, between 1888 and 1900. The Human Drift was self-published in 1894 by a cork bottle-cap salesman named King Camp Gillett.
Gillette was a creature that could only be spawned by the undefined and boundaryless late 19th century era of unfettered capitalism. A socialist monopolist who became a ruthless foe to imitators, an anti-wealth crusader who lived in pampered luxury, a recluse who put his face on every product he sold, making him “the most pictured businessman in history,” Gillette had what were called “water-tight compartments” between his split selves.
In 1894, however, he had yet even to conceive the idea that would bring him wealth and fame, the replaceable single-blade safety razor. As a traveling salesman, he was gazing out his hotel window in Scranton, PA, when he had what he later called THE THOUGHT.
“I traced the flour from the mills to the farmer, the salt to the earth, the sugar to the plantation, the spices across the seas to China and Japan.” All the goods in that truck were really the product of “one vast operative mechanism.” All the world’s industries and governments were part of a single machine.
The hundreds of thousands of farms, the million of homes, the plethora of small factories, all were failures of waste and inefficiency. Think big. Combine them all. The result would be The World Corporation.
For one dollar, each investor could buy a share of World Corporation stock. A mere billion dollars would fund all its activities. By building efficient mega-industries, the Corporation would throttle the competition and put millions out of work. This was a feature, not a bug. Those millions would be rehired for the benefit of humanity, to build a single mega-city that would house the entire sixty millions of people in the United States. (Or everyone not working on 15 mega-farms each 40 miles square that would eliminate the need for small plots.)
Gillette was apparently the first to name a city Metropolis, which has a literal meaning of “mother-city.” The names not only fits, it is perhaps the only one appropriate for such an audacious vision.
At a time when the tallest inhabitable building in the country rose 22 stories, Gillette proposed a complex of 24,000 25-story apartment blocks, flanked hexagonally by an additional 12,000 25-story support buildings. The apartments would be arranged around the outside of the buildings, carefully placed so no windows could look in on other inhabitants, leaving the center open in a huge atrium. The result looks much like a John Portman-designed Hyatt Regency hotel. All the dwellers ate in a central, ground-level, 340-foot diameter dining room, with food supplied via electric rail cars from a support building. Decorative tiles, airy vistas, and a dome to be filled with flowers provided beauty beyond anything available in the crowded, dirty, noisy cities of America. Each building would be individually designed and decorated so that all could live exactly to their taste.
Cleanliness was an obsession with Gillette and nothing but clean electric power would do to run the staggering needs of Metropolis. In 1892, electric power of that magnitude had only one conceivable source: Niagara Falls.
Gillette may have approached human needs and desires like a Martian economist, but his eye for coming trends was impeccable. Even though no long-distance power had yet been transmitted from the Falls, he saw how the small experimental power generators in existence could be scaled up almost infinitely.
Metropolis, therefore, was to be sited on the ideal location to take advantage of this natural wonder married to human ingenuity:
For many reasons I have come to the conclusion that there is no spot on the American continent, or possibly in the world, that combines so many natural advantages as that section of our country lying in the vicinity of the Niagara Falls, extending east onto New York State and west into Ontario…. The manufacturing industries of “Metropolis” would be located east and west of the Niagara River in Ontario and New York. The residence portion of the city would commence about ten miles east of Niagara River and Buffalo; and from this point to its eastern extremity, which would include the present city of Rochester in its eastern border, the city would be sixty miles long east and west, and thirty miles in width north and south, lying parallel with Lake Ontario, and about five miles from it.
Gillette glosses over a few seemingly crucial details. He includes no public transportation in his mega-city, leaving readers puzzled as to how workers were to get from Rochester to the distant manufacturing facilities. His buildings are surrounded by large walkways and lawns but beyond that he envisions no parks, no ball fields, no marinas, nothing but building upon building. Like a good Martian, he neglects to inquire Rochesterians if they would mind their city being razed to accommodate Metropolis.
The year after having THE THOUGHT, Gillette had a second one, that of the razor blade. He devoted the next ten years of his life to overcoming the technical challenges involved in its manufacture. Only historians now remember that he didn’t succeed until he hired a true inventor, William Emery Nickerson, whose machines made Gillette staggeringly rich.
Strangely, wealth to Gillette meant that he could more easily afford to publish a stream of additional books, tracts, and pamphlets on his utopian scheme to rid the world of money and the lust for products. He might live in a many-roomed mansion and be driven in a limousine by a chauffeur, but the books he now hired others to write propounded the World Corporation – one mega-city per continent – until his death in 1932.
“I have given 40 years of study to this subject; and have been unable to find any flaws in the fundamental plan,” he would write. His ideas were “quite untouched” by reality, a reviewer retorted.
They made good science fiction, though. Robert Silverberg used a grid of 1000 story buildings surrounded by farmland to house the world's 75,000,000,000 people in his 1971 novel The World Inside. (Shown is a French edition: foreign cover art is often much better and more apt than American covers.) He had not heard of Gillette's original he assured me when I asked about it. Moreover, the society, though ostensibly a utopia in which procreation is the greatest good, is gradually revealed to be a class-ridden dystopia, rent by the pressures of cramming disparate humanity into boxes with no valves to release the pressure. One-size-fits-all does not apply to humanity.
Gillette would publish The World Corporation in 1910 and The People's Corporation, written with socialist Upton Sinclair, in 1924. Gillette lived in a world of his own making. He despised the word socialist and would have frothed at the mouth if you called him a Marxist. He got to Sinclair in the most capitalistic way: he wrapped a hundred dollar bill around his business card. You must approach Gillette through this further set of contradictions: he wanted a billion dollars of other peoples' money in order to eliminate money from the world and create a socialist paradise without ever using the word.
The departments devoted to the manufacture of wearing apparel and household necessities would be carried forward on the same general plan, except that the finished product goes direct from the manufacturing establishments to mammoth emporiums. Thus we would have a furniture emporium, rug emporium, curtains and hangings, gentlemen's clothing, underwear, etc., women's dress goods, etc. In these mammoth establishments, would be arranged, in attractive display, the products of the highest developed intelligence in art and science,--goods in greatest variety of texture, design, and beauty, all of highest grade and quality. Here the people would select what they desired without money and without price.
Many will maintain that the people would abuse this privilege, but such would not be the case; for under a material equality there is no incentive to hoard up, and no one could load themselves down with the care of clothes which they did not need and could not wear. And no one would fill their apartments with a lot of useless trash and furniture which is neither useful nor ornamental, and would be in the way.
I here reiterate what I have said before, that no system can ever be a perfect system, and free from incentive for crime, until money and all representative value of material is swept from the face of the earth. [italics in original]
Nobody listened, especially not by 1924 when socialism was increasingly anathema. He never sold a single share.
And Rochester remains standing.