April 26, 2013
“Who needs a car in L.A.? We got the best public transportation system in the world!” says private detective Eddie Valiant in the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Set in 1947, Eddie is a car-less Angeleno and the movie tells the tale of a an evil corporation buying up the city’s streetcars in its greedy quest to force people out of public transit and into private automobiles. Eddie Valiant’s line was a wink at audiences in 1988 who knew quite well that public transportation was now little more than a punchline.
Aside from Detroit there’s no American city more identified with the automobile than Los Angeles. In the 20th century, the Motor City rose to prominence as the home of the Big Three automakers, but the City of Angels is known to outsiders and locals alike for its confusing mess of freeways and cars that crisscross the city — or perhaps as writer Dorothy Parker put it, crisscross the “72 suburbs in search of a city.”
Los Angeles is notorious for being hostile to pedestrians. I know plenty of Angelenos who couldn’t in their wildest dreams imagine navigating America’s second largest city without a car. But I’ve spent the past year doing just that.
About a year and a half ago I went down to the parking garage underneath my apartment building and found that my car wouldn’t start. One thing I learned when I moved to Los Angeles in 2010 was that a one-bedroom apartment doesn’t come with a refrigerator, but it does come with a parking space. “We only provide the essentials,” my apartment’s building manager explained to me when I asked about this regional quirk of the apartment rental market. Essentials, indeed.
My car (a silver 1998 Honda Accord with tiny pockets of rust from the years it survived harsh Minnesota winters) probably just had a problem with its battery, but I really don’t know. A strange mixture of laziness, inertia, curiosity and dwindling funds led me to wonder how I might get around the city without wheels. A similar non-ideological adventure began when I was 18 and thought “I wonder how long I can go without eating meat?” (The answer was apparently two years.)
Living in L.A. without a car has been an interesting experiment; one where I no longer worry about fluctuations in the price of gas but sometimes shirk social functions because getting on the bus or train doesn’t appeal to me on a given day. It’s been an experiment where I wonder how best to stock up on earthquake disaster supplies (I just ordered them online) and how to get to Pasadena to interview scientists at JPL (I just broke down and rented a car for the day). The car — my car — has been sitting in that parking spot for over a year now, and for the most part it’s worked out pretty well.
But how did Los Angeles become so automobile-centric? How did Angeleno culture evolve (or is it devolve?) to the point where not having a car is seen as such a strange thing?
Los Angeles owes its existence as a modern metropolis to the railroad. When California became a state in 1850, Los Angeles was just a small frontier town of about 4,000 people dwarfed by the much larger Californian cities of San Francisco and Sacramento. Plagued by crime, some accounts claimed that L.A. suffered a murder a day in 1854. But this tiny violent town, referred to as Los Diablos (the devils) by some people in the 1850s would become a boomtown ready for a growth explosion by the 1870s.
From the arrival of the transcontinental railroad in 1876 until the late 1920s, the City of Angels experienced incredibly rapid population growth. And this growth was no accident. The L.A. Chamber of Commerce, along with the railroad companies, aggressively marketed the city as one of paradise — a place where all your hopes and dreams could come true. In the late 19th century Los Angeles was thought to be the land of the “accessible dream” as Tom Zimmerman explains in his book Paradise Promoted.
Los Angeles was advertised as the luxurious city of the future; a land of both snow-capped mountains and beautiful orange groves — where the air was clean, the food was plentiful and the lifestyle was civilized. In the 1880s, the methods of attracting new people to the city involved elaborate and colorful ad campaigns by the railroads. And people arrived in trains stuffed to capacity.
With the arrival of the automobile in the late 1890s the City of Angels began experimenting with the machine that would dramatically influence the city’s landscape. The first practical electric streetcars were started in the late 1880s, replacing the rather primitive horse-drawn railways of the 1870s. The mass transit system was actually borne of real estate developers who built lines to not only provide long term access to their land, but also in the very immediate sense to sell that land to prospective buyers.
