September 24, 2012
This is the first in a 24-part series looking at every episode of “The Jetsons” TV show from the original 1962-63 season.
Episode 01: “Rosey the Robot,” originally aired: September 23, 1962
If you flipped through the Cedar Rapids Gazette on September 23, 1962 the news looked fairly typical for the early 1960s.
There was a short item about a Gandhi memorial being planned in London. There was an article about overcrowded schools and the need for new junior high schools, since the baby boom had inundated the schools and enrollment in the Cedar Rapids public school system was increasing by about 1,000 students each year.
The Gazette also had an editorial about “lame-brain bigots” in Georgia who were burning down black churches, and a column about the fact that one out of every 38 children born in Linn County in 1961 was born out of wedlock. The paper had recipes for poached eggs and peas with lemon butter sauce, as well as ads for the Smulekoff’s furniture store imploring you to buy a brand new color TV—with prices starting as low as $495 (about $3,500 adjusted for inflation).
But tucked away within the TV listings for that week was the mention of a show that would radically shape the way Americans would talk about the future for decades to come. The newspaper had an article about the arrival of color on ABC’s Cedar Rapids affiliate, KCRG channel 9. NBC had been “carrying the color ball almost singlehandedly” for years in Cedar Rapids but starting that evening, ABC would join the color fray with a new show called “The Jetsons.” At 6:30 pm that night “The Jetsons” would debut against “Dennis the Menace” on channel 2, “Car 54 Where Are You?” on channel 6, and the season premiere of NBC’s immensely popular “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” on channels 7 and 13.
Of course, it wasn’t just the people of Cedar Rapids who were tuning in on Sunday to watch a middle class family stumble through modern life in the year 2062. People all over the United States got their first taste of the Jetsons’ vision for tomorrow on that autumn evening.
There’s perhaps nothing more Jetsonian than the push-button. Jane Jetson pushes buttons to make dinner, to clean the home, and even to wake up her husband George. The running gag throughout the entire series is that the only thing George does all day at work (all three hours of it) is push a button.
From the very first scene of the first episode we learn precisely how difficult the people of the future have it. Jane Jetson is standing in front of a flat panel “3D” TV and conducting a strenuous workout — of her fingers. Of course, we’re meant to laugh at the fact that people of the year 2062 are living in the lap of luxury needing only push a button to accomplish what used to take hours, but it was also a subtle jab to those viewers at home who may complain about how difficult life is when all the modern conveniences of 1962 were at their disposal.
It’s important to recall that some scholars have argued that modern appliances didn’t actually save nearly as much time as originally envisioned. That’s because these gadgets impose higher standards of household efficiency and cleanliness—we take it for granted that our closets will always be filled with clean clothes; that our yards should boast perfectly maintained lawns and gardens; that our shiny kitchen appliances will make it possible to enjoy diverse and tasty meals. Many people today question this same line of thinking about technological progress, arguing that computers and smartphones have made us more productive, but that the standards for how much one person needs to accomplish have simply risen with it. Not to mention the “always available” culture that our devices have cultivated.
While we often associate leisurely push-button living with the Jetsons, longtime readers of Paleofuture will know that this futuristic cartoon family didn’t invent the concept. In December 1950 an Associated Press article ran in newspapers across the country that gave readers a peek at the year 2000. Experts across all kinds of fields were consulted and the article took it as a given that the American home of the future would be much more automated than it was mid-century:
People will live in houses so automatic that push-buttons will be replaced by fingertip and even voice controls. Some people today can push a button to close a window – another to start coffee in the kitchen. Tomorrow such chores will be done by the warmth of your fingertip, as elevators are summoned now in some of the newest office buildings – or by a mere whisper in the intercom phone.
But, as is often the case in the Jetsons’ world, the gadgets of tomorrow in the premiere episode don’t always work as they were intended. Gadget malfunction is rampant and a source of financial stress in the Jetson home, recalling an article in the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine just a few years earlier.
Writing in the September 13, 1959 Chicago Tribune, Evelyn Zemke projects herself into the futuristic world of the year 2000. The “pizza for breakfast?” bit is nearly identical to what we see play out in the Jetson household during the premiere episode.
“Call a service man,” my husband always says when one of our appliances refuses to function.
Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Well, it is. At the very worst, probably only the washer, dryer, dishwasher, and TV would give up one day. But what about the housewife of the future – say of the year 2000, when the electronic era will be at its peak?
I can just picture myself in her place - ready to start another care-free day sitting around reading a science fiction thriller while the gadgets do all the work. Already the electronic brain in my kitchen is busy preparing and serving breakfast.
My husband, arriving at the table exclaims, “Pizza? For breakfast?”
“I pushed the button labeled BACON AND EGGS, but-”
“There’s a wire crossed somewhere. Call a service man.”
After doing so, I dispose of the garbage in the electronic disposal unit and pile the dishes in the ultra-sonic dishwasher. Then, after pushing the button which starts the electronic vacuum cleaner, I go out to the garage to set the timer for our radar controled lawnmower.
“Ki-yi-yi!” Sounds like Fifi, our pet poodle.
My daughter, standing in the doorway, calls, “Mom! The cleaner is vacuuming Fifi!”
The premiere episode also shows viewers an interaction with Jane and her daughter Judy that hints at what would later be called the generation gap. Many of the same fears parents have here in the 21st century about their kids “growing up too fast” were splashed across popular media of the 1960s. The August 10, 1962 issue of Life magazine ran the story “Boys and Girls Too Old Too Soon: America’s Subteens Rushing Toward Trouble.” The story included a provocative photo essay showing 12 and 13-year-olds going on dates and engaging in “heavy necking.”
In the 1950s and ’60s the teenager and “subteens” (what we today might call a tween) became a force to be reckoned with. There was suddenly a group of kids larger than any American generation that had come before it, and this had a dramatic ripple effect throughout our society. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa — like hundreds of other communities across the U.S. — that meant building more schools. And for the burgeoning medium of television, that meant delivering storylines which sometimes reflected the growing pains of what was held up as the model American family.
Slidewalks of Tomorrow
As we looked at this past January, the idea of abundant moving sidewalks in the city of tomorrow predates The Jetsons by over half a century. But some of the more interesting mid-century examples, which likely influenced The Jetsons, came from TV and Sunday comic strips. The Disneyland TV episode “Magic Highway, U.S.A.,” which aired on May 14, 1958 looks like it may have inspired the Jetsons’ slidewalks of the future. The show also likely drew inspiration from print media, like the Sunday comic strip “Closer Than We Think,” which you can see below.
The June 7, 1959 edition of Arthur Radebaugh’s Sunday comic strip “Closer Than We Think”:
The large malls planned for tomorrow’s metropolitan centers will not be tied up with vehicular traffic. Shoppers and sight-seers will be transported by mobile sidewalks that closely resemble giant conveyer belts. Parcels to be delivered will be carried by overhead rail to trucks on the area’s perimeter.
An interesting detail that’s established in the first episode, but isn’t necessarily carried throughout the series, is that the robot maid of the year 2062 is considered a luxury item. One of the reasons that Jane buys Rosey instead of the more “distinguished” robots (shown as distinguished by simply having British and French accents) is that the Jetsons simply can’t afford anything more expensive.
Rosey the robot maid is perhaps the most iconic futuristic character to ever grace the small screen. Rosey is high-tech, but she’s also fallible. The mere fact that I use “she” rather than “it” speaks to what she represented — the humanoid robot helpers of our future, imperfect as they may be. And strangely, she doesn’t play a very prominent role in the first season of “The Jetsons.” The premiere episode establishes that Rosey is a valued member of the Jetson family, but as you’ll see over the course of this blog series, she doesn’t get a lot of screen time. Perhaps because she was so beloved by kids who saw her on reruns during the 1960s, ’70s and early ’80s she receives a much more prominent role in the 1985 reboot.
If you own the first season DVDs or watch it online you may notice that the first season has title cards which include Orbitty, a character that wasn’t introduced until the 1980s reboot. Knowing that the episode title slates on my DVD copy of “The Jetsons” were from the 1980s, I went down to the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills a few months back to see if I could find any clues about the true spelling of “Rosey.” As I mentioned last week, there has been some confusion about the proper way to spell the name. The Paley Center has an enormous collection of old TV and radio programs and sure enough, they have a copy of the first episode of “The Jetsons.” I was a little surprised to learn that the first season wasn’t aired with individual title slates, but I found some vindication in my spelling of “Rosey” in a 1962 board game that was on display.
