December 23, 2011
When I was a kid I would’ve given just about anything to see a hoverboard under the family Christmas tree. Back to the Future II came out in 1989 (when I was six years old) and the movie promised kids like me a world of hoverboards and ubiquitous product placement by the year 2015. I even occasionally get emails from people who ask if hoverboards are real. These people vaguely remember seeing a short promotional documentary when they were kids about the making of BTTF2, which included a joke about hoverboards from director Robert Zemeckis. With a smirk that was obviously too subtle for the kiddies, Zemeckis claimed that hoverboards were real, but that child safety groups wouldn’t let them be released into stores. I’ve broken many a dear reader’s heart by sending out that link.
Alas, hoverboards still aren’t real (at least not in the way that BTTF2 envisioned them) and I never saw one under our Christmas tree. But the latter half of the 20th century still saw plenty of predictions for the Christmas celebrations of the future — everything from what kind of technologically advanced presents would be under the tree, to how visions of Santa Claus may evolve.
The 1981 book Tomorrow’s Home by Neil Ardley includes a two page spread about the Christmas presents and celebrations of the future. If we ignore the robot arm serving Christmas treats, Ardley pretty accurately describes the rise of user-generated media, explaining the ways in which the household computer will allow people to manipulate their video and musical creations:
Christmas in the future is an exciting occasion. Here the children have been given a home music and video system that links into the home computer. They are eagerly trying it out. The eldest boy is using the video camera to record pictures of the family, which are showing on the computer viewscreen. However, someone else is playing with the computer controls and changing the images for fun. At the same time, another child is working at the music synthesizer, creating some music to go with the crazy pictures.
But what of my parents’ generation, the Baby Boomers? What were they told as children about the Christmases to come? Below we have a sampling of predictions from the 1960s and 70s about what the Christmas festivities of the future would look like. Some of these predictions were made by kids themselves — people who are now in their 50s and 60s.
The November 28, 1967 issue of the Kingston, Jamaica newspaper The Gleaner ran a story by Londoner Carole Williams imagining what Christmas of the year 2000 would look like. It’s interesting that Williams spends the first paragraph acknowledging that the year 2000 could very well be a nightmarish, Orwellian dystopia wherein Santa lies dead in a snowbank:
Christmas in the Big Brother world of George Orwell did not exist at all; Santa Claus was dead. Indeed, he had never lived. Many eminent sociologists are today profoundly pessimistic at a rate of social progress which is carrying mankind swiftly, it seems, towards Big Brother living.
But to take the optimistic view that Christmas 2000 will be just as much a Christian celebration as now leads to interesting speculation. Firstly, Christmas Day 2000 will be the greatest festival ever known simply because of the anniversary. The events of Christmas 1000 will no doubt be recreated with techniques to envisage now, as a centre-piece of global festivity.
Williams continues to describe a jolly world that is connected by a vast network of videophones:
On Christmas Day 2000, greetings will be sent around the world in colour by television, person to person, as simply as a telegram. There will be two TV systems in every home: one for news and entertainment, the other for personal use, linked to telephone networks. Thus Mr Smith in Hong Kong will dial his home in London from his hotel room, say Happy Christmas and watch his children open their presents.
What will be in those bright, bulky packages only Father knows, but he will have had a staggering variety of gifts to choose from. More popular than today, probably, will be travel vouchers — tickets for supersonic weekend tours of, say, Kenya, or Brazil — anywhere where wild animals and vegetation are still free and unchecked. A ticket to Tokyo from London will cost about 100 dollars in the new world currency. 100 dollars will represent perhaps one week’s pay for a medium-grade computer operator.
Very young children will find midget colour TV sets, no larger than today’s transistor radios, in their Christmas stockings, and tiny wire recorders. Toys will probably be of the do-it-yourself variety — building go-karts powered by selenium cells, with kits for making simple computer and personal radars (of the type chests will use in Blind Man’s Buff). Teenagers will get jet-bikes, two seater hovercraft and electronic organs, the size of a small desk, that will compose pop tunes as well as play them.