By the 1910s there were two major transit players left: The Los Angeles Streetway streetcar company (LARY and often known as the Yellow Cars) and the Pacific Electric Railway (PE and often known simply as the Red Cars).
No one would mistake Who Framed Roger Rabbit? for a documentary, but the film has done a lot to cement a particular piece of L.A. mythology into the popular imagination. Namely, that it was the major car companies who would directly put the public transit companies out of business when they “purchased” them in the 1940s and shut them down. In reality, the death of L.A.’s privately-owned mass transit would be foreshadowed in the 1910s and would be all but certain by the end of the 1920s.
By the 1910s the streetcars were already suffering from widespread public dissatisfaction. The lines were seen as increasingly undependable and riders complained about crowded trains. Some of the streetcar’s problems were a result of the automobile crowding them out in the 1910s, congesting the roads and often causing accidents that made service unreliable. Separating the traffic of the autos, pedestrians and streetcars were seen as a priority that would not be realized until the late 20th century. As Scott L. Bottles notes in his book Los Angeles and the Automobile, “As early as 1915, [the L.A. Public Board of Utilities] called for plans to separate these trains from regular street traffic with elevated or subway lines.”
The recession-plagued year 1914 saw the explosive rise of the “jitney,” an unlicensed taxi that took passengers for just a nickel. The private streetcar companies refused to improve their service in a time of recession and as a result drove more and more people to alternatives like the jitney and buying their own vehicle.
The Federal Road Act of 1916 would jumpstart the nation’s funding of road construction and maintenance, providing matching funding to states. But it was the Roaring Twenties that would set Los Angeles on an irreversible path as a city dominated by the automobile. L.A.’s population of about 600,000 at the start of the 1920s more than doubled during the decade. The city’s cars would see an even greater increase, from 161,846 cars registered in L.A. County in 1920 to 806,264 registered in 1930. In 1920 Los Angeles had about 170 gas stations. By 1930 there were over 1,500.
This early and rapid adoption of the automobile in the region is the reason that L.A. was such a pioneer in the area of automotive-centric retailing. The car of the 1920s changed the way that people interacted with the city and how it purchased goods, for better and for worse. As Richard Longstreth notes in his 2000 book, The Drive-In, The Supermarket, and the Transformation of Commercials Space in Los Angeles, the fact that Southern California was the “primary spawning ground for the super service station, the drive-in market, and the supermarket” was no coincidence. Continuing the trend of the preceding decades, the population of Los Angeles swelled tremendously in the 1910s and ’20s, with people arriving by the thousands.
“This burgeoning middle class created one of the highest incidences of automobile ownership in the nation, and both the diffuse nature of the settlement and a mild climate year-round yielded an equally high rate of automobile use,” Longstreth explains. The city, unencumbered by the geographic restrictions of places like San Francisco and Manhattan quickly grew outward rather than upward; fueled by the car and quite literally fueled by the many oil fields right in the city’s backyard. Just over the hills that I can see from my apartment building lie oil derricks. Strange metal robots in the middle of L.A. dotting the landscape, bobbing for that black gold to which we’ve grown so addicted.
Los Angeles would see and turn down many proposals for expanded public transit during the first half of the 20th century. In 1926 the Pacific Electric built a short-running subway in the city but it did little to fix the congestion problems that were happening above ground.
In 1926 there was a big push to build over 50 miles of elevated railway in Los Angeles. The city’s low density made many skeptical that Los Angeles could ever support public transit solutions to its transportation woes in the 20th century. The local newspapers campaigned heavily against elevated railways downtown, even going so far as to send reporters to Chicago and Boston to get quotes critical of those cities’ elevated railways. L.A.’s low density was a direct result of the city’s most drastic growth occurring in the 1910s and ‘20s when automobiles were allowing people to spread out and build homes in far flung suburbs and not be tied to public transit to reach the commercial and retail hub of downtown.
As strange as it may seem today, the automobile was seen by many as the progressive solution to the transportation problems of Los Angeles in the 1920s. The privately owned rail companies were inflating their costs and making it impossible for the city to buy them out. Angelenos were reluctant to to subsidize private rail, despite their gripes with service. Meanwhile, both the city and the state continued to invest heavily in freeways. In 1936 Fortune magazine reported on what they called rail’s obsolescence.