Reviews of The Jetsons were generally positive on the day following its premiere, with Rick Du Brow from the UPI calling the show a “genial time killer.” But as we looked at last week, the show suffered from a tough time slot (in most markets it was up against the established powerhouse that was “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color”) and a relative blandness when viewed in black and white, as most Americans did in 1962.
The Cedar Rapids Gazette‘s article about the new influx of color TV programming in Cedar Rapids proclaimed that “this year should be a coming-up-roses year for those who believe that television minus color is like the sky without blue.” Writer Nadine Subtonik acknowledged that it was still expensive but that if kids hound their parents enough “making Mom and Dad’s life miserable” then widespread color TV adoption was a certainty in the near future. But how many color sets were in the Cedar Rapids area at the time? “A quick survey the other morning convinced me of only one thing: Nobody has the faintest idea!”
There are a number of different technologies and subtleties within the Jetsons world that I didn’t touch on in this post, but just know that this was by design. While writing this post I came to realize that if I try to reference every gadget or social anachronism I’ll wind up with 24 novel-length posts and nobody wants to read that. We have 23 more of these to go, so please be patient if I missed your favorite doodad or whatsit. We’ll likely get to it in a future post. And thanks for reading!
September 21, 2012
American advertisers made a great number of promises for the future during World War II. The American people were told that if they could just be patient with wartime rationing, or the number of resources being devoted to the war effort, we would all be assured better lives after the war.
The Association of American Railroads was no different, and in the March 18, 1944 issue of Collier’s magazine they ran an ad which promised great things in train travel after World War II was through. It’s interesting for those of us perched from the vantage point of the future to remember that other methods of transportation, such as commercial air travel and even automobiles, weren’t the established forms that they would later become. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 — which, at the time, was the largest public works project in American history and established our interstate highway system — was figuratively light years into the future compared to even the end of the war.
So what does the train of tomorrow look like? It has plush seating, fantastic views, good company and plenty of room to stretch your legs. You can even get some work done at a proper desk if you please. The ad feels like they’re promising you the poshest waiting room at the fanciest dentist in all of 1940s Denver. Or maybe that’s just what I see.
The text from the ad appears below and spells out the Association’s vision for railroads of the future, all the while apologizing for the stresses and inconveniences brought on by operating during wartime, with the movement of huge quantities of freight, civilians and troops across the United States. It’s understandable that they felt obliged to begin with an apology and a message of appreciation:
Some day this war will be won by America and her Allies.
Our first duty meanwhile is to meet the demands of the war. This we are doing.
The going hasn’t always been easy or comfortable. We believe you understand the reasons, and we appreciate your patience, your good-humored acceptance of inconvenience.
And we’d like you to know our ideas of comfort and style go far beyond what we’re able to offer today. That’s why we print the picture [above].
It will give you some idea of how we’d like to serve you — how we’re looking and planning ahead right now to make future railroad travel a thrillingly pleasant experience.
It can’t be done all at once. It will take money and time.
But you can be sure of one thing. Our goal is to give future America the finest transportation the world has ever seen.
As we’ve seen, there were skeptics in the popular press who warned that the American people shouldn’t get their hopes up too high about all the promises being made during the war. But I must admit that I’d love to see a train like this built today — vintage dentist office chic or otherwise.
September 19, 2012
It was 50 years ago this coming Sunday that the Jetson family first jetpacked their way into American homes. The show lasted just one season (24 episodes) after its debut on Sunday September 23, 1962, but today “The Jetsons” stands as the single most important piece of 20th century futurism. More episodes were later produced in the mid-1980s, but it’s that 24-episode first season that helped define the future for so many Americans today.
It’s easy for some people to dismiss “The Jetsons” as just a TV show, and a lowly cartoon at that. But this little show—for better and for worse—has had a profound impact on the way that Americans think and talk about the future. And it’s for this reason that, starting this Friday, I’ll begin to explore the world of “The Jetsons” one episode at a time. Each week I’ll look at a new episode from the original 1962-63 series, beginning with the premiere episode, “Rosey the Robot.”
