The Future's So Bright: Inside the 1950s Total Electric Home

"Imagine this: Total Electric Living... where electricity does absolutely everything: heats, air conditions, cooks, preserves food, lights, entertains, encourages hobbies, makes it the easiest way ever for you and your family to be happier, healthier, to live fuller lives."

I uncovered the booklet featured in today's post at the Ligonier Fleatique in a Ziploc baggie marked "Bag of Old Papers." To me, there's something enticing about papers of the past. The calendars from 1907. The motion picture ads from 1940. The vaudeville fliers of the 20s. The forgotten. The disposable. All these things and more were in "Bag of Old Papers."

But it was the moment that I spied this large booklet from Westinghouse, "The Total Electric Home... new and wonderful living for you and your family... today," why, I knew you folks would enjoy looking at the pasts' home of the future.

The book instantly called to mind Epcot's "Spaceship Earth" ride, that big golf-ball-shaped tour of technology in the center of the theme park. There we see dioramas of animatronic people and their shifting lifestyles as technology becomes an increasingly greater part of their every day lives.

And here, here we have the Westinghouse corporation of the 1950s, based in my hometown of Pittsburgh, giving Americans of the era a glimpse of a very functional, very luxurious, very futuristic and yet very "today" look at what life could be like through the wonders of electricity.

We begin, as the host family-- we'll call them the Happy-Homeowners-- welcomes guests to their Total Electric Home.

Planes overhead should easily be able to spot this household, as it appears every room in the entire house is currently illuminated.

The caption reads:

"First impression? Warm and friendly. When guests approach your Total Electric Home, a soft glow of Rayescent (TM) lamps along the entrance path guides them up to the entrance. Additional lights go on automatically as they come near. Bright, cheerful entrance lighting and dramatic interior illumination extend a gracious invitation to your Total Electric Home.

"When guests arrive at the door, a television camera takes their picture and transmits it automatically to closed-circuit monitors located throughout the house. As you view your guests, you'll be able to welcome them over the voice intercom."

Zowie! This was VERY advanced for its time, wasn't it? Can you imagine the startle that Mr. and Mrs. Guest had when they came down the walk and all the lights came on with no one around to be seen? And then that voice coming over the loudspeaker? Gosh, they probably needed a gimlet or two just to calm down after that terrifying ordeal.

Ah, but it wasn't The Haunting-- it was The Atomic Age.

And the Atomic Age family had a lot more time at its disposal due to the wonders of time-saving technology. So what did the modern family do to amuse itself? Why, for one, they enjoyed their Entertainment Center.

The caption tells us:

"Here, the signs and sounds of the world are at your fingertips, ready to match a mood of the moment. Where are they? Built into that handsome sweep of cabinetry on the far wall.

"A 24-inch television, in a center niche, pivots to catch the eye anywhere in the room. To the left, you'll find an automatic record player with a generous supply of a hundred 45 rpm ready to play recordings. Room to store an additional three hundred 12-inch records, too.

"And what Entertainment Center would be really complete without a variety of AM radio, and the clear, faultless voice of FM? Tape recordings are on hand, of course. These, and your records, seem to come alive over a special 3-speaker stereophonic sound system. Just as vivid will be all the memorable occasions you filmed, because there's a movie projector and film storage built-in, too...

"One more convenience, too. The lights and movie screen are controlled from the same coffee table. But don't think that all this fun is fantasy. Every bit is possible, with Total Electric Living."

Well, I'm sold! Not only AM but that wonderful, clear FM radio! And I could play all sorts of 45s. PLUS, reel-to-reel tapes. PLUS, practically blind myself by the enormous 24-inch television screen.

I am a little concerned about that home movie capacity, though. Particularly if I were Mr. and Mrs. Guest. Because we just KNOW that this guy, Bob Happy-Homeowner is s going to be inflicting ALL SORTS of home movies on us every time we come to visit.

Mr. and Mrs. Guest will have to see that fishing vacation a thousand times. And that stupid Christmas tape where everyone just stands and waves in front of the Christmas Tree. Can't we just play canasta, Bob? Can't we? Please?