Though the city’s growth stalled somewhat during the Great Depression it picked right back up again during World War II. People were again moving to the city in droves looking for work in this artificial port town that was fueling the war effort on the west coast. But at the end of the war the prospects for mass transit in L.A. were looking as grim as ever.
In 1951 the California assembly passed an act that established the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority. The Metro Transit Authority proposed a monorail between the San Fernando Valley and downtown Los Angeles. A 1954 report issued to the Transit Authority acknowledged the unique challenges of the region, citing its low density, high degree of car ownership and current lack of any non-bus mass rapid transit in the area as major hurdles.
The July 1954 issue of Fortune magazine saw postwar expansion brought on by the car as an almost insurmountable challenge for the urban planner of the future:
As a generation of city and regional planners can attest, it is no simple matter to draw up a transit system that will meet modern needs. In fact, some transportation experts are almost ready to concede that the decentralization of urban life, brought about by the automobile, has progressed so far that it may be impossible for any U.S. city to build a self-supporting rapid-transit system. At the same time, it is easy to show that highways are highly inefficient for moving masses of people into and out of existing business and industrial centers.
Somewhat interestingly, that 1954 proposal to the L.A. Metro Transit Authority called their monorail prescription “a proper beginning of mass rapid transit throughout Los Angeles County.” It was as if the past five decades had been forgotten.
Longtime Los Angeles resident Ray Bradbury never drove a car. Not even once. When I asked him why, he said that he thought he’d “be a maniac” behind the wheel. A year ago this month I walked to his house which was about a mile north of my apartment (uphill) and arrived dripping in sweat. Bradbury was a big proponent of establishing monorail lines in Los Angeles. But as Bradbury wrote in a 2006 opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, he believed the Metro line from downtown to Santa Monica (which now stretches to Culver City and is currently being built to reach Santa Monica) was a bad idea. He believed that his 1960s effort to promote monorails in Los Angeles made a lot more sense financially.
Bradbury said of his 1963 campaign, “During the following 12 months I lectured in almost every major area of L.A., at open forums and libraries, to tell people about the promise of the monorail. But at the end of that year nothing was done.” Bradbury’s argument was that the taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill for transportation in their city.
With the continued investment in highways and the public repeatedly voting down funding for subways and elevated railways at almost every turn (including our most recent ballot’s Measure J which would have extended a sales tax increase in Los Angeles County to be earmarked for public transportation construction) it’s hard to argue that anyone but the state of California, the city of Los Angeles, and the voting public are responsible for the automobile-centric state of the city.
But admittedly the new Metro stop in Culver City has changed my life. Opened in June of last year, it has completely transformed the way that I interact with my environment. While I still may walk as far as Hollywood on occasion (about 8 miles), I’m able to get downtown in about 25 minutes. And from Downtown to Hollywood in about the same amount of time.
Today, the streetcars may be returning to downtown L.A. with construction starting as early as 2014 pending quite a few more hurdles. Funding has nearly been secured for the project which would again put streetcars downtown by 2016.
But even with all of L.A.’s progress in mass transit, my car-less experiment will probably come to a close this year. Life is just easier with a car in a city that still has a long way to go in order to make places like Santa Monica, Venice, the Valley and (perhaps most crucially for major cities trying to attract businesses and promote tourism) the airport accessible by train.
But until then my car will remain parked downstairs. I’ll continue to walk almost everywhere, and you can be sure I’ll dream of the L.A. monorails that never were.
April 24, 2013
When I was in second grade I made a diorama of a city of the future. This was the early 1990s and the diorama was supposed to represent the year 2000—somehow still lightyears away for a young kid during the George H. W. Bush administration. My little diorama city had cars that ran on a magnetic track, some tall awkwardly-shaped buildings, and a way of recycling rainwater that supposedly (at least in my juvenile mind) was great for the environment.