Five decades after its debut, not a day goes by that someone isn’t using “The Jetsons” as a way to talk about the fantastic technological advancements we’re seeing today. Or conversely, evidence of so many futuristic promises that remain unfulfilled. Just look at a handful of news stories from the past few days:
- In fashion. (“Who better than the Jetsons to be inspired by for an out of space theme?”)
- Johnny Depp talks about the West Memphis Three emerging from prison after nearly two decades. ( ”By the time you came out, it’s ‘The Jetsons.’ It’s a whole ‘nother world.”)
- James Cameron talks about the future of interactive movies. (“There might be a certain amount of interactivity, so when you look around, it creates that image wherever you look,” Cameron says. He concedes it is far off: “You’re talking ‘Jetsons’ here.”)
- The future of cars, as depicted at the Los Angeles Auto Show. (“Considering that 2025 is only 13 years away, you would think that nobody’s going to go ‘Jetsons’ with their presentation, but the LAASDC doesn’t roll like that.”)
- The sound of kitschy futurism in modern music. (“Silencio allows Sadier’s various musical influences to breathe and linger, without being upstaged by the motorik propulsion, and ‘Jetsons’ kitsch, of the Stereolab formula.”)
Thanks to my Google Alerts for words and phrases like Jetsons, Minority Report, utopia, dystopia, Blade Runner, Star Trek, apocalypse and a host of others, I’ve been monitoring the way that we talk about the future for years. And no point of reference has been more popular and varied as a symbol of tomorrowism than “The Jetsons.”
Golden Age of Futurism
“The Jetsons” was the distillation of every Space Age promise Americans could muster. People point to “The Jetsons” as the golden age of American futurism because (technologically, at least) it had everything our hearts could desire: jetpacks, flying cars, robot maids, moving sidewalks. But the creators of “The Jetsons” weren’t the first to dream up these futuristic inventions. Virtually nothing presented in the show was a new idea in 1962, but what “The Jetsons” did do successfully was condense and package those inventions into entertaining 25-minute blocks for impressionable, media-hungry kids to consume.
And though it was “just a cartoon” with all the sight gags and parody you’d expect, it was based on very real expectations for the future. As author Danny Graydon notes in The Jetsons: The Official Cartoon Guide, the artists drew inspiration from futurist books of the time, including the 1962 book 1975: And the Changes to Come, by Arnold B. Barach (who envisioned such breakthroughs as ultrasonic dishwashers and instant language translators). The designers also drew heavily from the Googie aesthetic of southern California (where the Hanna-Barbera studios were located)—a style that perhaps best represented postwar consumer culture promises of freedom and modernity.
The years leading up to “The Jetsons” premiere in September 1962 were a mix of techo-utopianism and Cold War fears. The launch of Sputnik by the Soviets in 1957 created great anxiety in an American public that already had been whipped up into a frenzy about the Communist threat. In February 1962 John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, but less than a year earlier the Bay of Pigs fiasco raised tensions between the superpowers to a dangerous level. Americans seemed equally optimistic and terrified for the future.
I spoke over the phone with Danny Graydon, the London-based author of the official guide to “The Jetsons.” Graydon explained why he believed the show resonated with so many Americans in 1962: “It coincided with this period of American history when there was a renewed hope — the beginning of the ’60s, sort of pre-Vietnam [protests], when Kennedy was in power. So there was something very attractive about the nuclear family with good honest values thriving well into the future. I think that chimed with the zeitgeist of the American culture of the time.”
Where’s My Jetpack?
As Graydon points out, “The Jetsons” was a projection of the model American family into the future. The world of ”The Jetsons” showed people with very few concerns about disrupting the status quo politically or socially, but instead showed a technologically advanced culture where the largest concern of the middle class was getting “push-button finger.”
It’s important to remember that today’s political, social and business leaders were pretty much watching ”The Jetsons” on repeat during their most impressionable years. People are often shocked to learn that “The Jetsons” lasted just one season during its original run in 1962-63 and wasn’t revived until 1985. Essentially every kid in America (and many internationally) saw the series on constant repeat during Saturday morning cartoons throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Everyone (including my own mom) seems to ask me, “How could it have been around for only 24 episodes? Did I really just watch those same episodes over and over again?” Yes, yes you did.