The piece also explains that the most glorious Christmas celebration won’t even occur on the earth. Remember that this was 1967, two years before humans would set foot on the moon.
The most extraordinary Christmas in the year 2000 will without a doubt be the one spent by a group of men on the moon — scientists and astronauts of maybe several nations carried there in American and Russian rockets, establishing the possibility of using the moon as a launch-pad for further exploration.
They will be digging for minerals, looking at planets and earth through electronic telescopes so high-powered that they will be able to pick out the village of Bethlehem. Their Christmas dinner will be from tubes and pill bottles, and it is extremely unlikely that any alcohol at all will be allowed — or an after-dinner cigar.
Williams explains that the religious festivities surrounding Christmas will likely be the same as they were in 1967, but the buildings of worship will be different:
Down on earth, religious celebrations will continue as the have done for the previous two thousand years, but in many cities the churches themselves will have changed; their new buildings will be of strange shapes and design, more functional perhaps than inspirational and hundreds of them will be interdenominational, a practising symbol of ecumenicalism.
The Dec 23, 1976 Frederick News (Frederick, MD) looked a little deeper into the future and described Christmas in the year 2176.
Just imagine what Christmas would be like 200 years from now: An electronic Santa Claus would come down the chimney because everyone is bionic and Santa Claus should be, too. Christmas dinner may consist of sea weed and other delicacies from the deep. Mistletoe would only be placed in aristocratic homes because it would be much too expensive for the average family to buy.
There would be no such thing as Christmas shopping, because all the ordering can be done from home by an automatic shopping device.
Children would no longer have to wait so impatiently for the Christmas holiday to officially close schools, because you would only have to unplug the electronic classroom connector each student would have in his home. There would be no worry of what to do with the Christmas tree after the season, because it would have to be replanted and used again the following year.
The Lethbridge Public Library in Canada held a Christmas short story contest in 1977. The winners were published in December 24 edition of The Lethbridge Herald. Little Mike Laycock won first prize in the 9-10 year old category with his story titled, “Christmas in the Future.”
It was the night before Christmas, in the year 2011, and in a castle far away, a man named Claus was scurrying down a gigantic aisle of toys. Now and then he stopped in front of an elf to give him directions.
“Hurrying, hurrying,” he mumbled, “will I ever get some rest?” Finally everything was ready and the elves began to load the sled. Rudolph and all the other reindeer had grown long beards, and were too old to pull the sled anymore. So Santa went out and bought an atomic powered sled. It was a smart idea because in the winter nothing runs like a (John) Deere.
Well, if you could have seen the pile of toys you would have been amazed! There were piles of toys fifteen feet tall! Soon all the toys were loaded. Santa put on his crash helmet, hopped into the sled and brought the cockpit cover down. He flicked a few switches, pressed a few buttons, and he was off. Zooming through the air at sublight speed, he delivered toys to places like China, U.S.S.R., Canada, U.S.A. etc.
He flew over the cities dropping presents. He dropped them because each present had a small guidance system that guided the presents down a chimney. Then parachutes opened and the presents gently touched the ground.
It was snowing heavily and the ground was glittering with beauty. The stars were shining, the moon was full, and there, painted against the sky, was Santa, zooming across the sky in his atomic powered sled.
This drawing by 13-year-old Dennis Snowbarger appeared in the November 28, 1963 Hutchinson News (Hutchinson, Kansas). Dennis won second place in a contest the newspaper put on. It would appear that Dennis’s art was inspired by the TV show The Jetsons, whose original 24 episode run was from late 1962 through early 1963.
The “Junior Edition” of the San Mateo Times (San Mateo, CA) was promoted as being “by children, for everyone.” In the December 17, 1966 edition of the Junior Edition, Bill Neill from Abbott Middle School wrote a short piece which imagined a “modern Santa Claus” in the year 2001. In Bill’s vision of Christmas future, not only does Santa have an atomic-powered sleigh, he also has robot reindeer!
It is the year 2001. It is nearing Christmas. Santa and all his helpers were making toy machine guns, mini jets (used like a bike), life-size dolls that walk, talk and think like any human, electric guitars, and 15-piece drum sets (which are almost out of style).