Children of the 20th century (present bloggers excluded, perhaps) had some fascinating visions for the future. They tended to be pretty optimistic, but each generation betrays its own fears for the world of tomorrow. In the 1960s, kids imagined flying cars and jetpacks, tempered by fears around the Cold War. In the 1970s, kids expected their future to be filled with robot maids and vacations to Mars, but they also worried about violence, the price of gas and skyrocketing unemployment.
In this film from 1983 we hear from American kids about their visions for cities of the future. The kids have constructed and drawn cities that include peoplemovers run by computer, underground shops and even horse-drawn transportation. The end of this clip shows a kid who warns that humanity will be destroyed if we don’t find an alternative to gasoline soon—a fear that made a lot of sense to children of the 1970s and 1980s, but maybe less so to children of the 1960s or 1990s.
What did you envision the world of the future looking like when you were a kid? How do you think the time in which you grew up influenced your outlook?
January 10, 2013
The Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which concluded last week in Las Vegas, is where the (supposed) future of consumer technology gets displayed. But before this annual show debuted in 1967, where could you go to find the most futuristic gadgets and appliances? The answer was the American electrical shows of 100 years ago.
The first three decades of the 20th century was an incredible period of technological growth for the United States. With the rapid adoption of electricity in the American home, people could power an increasingly large number of strange and glorious gadgets which were being billed as the technological solution for making everyone’s lives easier and more enjoyable. Telephones, vacuum cleaners, electric stoves, motion pictures, radios, x-rays, washing machines, automobiles, airplanes and thousands of other technologies came of age during this time. And there was no better place to see what was coming down the pike than at one of the many electrical shows around the country.
The two consistently largest electrical shows in the U.S. were in Chicago and New York. Chicago’s annual show opened on January 15, 1906, when less than 8 percent of U.S. households had electricity. By 1929, about 85 percent of American homes (if you exclude farm dwellings) had electricity and the early adopters of the 1920s — emboldened by the rise of consumer credit — couldn’t get their hands on enough appliances.
The first Chicago Electrical Show began with a “wireless message” from President Teddy Roosevelt in the White House and another from Thomas Edison in New Jersey. Over 100,000 people roamed its 30,000 square feet of exhibit space during its two weeks at the Chicago Coliseum.
Just as it is today at CES, demonstration was the bread and butter of the early 20th century electrical shows. At the 1907 Chicago Electrical Show the American Vibrator Company gave out complimentary massages to attendees with its electrically driven massagers while the Diehl Manufacturing Company showed off the latest in sewing machine motors for both the home and the factory.
Decorative light was consistently important at all the early electrical shows, as you can see by the many electric lights dangling in the 1908 postcard at the top of this post. The 1909 New York Electrical Show at Madison Square Garden was advertised as being illuminated by 75,000 incandescent lamps and each year the number of light bulbs would grow greater for what the October 5, 1919, Sandusky Register described as “America’s most glittering industry” — electricity.
The highlights of the 1909 New York show included “air ships” controlled by wireless, food cooked by electricity, the wireless telephone (technology that today we call radio), washing and ironing by electricity and even hatching chicken eggs by electricity. They also included a demonstration of 2,000,000 volts of electricity sent harmlessly through a man’s body.
The hot new gadget of the 1910 Chicago show was the “time-a-phone.” This invention looked like a small telephone receiver and allowed a person to tell time in the dark by the number of chimes and gongs they heard. Musical chimes denoted the hour while a set of double gongs gave the quarter hours and a high pitched bell signified the minutes. The January 5, 1910, Iowa City Daily Pressexplained that such an invention could be used in hotels, “where each room will be provided with one of the instruments connected to a master clock in the basement. The time-a-phone is placed under the pillow and any guest wishing to know the hour has to press a button.”
