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How the 1950 Home Looked in 1900

Published: December 29, 2012

House of the future

In 1900, Otis T. Mason predicted that we would no longer need stairs because of the introduction of a pair of small elevators, which, being perfectly automatic, would require no attendant.

Now that the end of the world has come and gone—again—we really must get serious about planning.

It would help if we could just get a good idea of what will happen in the future. Unfortunately there seems to be a shortage of dependable predicting these days.

Some will argue that forecasting in the 21st century is particularly difficult because of the rapid rate of change. American politics, technology, and society have all evolved so much in recent years, it’s nearly impossible to see what will happen next. But, as this 1900 article shows, it’s possible to make some fairly reliable predictions even in the middle of disruptive times.

Americans at the turn of the century had seen change on a scale we might appreciate today. The U.S. was just starting to realize the global power of its wealth. Progressive politics was changing government and society. And technology was introducing such epoch-defining products as the telephone, the automobile, the phonograph, and the motion picture.

Yet even in this unprecedented age, Otis Tufton Mason managed to accurately predict home life in the future. A curator at the Smithsonian Institution in 1900 (like John Elfreth Watkins, another uncanny predictor) Mason’s “The Dwelling House of the Twentieth Century” described some of the features of the American home in 1950.

• Central power: Electrical energy “comes in a single current through a heavy wire from a distributing station, and on the premises is split up as required for heating, for lighting, for cooking, etc.” A network of copper wires runs through the home, hidden behind moldings and decoration, to carry power for lights, heaters, and appliance throughout the house.

• Central heating: Instead of shoveling coal into a furnace, homeowners would only have to “set the automatic governor of the heating apparatus at seventy-two degrees, let us say, and the temperature of the whole establishment is maintained at that point for months.”

• Central air conditioning: Cooling will be just as common as heating. It, too, would be “perfectly automatic” so that a single control would keep the temperature always at the same point.

• Modern lighting: Rooms would no longer be illumined by a single, bare gas jet in the middle of the ceiling, leaving one part of a room bright and the rest in relative darkness. Instead, electric bulbs would provide shaded and indirect light for “a warm and cheerful glow” throughout a room.

• Better food packaging: Women would buy groceries in “insect-proof packages” and store perishable food items in a electronically cooled storage compartment.” (This was still the age of iceboxes; the modern refrigerator wasn’t even developed for another 13 years.)

• The energy-efficient kitchen: No more smoke, coal, ashes, or fire that needed constant tending and feeding. “No time is lost in kindling fires. … When a meal is to be prepared, the current is turned on by a twist of a button, and immediately the electric range is ready for service.” And many kitchen chores, like mixing and beating, would be performed by electric appliances.

• Modern furniture: The massive, Victorian-era furniture would be long gone. In its place, would be tables, chairs, and dressers made of the lightest material possible so they can be easily moved and will take up far less space. (They will also decorate their homes with “photographs in natural colors.”)

• Cleaner roads: Automobiles—vastly superior and safer—would replace horses, eliminating the problem of manure, which bred flies and spread disease.

• Environmental concerns: Homeowners would consider the air and water around their home as part of their property, and would regard other people’s smoke or pollution “as an infringement and a cause of action for trespass.”

Mason was certainly not infallible. He predicted homes would be cooled by “liquid air” instead of refrigeration. Homes would not include cellars because occupants no longer needed storage space for coal or firewood. Most Americans would still rely on domestic servants and use elevators instead of stairs.

Still, more than 60 percent of his predictions proved correct—an average any modern forecaster would be proud of.

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