The 1900s seem to have been a good decade for predicting. We’ve already reported on two Post authors, Otis Mason and John Elfreth Watkins, who had better-than-average forecasting skills. This week, we introduce another: Octave Uzanne, who showed remarkable foresight in his 1901 Post article “What Women Will Wear in the Twentieth Century.”
In this fashion forecast, Uzanne anticipated the fundamental change in women’s wardrobes that would reflect a changing status. When the young girls of 1901 reached adulthood, he said, they would live quite differently from their mothers. In general, they would be less frivolous. Unlike their mothers, they would be less willing to spend long hours dressing themselves in ornate, impractical clothing: “hours which might be filled with work or pleasure more interesting and no doubt more healthful.”
Even though women wouldn’t be able to vote for another 19 years, Uzanne could see women already taking a more active role in their world.
And fashion would reflect the modern woman’s new interest in mobility and practicality, and give her a sense “of her force, of her rights, of the less subordinate part which might fall to her in the future.”
Her wardrobe would be built around an active life. Unlike the stay-at-home women of the 1900s, the future woman would be a “traveler and student, a lover of sport, of bicycling, and of motor-driving, in mind more independent than ever.” It would be hard to see in the modern woman the sickly and capricious child she had been in previous generations.
Men, he predicted, would first judge her new, comfortable clothing to be immodest, but they eventually would have to accept it because women were through with the floor-length skirt, the veil, and the corset. “No more tight-laced busts and swelling necks; no more whalebone compression and misshapen chests—instead, free bodies.” In making these predictions, he was not simply stating the obvious. Corsets remained in general use for the next two decades, and girdles until the 1960s.
To appreciate Uzanne’s predictive skills, you need to move forward 63 years, when decorator Evelyn Jablow tried her hand at forecasting in “Designs On Your Future.” Having just visited the Milan Triennale exhibit of 1964, she gave her predictions of women’s fashions in the 21st century.
Future women, as she imagined then, would wear just one outfit: a one-size-fits-all top made of stretch material and tights. The entire wardrobe, just “three or four pieces of clothing,” would fit into a cylinder the size of a golf bag. Also, women would wear only boots and slippers, and no earrings or bracelets.
As for men, they would “abandon tie, shirt, and trousers” to wear a “one-piece stretch moon suit” when traveling (presumably through outer space) and, at home, “long tights and a short toga, reminiscent of the free-swinging styles of the Roman charioteer.”
It must have seemed reasonable in 1964, because William Hanna and Joseph Barbera had pretty much the same idea of fashion in 1962 when they created The Jetsons.
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.
There must be good money in making predictions because no one would go into the business for job satisfaction.
If you correctly foresee events a century before they occur, none of your contemporaries will still be alive to remember your predictions. Furthermore, the marvels you forecast—manned flight, say, or the internet—will seem inevitable and obvious after the fact, robbing you of any credit for foresight. And if you’re wrong, you’ll probably sound ridiculous.
Yet each new year, a new batch of predictors offer us their forecasts for the future. Most are promptly forgotten. One who deserves to be remembered, though, is John Elfreth Watkins, Jr., a Post writer in the early 20th Century. Back in December 1900, he wrote his ideas about “What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years” for the Post’s sister publication, the Ladies’ Home Journal.
Where he was wrong, he was very, very wrong:
Nicaragua (i.e. Panama) will ask for admission to our Union after the completion of the great canal. Mexico will be next. Europe, seeking more territory to the south of us, will cause many of the South and Central American republics to be voted into the Union by their own people.
There will be No C, X or Q in our every-day alphabet. They will be abandoned because unnecessary.
Mosquitoes, house-flies and roaches will have been practically exterminated… There will be no wild animals except in menageries. Rats and mice will have been exterminated. The horse will have become practically extinct.
A man or woman unable to walk ten miles at a stretch will be regarded as a weakling.
A university education will be free to every man and woman.
Food will be served hot or cold to private houses in pneumatic tubes… The meal being over, the dishes used will be packed and returned to the cooking establishments where they will be washed… These tubes will collect, deliver and transport mail over certain distances, perhaps for hundreds of miles.
But this selection is hardly fair to Watkins. Some of his predictions were only partly wrong.
Trains will run two miles a minute, normally; express trains one hundred and fifty miles an hour.
High-speed trains are traveling over 300 mph. Just not in the United States.
Automobiles will be cheaper than horses are today.
This is just barely true. In 1900, work horses sold for $225 to $250. Adjusting for inflation, that price is approximately $6400, which will buy a new, low-end, import, budget car.
[The future American] will live fifty years instead of thirty-five as at present.
In fact, the overall life expectancy in 1900 was 47.8 years. And in 2000, it was 77.
There will probably be from 350,000,000 to 500,000,000 people in America and its possessions by the lapse of another century.
The figure is high, but at least Watkins was guessing in the right direction. America’s population had grown 14000% between 1800 and 1900. If that rate had continued, the total would have exceeded 1 billion in 2000. Instead, it grew just 360%, reaching 280 million at the start of the new century.
Where Watkins was correct, however, he was unusually far-sighted.
Americans will be taller by from one to two inches.
The average American male in 1900 was 66-67” tall. By 2000, the average was 69”.
Photographs will reproduce all of nature’s colors… [They will be transmitted] from any distance. If there be a battle in China a hundred years hence, snapshots of its most striking events will be published in the newspapers an hour later.
Wireless telephone and telegraph circuits will span the world. A husband in the middle of the Atlantic will be able to converse with his wife sitting in her boudoir in Chicago. We will be able to telephone to China quite as readily as we now talk from New York to Brooklyn.
Man will see around the world. Persons and things of all kinds will be brought within focus of cameras connected electrically with screens at opposite ends of circuits, thousands of miles at a span.
Rising early to build the furnace fire will be a task of the olden times. Homes will have no chimneys, because no smoke will be created within their walls.
Refrigerators will keep great quantities of food fresh for long intervals.
Fast-flying refrigerators on land and sea will bring delicious fruits from the tropics and southern temperate zone within a few days. The farmers of South America… whose seasons are directly opposite to ours, will thus supply us in winter with fresh summer foods which cannot be grown here.
There is one last peculiarity to Watkins’ article.
Every one of his predictions involved an improvement in the lives of Americans. He saw only positive change in the new century. Today’s predictors don’t see the future so optimistically, but will they see it as clearly as Watkins?