Though the Chicago and New York shows attracted exhibitors from all over the country, they drew largely regional attendees in the 1900s and 1910s. New York’s show of course had visitors from cities in the northeast but it also drew visitors from as far away as Japan who were interested in importing the latest American electrical appliances. Chicago’s show drew from neighboring states like Iowa and Indiana and the show took out ads in the major newspapers in Des Moines and Indianapolis. An ad in the January 10, 1910, Indianapolis Star billed that year’s show in Chicago as the most elaborate exposition ever held — “Chicago’s Billion Dollar Electrical Show.” The ad proclaimed that “everything that’s now in light, heat and power for the home, office, store, factory and farm” would be on display including “all manner of heavy and light machinery in full working operation.”
Chicago’s 1910 Electrical Show was advertised as a “Veritable Fairyland of Electrical Wonders” with $40,000 spent on decorations (about $950,000 adjusted for inflation). On display was the The Wright airplane exhibited by the U.S. Government, wireless telegraphy and telephony.
During World War I the nation and most of it’s high-tech (including all radio equipment, which was confiscated from all private citizens by the U.S. government) went to war. Before the war the New York Electrical Show had moved from Madison Square Garden to the Grand Central Palace but during WWI the Palace served as a hospital. New York’s Electrical Show went on hiatus, but in 1919 it returned with much excitement about the promise of things to come.
The October 5, 1919, Sandusky Registerin Sandusky, Ohio described the featured exhibits everyone was buzzing about in New York, such as: “a model apartment, an electrical dairy, electrical bakery, therapeutic display, motion picture theater, the dental college tube X ray unit, the magnifying radioscope, a domestic ice making refrigerating unit, a carpet washer which not only cleans but restores colors and kills germs.”
Model homes and apartments were both popular staples of the early 20th century electrical shows. Naturally, the Chicago show regularly featured a house of the future, while the New York show typically called their model home an apartment. Either way, both were extravagantly futuristic places where nearly everything seemed to be aided by electricity.
The model apartment at the 1919 New York Electrical Show included a small electric grand piano with decorative electric candles. A tea table with an electric hot water kettle, a lunch table with chafing dishes and and electric percolator. The apartment of tomorrow even came with a fully equipped kitchen with an electric range and an electric refrigerator. Daily demonstrations showed off how electricity could help in the baking of cakes and pastry, preparing dinner, as well as in canning and preserving. The hottest gadgets of the 1919 NY show included the latest improvements in radio, dishwashing machines and a ridiculous number of vacuum cleaners. The December 1919 issue of Electrical Experimenter magazine described the editors as “flabbergasted” trying to count the total number of vacuum cleaners being demonstrated.
After WWI the electrical shows really kicked into high gear, and not just in New York and Chicago. Cleveland advertised its electrical show in 1920 as the biggest ever staged in America. Held in the Bolivar-Ninth building the show was decidedly more farm-centric, with the latest in electrical cleaners for cows getting top billing in Ohio newspapers. The Cleveland show included everything from cream separators that operate while the farmer is out doing other chores to milking machines to industrial sized refrigerators for keeping perishable farm products fresh.
The 1921 New York Electrical Show featured over ninety booths with over 450 different appliances on display. Americans of the early 1920s were promised that in the future the human body would be cared for by electricity from head to toe. The electric toothbrush was one of the most talked about displays. The American of the future would be bathing in electrically-heated water, and afterward put on clothes that had been electrically sewn, electrically cleaned and electrically pressed. The electrical shows of the early 20th century promised that the American of the future would only be eating meals that were prepared electrically. What was described by some as the most interesting exhibit of the 1921 New York Electrical Show, the light that stays on for a full minute after you turn it off. This, it was explained, gave you time to reach your bed or wherever you’re heading without “hitting your toes against the rocking chair” and waking up the rest of your family.
The Great Depression would stall that era’s American electrical shows. In 1930 the New York Electrical Show didn’t happen and Earl Whitehorne, president of the Electrical Association of New York, made the announcement. The Radio Manufacturers Association really took up the mantle, holding events in Chicago, New York and Atlantic City where previous exhibitors at the Electrical Shows were encouraged to demonstrate their wares. But it wasn’t quite the same. The sale of mechanical refrigerators, radios and even automobiles would continue in the 1930s, but the easy credit and sky’s-the-limit dreaming of the electrically minded would be relegated to certain corners of larger American fairs (like the World’s Fairs of 1933 in Chicago and 1939 in New York) where techno-utopian dreams were largely the domain of gigantic corporations like RCA and Westinghouse.