When the big night arrives, everyone is excited. As Santa takes off, he puts on his sunglasses to protect his eyes from the city lights. Five, four, three, two, one, Blast Off! Santa takes off in his atomic-powered sleigh and his robot reindeer.
Our modern Santa arrives at his first house with a soft landing. After Santa packs up his portable chimney elevator, fire extinguisher and gifts, he slides down the chimney. These motions are repeated several billion times.
Things have changed. The details of how Santa arrives has changed and will continue to change, but his legend will remain.
Original illustration of robot Santa by Will Pierce.
Read more articles about the holidays with our Smithsonian Holiday Guide here
December 19, 2011
With the year 2012 just around the corner, people from the year 1912 might be disappointed to learn that we don’t have ubiquitous rooftop airports or 8-hour trips to the moon.
In 1912 (a year best remembered for the sinking of the Titanic) the French chocolate company Lombart commissioned future-themed illustrated cards to be included with their confectionary. (The cards were produced by the Norgeu family of printers, who had a reputation in France for doing high quality work.) Some companies in the early 20th century often packaged promotional cards with their foodstuffs and tobacco. Consumers were encouraged to collect the entirety of a series, hopefully boosting sales of a particular product in the way that McDonald’s Happy Meal toys are sold and collected today. The series of six cards below was called “En l’an 2012″ which translates to “in the year 2012,” and are illustrated with that special brand of dirigible-laced whimsy that arists were so fond of in the early 20th century. The series has a lot of similarities to other promotional cards of the era, including cards produced for German chocolate company Hildebrands around 1900 and another series produced in France between 1900 and 1910.
Unsurprisingly, the Lombart cards share a common theme: How the technology of the future will enable the task of purchasing ever-larger quantities of Lombart chocolate.
This card pictured the flying machine of the future, with a man reminding his house staff not to forget the Lombart chocolate.
This card shows parents in France speaking to their son in an unspecified Asian country via picturephone. They assure their son that they’ll send him Lombart chocolates by way of aircraft soon.
This card shows Lombart chocolate being delivered by airship from France to London.
A man tells the driver of a flying machine to stop for some chocolate.
This card shows people traveling to the moon in the year 2012. The trip was supposed to take just eight hours from Paris.
This card shows someone using an intercom, asking the submarine captain to stop at an underwater station so that they might pick up some Lombart chocolate.
These cards were found in the book The History of the Future: Images of the 21st Century by Christophe Canto and Odile Faliu.
November 18, 2011
The January 18, 1925, Zanesville Times Signal (Zanesville, Ohio) ran an article about a proposed 88 story skyscraper in New York. Titled “How We Will Live Tomorrow,” the article imagined how New Yorkers and other city-dwellers might eventually live in skyscrapers of the future. The article talks about the amazing height of the proposed structure, but also points out the various considerations one must make when living at a higher altitude.
The article mentions a 1,000 foot building, which even by today’s standards would be quite tall. The tallest building in New York City is currently the Empire State building at 1,250 feet. Until September 11, 2001, the North Tower of the World Trade Center stood as the tallest building in New York City at 1,368 feet tall. Interestingly, the year this article ran (in 1925) was the year that New York overtook London as the most populous city in the world.
The contemplated eighty-eight-story building, 1000 feet in height, which is to occupy an entire block on lower Broadway, may exceed in cubical contents the Pyramid of Cheops, hitherto the largest structure erected by human hands.
The Pyramid of Cheops was originally 481 feet high, and its base is a square measuring 756 feet on each side. The Woolworth Building is 792 feet in heigh, but covers a relatively small area of ground.
The proposed building, when it has been erected will offer to contemplation some rather remarkable phenomena. For instance, on the top floor an egg, to be properly boiled, will require two and a half seconds more time than would be needed at the street level.
That is because the air pressure will be less than at the street level by seventy pounds to the square foot, and water will boil at 209 degrees, instead of the ordinary 212. In a saucepan water cannot be heated beyond boiling point, and, being less hot at an altitude of 1000 feet, it will not cook an egg so quickly.