But it’s just a cartoon, right? So what if today’s political and social elite saw ”The Jetsons” a lot? Thanks in large part to the Jetsons, there’s a sense of betrayal that is pervasive in American culture today about the future that never arrived. We’re all familiar with the rallying cries of the angry retrofuturist: Where’s my jetpack!?! Where’s my flying car!?! Where’s my robot maid?!? “The Jetsons” and everything they represented were seen by so many not as a possible future, but a promise of one.
This nostalgia for the futurism of yesteryear has very real consequences for the way that we talk about ourselves as a nation. So many people today talk about how divided we are as a country and that we no longer dream “like we used to.” But when we look at things like public approval of the Apollo space program in the 1960s, those myths of national unity begin to dissolve. Public approval of funding for the Apollo program peaked at 53 percent (around the first moon landing) but pretty much hovered between 35-45 percent for most of the 1960s. Why is there a misconception today about Americans being more supportive of the space program? Because an enormous generation called Baby Boomers were kids in the 1960s; kids playing astronaut and watching shows like “The Jetsons”; kids who were bombarded with images of a bright, shiny future and for whom the world was much simpler because they saw everything through the eyes of a child.
Why Only One Season?
If ”The Jetsons” is so important and resonated with so many viewers, then why was the show canceled after just one season (though it was revived in the 1980s)? I’ve spoken to a number of different people about this, but I haven’t heard anyone mention what I believe to be the most likely reason that “The Jetsons” wasn’t renewed for a second season: color. Or, more accurately, a lack of color. ”The Jetsons” was produced and broadcast in color, but in 1962 less than 3 percent of American households had a color television set. In fact, it wasn’t until 1972 that 50 percent of American households had a color TV.
The Jetsons’ future is bright; it’s shiny; and it’s in color. But most people watching on Sunday nights obviously didn’t see it like that. The immersive world of “The Jetsons” looks far more flat and unengaging in black and white. And unlike the other network shows it was up against on Sunday nights (which was in most markets “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” on NBC and “Car 54 Where Are You?” on CBS) “The Jetsons” suffered disproportionately more from being viewed in black and white.
NBC also had an incumbent advantage. If you’d made “Walt Disney’s Wonderful of Color” appointment viewing for the past year (Disney jumped ship from ABC to NBC in 1961 where they not only began broadcasting in color, but added “color” to the name) it’s unlikely you’d switch your family over to an unknown cartoon entity. “The Jetsons” was the first show ever broadcast in color on ABC, but it was still up to individual affiliates as to whether the show would be broadcast in color. According to the September 23, 1962 New York Times only people with access to ABC’s owned-and-operated stations in New York, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco and Los Angeles were guaranteed to see the show broadcast in color—provided you owned a color set.
I’ve takens some screenshots from the DVD release of the first season to show just how dramatic a difference color can make with a show like this.
There’s also this promo from 1962, which gives us a taste of what “The Jetsons” looked like devoid of color. It’s bizarre for those of us who grew up on “The Jetsons” to see their fantastical world reduced to black and white:
There are a lot of “what-ifs” in “The Jetsons” universe that may have had substantial bearing on politicians, policymakers and the average American today. If we accept that media has an influence on the way that we view culture, and our own place in the future—as “The Jetsons” seems to ask us to do—we have to ask ourselves how our expectations might have changed with subtle tweaks to the Jetson story. What if George took a flying bus or monorail instead of a flying car? What if Jane Jetson worked outside of the home? What if the show had a single African-American character? These questions are impossible to answer, of course, but they’re important to recall as we examine this show that so dramatically shaped our understanding of tomorrow.
1985 and Beyond
Obviously the 1985-87 reboot of “The Jetsons” TV show played an important role in carrying the futuristic toon torch, but it’s in many ways an entirely different animal. The animation simply has a different feel and the storylines are arguably weaker, though I certainly remember watching them along with the original reruns when I was a kid in the 1980s. There were also movies produced—1990′s The Jetsons was released theatrically and the made-for-TV movie crossover The Jetsons Meet the Flintstones first aired in 1987. But for our purposes, we’ll just be exploring the first season and its immediate influence during the American Space Age. With talk of a live-action Jetsons movie in the works, it will be interesting to see how a revamped Jetsons might play today.