December 6, 2012
“No person will walk where automobiles move,” is how British architect Geoffrey Alan Jellicoe described his town of the future, “and no car can encroach on the area sacred to the pedestrian.”
Jellicoe was talking to the Associated Press in 1960 about his vision for a radically new kind of British town—a town where the bubble-top cars of tomorrow moved freely on elevated streets, and the pedestrian zipped around safely on moving sidewalks. For a town whose main selling point was the freedom to not worry about getting hit by cars, it would have a rather strange name: Motopia.
Planned for construction about 17 miles west of London with an estimated cost of about $170 million, Motopia was a bold—if somewhat impractical plan—for a city built from the ground up. The town was envisioned as being able to have a population of 30,000, all living in a grid-pattern of buildings with an expanse of rooftop motorways in the sky. There would be schools, shops, restaurants, churches and theaters all resting on a total footprint of about 1,000 acres.
Motopia was to be a town with no heavy industry; a “dormitory community” where people largely found work elsewhere. The community was imagined as modern but tranquil; a town where accepting the bold new postwar future didn’t mean giving up the more peaceful aspects of daily living. But what about all the noise from the roads above? The planners were quick to point out that a special kind of insulation would be used to block out any of the noise from all the cars roaring along on your roof.
“In this town we are separating the biological elements from the mechanical,” Jellicoe told the Associated Press at the time. “The secret is as simple as that.”
Britain passed the New Towns Act of 1946 after World War II, which gave the government the power to quickly designate land for new development. Even before fighting had ceased the British began planning how they might rebuild London, while funneling population to less dense towns just outside the city. London had been battered during the war and the rapid development of towns was necessary to accomodate the overspill of population. Fourteen new towns were established between 1946 and 1950 after the passage of the New Towns Act, but according to Guy Ortolano at New York University, these modestly designed communities didn’t impress the more avant-garde planners of the day.
As Ortolano explains in his 2011 paper, “Planning the Urban Future in 1960s Britain,” just one new town was established by Conservative British governments in the 1950s. But the baby boom sparked new interest in town development as the ’60s arrived.
The September 25, 1960 edition of Arthur Radebaugh‘s Sunday comic strip “Closer Than We Think” was devoted to Jellicoe’s Motopia and gave readers in North America a splashy and colorful peek at the city of tomorrow. Radebaugh’s cars were less bubble-top and more mid-century Detroit-tailfin than his British designer counterparts, which was only natural given that Radebaugh was based in Detroit. He also made the moving sidewalk a much more prominent part of his illustrations than the designs coming from Jellicoe and his team.
Ortolano explains in his paper that between 1961 and 1970 new town development in Britain became much more ambitious and experimental, incorporating the private automobile, monorail and even hovercraft as more central characters in its designs. But Motopia was not to be, despite the rosey predictions of Jellicoe.
“Motopia is not only possible, but it is practical because it is economical,” Jellicose told the Associate Press. “The dwellings would be no more expensive than housing for a similar population in tall buildings, such as those used by the London City Council in some of its developments.”
Jellicoe described the futuristic city of Motopia as like “living in a park,” which again, begs the question of the name. But this wasn’t Jellicoe’s only vision for the city of the future. As the January 30, 1960 issue of Stars and Stripes explained, Jellicoe had many ideas for the British landscape of tomorrow: ”‘Soho in 2000,’ a plan for ripping out the famed old section of London and rebuilding it for 20th Century life; a High Market shopping center for the small industrial cities of the Midlands that don’t have adequate shopping facilities at present; and St. John’s Circus, a modern development south of London that would utilize a huge traffic circle and heliports.”
Alas, none of these futuristic visions were realized, but you can watch a short newsreel of Jellicoe’s plans for Motopia at British Pathe.
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.