So how does the family of the future dine?

Well, it's not a dining room now, but a Dining Center...

"If you wonder what part electricity plays here, think of this: a rainy-morning breakfast made cheerful, an afternoon buffet with an outdoor touch, an evening meal with an added sparkle. Versatile, variable lighting can do all that-- and more. The lights brighten or dim down to an intimate atmosphere. The upper lighting and drop lighting work independently, and work wonders-- in the softest tints of aqua, pink or candle-light, combined with white. Just touch the new Fasion Plate (TM) wall switches to control them.

... And have you ever seen an Appliance Center? This compact marvel powers any of today's small appliances. Toaster, coffeemaker, and electric fry pan can all work from here automatically, without overloading the circuit."

There's nothing like pink or aqua lighting to set a mood. And gee, every meal is a happy one when the electric outlets haven't caught on fire!

Food itself, we learn, also has its special place for storage. See Betty Happy-Homeowner here as she obsessive-compulsively stores her frozen veggies, sponsored by Birds-Eye.

It's the kind of beautiful, right-angled, uniform sort of arrangement that the TV detective "Monk" might really appreciate.

After we've had a nice meal, and spent a few hours enjoying the Entertainment Center, it is time to retire. And to where? No, not the Bed Room... It's a Sleep Center...

"The ultimate in comfort. The ultimate in convenience. And only a Total Electric Sleep Center can give them to you...

"Slip into bed, adjust it electrically and its comfortable contour makes your book or remote music that much more enjoyable. You barely need reach, because the headboard control panel is at your fingertips. Touch a button to make a ceiling panel slide back, discolosing a crystal-clear plastic dome. Music under the stars!...

"In the morning, you wake to your clock-radio and the aroma of brewing coffee. If this is your day to "sleep in," bring up your portable electric tray-cart. It's adjustable for bed or chair side use, tilts for reading, even has a warming surface for breakfast in bed..."

Talk about ahead of their time! They had the precursor to the Craftmatic adjustible bed... They had skylights for music under the stars. They had trays that popped up for breakfast in bed. The only thing they were missing was Rosie the Robot to MAKE the breakfast, double-beds, and some more fashionable sleepwear for Mr. Happy-Homeowner. Still, even here in 2008, I'M sucked in by their marketing.

Well, surely the bathroom can't be terribly space-age, can it? Oh, but it can!

Except, we don't CALL it the bathroom. Nope-- it's the Health and Beauty Center!

"Each day starts here, right and bright. A Rayescent (TM) wall of light... still in the experimental stage... is combined with decorative thermoelectric panels to provide illumination, plus heading in winter, cooling in summer...

"A duplex design gives a man a separate area where he can shave, bathe and take the sun-- under lamps built from the ceiling. And when the mood strikes, or the diet demands, he can choose his workout with an exerciser, exercycle, or rowing machine, then top it off with a massage-- all of them electric.

"Meantime, on the other side of the duplex center, a lucky wife sits in front of her electric vanity, where hairdryer, massager, vaporizer, and shaver are kept."
It goes on to share that there's a voice intercom, so you can chat to others within the house while you're in the Health and Beauty Center-- since you're probably never really going to want to leave there anyway. There's also another washer (separate from the laundry room) and a sun lamp.

Think of all the money you'll save on not having to go away for vacations, which you can spend on your astronomical electric bill!

And when things need to be fixed? Mr. Happy-Homeowner has all the items he needs to do the job right. With his Home Workshop Center.

"Imagine what Total Electric Living can offer to the do-it-himselfer! An opportunity to have all the electric tools that make such short, fine work of even the most difficult home projects. For example, the key to any siccuessful set-up would be the multi-purpose electric power tools.

"Diagonally across the way is a paint spray booth with infrared baking lamps. Lawn furniture and bicycle fenders get a new lease on life from this hobbyist's dream...

"Mr. Fixit will spend many an hour out here. Note the hot plate to heat metal and parts-- or even fix a snack!"

Mr. Happy-Homeowner will also enjoy being on the intercom circuit in this room, so he can talk to his family for those brief times when he isn't in the bathroom... er, Health and Beauty Center.