A few style notes that I’ll get out of the way:
- I spell Rosey the way it appeared in merchandise of the 1960s. Yes, you’ll sometimes see it spelled “Rosie” in video games and comics of the 1980s, but since our focus is the first season I’m sticking with Rosey.
- The show never mentions “within world” what year the Jetson family is living, but for our purposes we’ll assume it to be 2062. Press materials and newspapers of 1962 mention this year, even though the characters only ever say “21st century” during the first season of the show.
- Orbitty is from the 1980s reboot of The Jetsons. Orbitty, a pet alien, is essentially the Jar-Jar Binks of the Jetsons’ world and you probably won’t see me mention him again.
Meet George Jetson
The Jetsons, of course, represents a nostalgia for the future; but perhaps more oddly, it still represents the future to so many people who grew up with it. I’m excited to get started on this project and welcome your comments throughout this process, especially if you have vivid memories of the show from when you were a kid. I know I certainly do — I turned it into my career!
Update: The first paragraph of this post was revised to clarify that more episodes of “The Jetsons” were produced in the 1980s.
September 10, 2012
When we look at visions of the future from the 20th century we often imagine the lone inventor or solitary artist concocting the fantastical world of tomorrow in isolation. But it’s amazing how frequently both government regulation and the lack of regulation can influence the future of a given city in ways we don’t often think about.
While researching a column I wrote recently for BBC Future about fighting the skyscraper fires of tomorrow I came across a fascinating anti-skyscraper law from 1912 that would have a lasting impact on Australia’s largest city. Fearing that fighting fires was nearly impossible in tall buildings, Sydney passed the Height of Buildings Act of 1912, limiting new buildings to just 150 feet tall. As a result Sydney spent almost half a century growing predominantly outward rather than skyward.
A July, 1901 fire in an 8-story department store building had left five people dead–prompting concern among the residents of Sydney, where modern architecture was quickly sprouting toward the heavens. Firefighters were helpless to reach a young man who clung desperately out of a window in the building 120 feet up. Sadly, firefighters could do nothing to help save the poor man who was well out of reach from their tallest 80 foot ladders. He jumped to his death in front of a lunchtime crowd of horrified onlookers.
Sydney’s skyscraper debate would rage for a decade, coming to a head in 1911 when a record 6,503 new private buildings (many of them taller than ever before) were built in Sydney. The city’s tallest building was completed the very next year in 1912. That building was called the Culwulla Chambers and rose to just 14 stories (165 feet). But it sparked a serious debate about the future of the city and the safety of its inhabitants. How could the people of Sydney be kept safe when skyscrapers inevitably faces the threat of fire and no one had the technical capacity to put it out?
As Alex Roberts and Pat O’Malley note in their 2011 research paper, “Skyscrapers, Fire and the City: Building Regulation in Late 19th and Early 20th Century Sydney,” politicians in 1912 were concerned as much with safety and international reputation as they were with aesthetics when they passed the Height of Buildings Act in 1912. Aside from limiting the construction of new buildings to just 150 feet tall, the Act also states that any building built above 100 feet must show that “adequate provision has been made in respect of such building for protection against fire.” The Act wasn’t amended until 1957.
Today, Sydney is a beautiful modern city with a stunning skyline. But one wonders what the city would look like had vertical growth continued unabated, or the 1912 law had remained in effect after 1957.
September 6, 2012
Futurist thinkers have rarely been kind to New York City. In fact, writers and artists have spent the better part of two centuries destroying the Big Apple. Whether by flood or fire, nuclear explosion or alien invasion, New York more than any other city bears the brunt of our most apocalyptic futures. And perhaps no historian understands this better than Max Page.
In 2001, University of Massachusetts-Amherst history professor Max Page started work on what was supposed to be a fun, light-hearted project. Working with the New York Historical Society, Page was assembling an exhibit proposal about the various ways New York had been destroyed in various works of fiction. He put the finishing touches on his proposal on September 10, 2001. Of course, the very next day real world terrorists would put some of futurism’s most horrific visions of destruction to shame.
Years later, Page realized that his exploration of apocalyptic New York was still a worthwhile endeavor — it would simply require a more reverent touch. His book, The City’s End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears and Premonitions of New York’s Destruction was published in 2008.