When one climbs a mountain one finds changes of climate corresponding to what would be found if one were to travel northward. Thus, according to the reckoning of the United States Weather Bureau, the climate on top of the contemplated eighty-eight-story building will correspond to that of the Southern Berkshires in Massachusetts.
The newspaper ran a series of illustrations to accompany the article that demonstrate the communal features of skyscraper living and new considerations (however ridiculous) of living at 1,000 feet. The skyscraper was imagined to feature billiard rooms, parlors for dancing and bowling alleys. One of the illustrations explains that “the housewife will be annoyed by no petty disputes with butcher and grocer over the accuracy of their accounts.” The latter is a reference to the fact that meals will no longer be prepared at home, but “bought at wholesale rates by a manger, or by a committee representing the families of the block, and the cooks and other servants employed to do the work tend to everything, relieving the housewives of all bother.”
The article looked to history for perspective on what wonders the next hundred years of skyscraper living may bring:
Compare the New York of today with what it was a century ago. May one not suppose that a century from now it will have undergone a transformation equally remarkable? Already the architects are planning, in a tentative way, buildings of sixty or seventy stories that are to occupy entire blocks, providing for all sorts of shops and other commercial enterprises, while affording space for the comfortable housing of thousands of families. Such a building will be in effect a whole town under one roof. The New York of today has great numbers of apartment houses. It has multitudes of family dwellings. The whole system must before long undergo a radical change. A block system of construction will replace it, achieving an economy of space which is an inexorable necessity. It is the only system under which the utmost possible utilization of ground area can be obtained.
Predictions of communal kitchens in the future were quite popular in utopian novels of the late 19th century, like Edward Bellamy’s 1888 tome “Looking Backward.” But this 1925 vision of tomorrow’s kitchen shifts focus to the kind of ordering out that we may be more familiar with today. The illustration contends that “all the housewife of tomorrow will have to do is select the kind of meal she wishes and order it, just as she now phones the butcher for a roast or fowl.”
Interestingly, the pneumatic tube still rears its head in this vision of urban living in the future. The Boston Globe article from 1900 that we looked at a few weeks ago included predictions of the pneumatic tube system Boston would employ by the year 2000. Delivery of everything from parcels to newspapers to food by pneumatic tube was a promise of the early 20th century that would nearly die during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
On a recent occasion the possibilities of the pneumatic tube for the transportation of eatables was satisfactorily demonstrated by the Philadelphia Post-office, which sent by this means a hot dinner of several courses a distance of two miles. For the community block a trolley arrangement might be preferred, with a covered chut and properly insulated receptacles, lined with felt, will keep foods at a piping temperature for a dozen hours.
October 12, 2011
The incredible rate of production for the war effort during the 1940s meant that Americans had to make certain sacrifices. The government instituted a rationing program for products like gasoline, meat, butter and rubber, and citizens were encouraged to plant “victory gardens” to grow their own food. It was common for advertisers of the early 1940s to use language that invoked a sense of shared struggle and promised that if we could just be patient, great things — usually in the form of exotic consumer goods – were waiting for Americans after the war.
This advertisement from the November 1944 issue of Pencil Points magazine is a bit unique in that its audience isn’t consumers, but architects who would be building stores after the war. (Pencil Points would later change its name to Progressive Architecture.) This particular ad was touting Westinghouse air conditioning units, which were “hermetically-sealed for dependability.” The ad begins by saying, “Every method to attract and retain more customers will be employed in the postwar stores which owners are commissioning their architects to plan today.”
Ironically, the downtown department store—even with the bubble cars and hermetically-sealed climate control portrayed in this ad—would increasingly become an anachronism in the aftermath of the war. Consumer habits changed due to migration to the suburbs and increasing traffic congestion (and less parking) in the cities. By 1949, the January issue of the Journal of Marketing was reporting on a new trend, the suburban “shopping center”:
“Even though [this] trend might be transitory in nature, the justification of the controlled-integrated shopping center is such that the probability of its future acceptance by the consumer, the retailer, and the manufacturer seems assured.”