Lastly, I thought I'd show you the Weather Control Center. Here we see Jimmy Stewart channelling Jack Nicholson in The Shining as he tells young Danny about how the operations of the Total Electric Home work.

"Perhaps you can't turn on the sun and turn off the snow, but you will be able to meet the whims of the weather head-on. You can control all of your electric heating and air conditioning from this one location.

"A glance at the gauges and you note the inside and outside temperature, too. Wind velocity and direction, and relative humidity, are continually indicated. Barometric pressure is recorded."

And in the NEXT model of the Weather Control Center, a local meteorologist pops out of a special panel and translates this information for you-- whenever you need it. All you have to do is continue to feed the meteorologist through the special Weatherman Nutrition Center, and you'll get years of use out of this unique facility.

Well, that concludes the tour of the futuristic Total Electric Home of the 1950s. I hope you enjoyed your visit today. Donations will be accepted on the way out to pay for the Happy-Homeowner's sky-rocketing utility bill. Thank you. :)

Ah, but for those of you who happen to have an extra moment--
  • Perhaps you might want to check out last Treasure Box Wednesday and discover why donating is as much of a treasure as discovering. Click here.
  • Or visit last week's page on tips for thrifting. You may already know all these special hints, but there may be some new to learn for you, as well. Click here.

Hope your family has a happy Father's Day! And happy Father's Day to my dad, too, should he happen by!


RecycleCindy said...

Really enjoyed the walk through the electric home and all the pictures you shared. It always amazes me when I look back on the technology advances over the years. Each picture brings up another interesting aspect of how far we're come. Plus I just love seeing all those retro decors!

Jenn Thorson said...

Cindy- Oh, I'm so glad you enjoyed it. Yes, it's easy to get caught up in the almost Utopian optimism of the way it's all portrayed-- even knowing what we know now about the importance of energy conservation. So much shows real thinking about functionality, convenience, and innovation. And yet so much has a feel very much of the 1950s era.

Plus, you know, I just don't walk around my house in a dress and high heels like Mrs. Happy-Homeowner. :)

Wanita said...

I certainly enjoyed the tour through the total electric home. It did indeed remind me of a ride at Disney World when we visited many years ago.

I enjoy your blog. It was fun to note that you're from the Pittsburgh area. I grew up in Somerset and still visit family there a couple times a year.

Every summer when I was growing up, we went to Ligonier to spend a day at Idlewild Park and Storybook Forest. I'm hoping to take my grandchildren there some day.

Have a wonderful day!

Rosemary said...

Great post today Jenn!!
My husband works for the Electric Co.,so he will get a kick out of this one.
How about when the power goes out, what then??
I thought by now we would be living like the Jetson's.
Have a great week,

Jenn Thorson said...

Wanita- Thank you so much for the note-- it's always great to hear from people who really know the area as you do.

I just drove past Idlewild yesterday. It was pouring rain, and yet the amount of cars in the parking lot was amazing. They really must have been toughing it out!

Rosmary-- Excellent point! Gosh, I hadn't even thought of that-- and you'd think, given the amount of thunderstorms we've had lately, I might have. Those people might just have been trapped in their house! (Or at the very least, had absolutely NOTHING working.)

I'll love to hear your husband's perspective. There are even wiring charts in the back of the brochure!

Linda B said...

I think I grew up in that house! Seriously, my dad was a scientist/electrical engineer for GE. We had all the latest, greatest stuff. Including a microwave oven big enough to roast a camel, if you were ever so inclined. Dad said "stand back, I think microwave radiation might be bad for us...." so we all stepped back about two feet.... Those were the good old days.

Jenn Thorson said...

Linda B- Really, so you know what it was like to live as the brochure family? Wow. Here's hoping the only ones affected by that microwave was the roasted camel. :)

Outside My Brain said...

That's so funny! Your quips in between were what made the story. It's so funny to look back and see what was touted as so incredible back then that is now taken for granted.

I'd be interested to read your take on a follow-up post to this from a current magazine touting the home of the future. You could post it as a contrast to this one.