I reached Mr. Page by phone and asked him what it is about New York City. Why New York? Why not Chicago, Los Angeles, Des Moines, Tulsa… what is it about New York that compels us to see it destroyed in fiction over and over again?
“It’s interesting because there are disaster fantasies about lots of different places. Los Angeles has got its share, especially in the film world of the 20th century. And there’s fantasies of Paris and London and Tokyo, of course. What I was struck with is that New York has remained the predominant focus for literally close to two centuries,” Page said.
“It came to be the symbol of the city — not just the American city, but the city itself — with skyscrapers in the early 20th century. It remains the most important American city despite the rise of Chicago at one point, and Los Angeles and D.C. At least for economics and for culture, New York is still the capital and has been, really from the 1830s onward,” he said. As an Angeleno, I’m reluctantly inclined to agree with him.
“And then, there’s the simple aesthetics. Destruction looks better in New York.” Perhaps this is the real clincher. Aesthetically, New York is a gorgeous city; a city of steel and glass reaching toward the sky in a decidedly 20th century American ode to modernism. But the destruction of New York almost always has a purpose, political or otherwise. It’s rarely just a jangling of the keys distraction or traditional disaster movie extravagance like in the screenshot from the 1998 film Deep Impact above.
Take, for instance, the 1890 novel Caesar’s Column: A Story of the Twentieth Century by Ignatius Donnelly. The story takes place in the futuristic world of 1988 and New York is destroyed by a terrorist/”liberation” group called the Brotherhood of Destruction. In this case, the destruction is political and hateful, as Donnelly’s anti-semitism is apparent when the Brotherhood states its purpose of destroying a Jewish-led oligarchy that controls every aspect of New York life.
From Caesar’s Column: “The shops had all been broken into; dead bodies lay here and there; and occasionally a burned block lifted its black arms appealing to heaven. As we drew near Union Square a wonderful sight — such as the world had never before beheld — expanded before us. Great blazing bonfires lighted the work; hundreds of thousands had gathered to behold the ghastly structure, the report of which had already spread everywhere.”
The past two centuries have seen New York destroyed in an almost cyclical manner. Fire, flood, monsters, revolution, aliens, rinse, repeat. But there is one method of destroying New York that only saw rise in the mid-20th century: the nuclear bomb.
Max Page explains to me the unique method of destruction brought by new technology as distinct from the more historically relatable stories of floods: “The climate change film in 2004, The Day After Tomorrow, that is partly about a flood. And then we have flood stories back in the teens and we have flood stories back in the late 19th century. Obviously some things, like nuclear disaster, is one of the main methods that obviously relied on new technology.”
This new technology was on spectacular display in the pages of Collier’s magazine in the 1950s. As I’ve written about before, the August 5, 1950 cover of Collier’s displayed in vivid detail a haunting mushroom cloud over Manhattan. The accompanying article, illustrated by Chesley Bonestell, gives a breathless account of an Associated Press reporter on any-given-Tuesday who is trying to learn about the devastating destruction of New York City.
The uncomfortable fact is that there’s something almost beautiful about these horrific visions. Divorced of the real world pain and suffering, we’re drawn to the most powerful weapon in the futurist’s arsenal — naked, unapologetic spectacle. In fact, I have that Hiroshima issue of Collier’s framed in my apartment right next to a mid-1960s nuclear power propaganda pamphlet called “The Atom, Electricity and You.” It may be an achingly obvious joke about the conflict between our fear and hope in futuristic technology, but even stripped of context these images are somehow objectively beautiful in their scale, aesthetic and hubris.
Reveling in destruction is, of course, a rather macabre affair. Made all the more unseemly when such fantastic, unbelievable devastation has reached our shores. But we can’t help it. Watching the destruction of the Twin Towers was surreal, but not unimaginable. And of course we couldn’t look away. I remember turning on the television on September 11th and seeing surreal images of the first Tower smoldering, while CNN talked with Tom Clancy over the phone. His 1994 novel Debt of Honor included a character who flew a commercial plane into the U.S. Capitol building. Life was somehow imitating the darkest of art.
Max Page explains, “That day [on September 11, 2001] we had the sense that we had seen this already in a movie.”
Indeed we had. And we’ll likely see it again in movies, TV and books for many generations to come.