Thanks for that,


Jenn Thorson said...

OutsideMyBrain- thanks for taking the time to visit!! It would be interesting to contrast past visions with modern day ones. I suspect that today's version might only be different in the actual technology-- for instance, the sound system would be CD or all downloaded MP3s. There'd be a flat screen TV which hides away. And digital video recordings. Things like that.

I'm only guessing, but it's fun to consider.

Barry said...

Golly - gee Wally! Isn't that house swell?

I just can't tell if Mrs. Happy-Homeowner was wearing pearls when she was pulling out the ® Bird's-eye forzen food stuff.

Miss Shirl said...

That's kind of neat. I love old stuff. Gives a glimpse of the past even though it's so "Leave It to Beaver." :-)

Jenn Thorson said...

Why, Barry, I do indeed believe Mrs. Happy-Homeowner is wearing pearls. I know she wears a dress and high heels to do laundry. So my guess is the pearls are a must-have! :)

Shirley- it does feel like an old TV set, doesn't it, more than a home? :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing. I love this kind of old stuff. When I was in grade school, my parents got me a book that covered a century of the magazine "Popular Science." Seems like in these times there was a lot of enthusiasm for the possibilities of the future, at least among a certain group of consumers.

The images also remind me of that classic French movie from the late 1950s, "Mon Oncle"

Jenn Thorson said...

Mark- The optimism of it all really does end up being contagious. The more I read, the more their world seemed bright and rosy. :) Of course, we know the reality is quite different than the marketing brochures. But still-- that 50s Utopia had quite a lot going for it. Even if just for escapism.

Anonymous said...

Wow! What an interesting blog post this is. It's amazing to witness the kind of optimistic and unrealistic advertising that was prepared for our parents consumption.

In comparison to the war years of the 40's when deprivation was the feature the 50s were a time when affluence was the promise. It's here that we find the beginning of the spinning of "the Amercian dream".

Jenn Thorson said...

TimeThief- Agreed-- it's quite a beautiful, non-realistic world they created through the brochure-- and yet still strangely functional. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

What a fun post! At first, I thought it was just going to be a laugh (and it is, especially your commentary), but, really, I was sucked into their marketing, too! And, I, like many other commenters, am surprised at how much of it is commonplace today.
I adore mid-century stuff, so thanks for this post!

Jenn Thorson said...

Other Jenn- :) -- I had the exact same reaction. I was all set to just be silly with the whole thing, like some of the scary salad recipes posted here before, but I just couldn't do it-- the image they portrayed was too amazing... and prophetic in some ways.

Glad you had fun with it, too!

Greg said...

Of course, they *needed* that second washer in the Health and Beauty Center, as there appears to be no toilet!

And why aren't those kids playing Electric Chess?! That's the old fashioned kind right there...

This stuff is amazing and a wonderful look back at the optimism of an earlier age. Great find, Jenn!!

Unknown said...

Greg- ah, but it would be UNCOUTH to show the toilet. The World of the Bright Future has no need for your uncouth toilets. They've probably got internal food recycling centers implanted in....

Ewww... grossed myself out there for a minute. :)

Anonymous said...

Wonderful. I really enjoyed that "Trip" back to the future!

Lidian said...

Well that is quite a pad they've got there! :)

And what a fab booklet you got in that bag...brilliant stuff. I was just looking at my "Electric Cook Book" (little paperback) where they go on and on about the Electric House so I was mighty pleased to see it - and in such vivid color too!

Jenn Thorson said...

Pam- Jumpin' jigawatts! We vintage gals don't even need a superpowered Delorean to go back in time, eh? :)

Lidian- Do you ever feel half of what we find all ends up being connected in some way? :) It's so funny how we're able to connect the dots with the past to see a bigger picture.

Alex M said...

Thank you for a posting that made me think of George Jetson, Dick Van Dyke and Bob Villa all rolled into one...

Jenn Thorson said...

Heya, Ms. A- How are you and that cute puppy of yours doing?

You certainly summarized it all! And while I'm not a mid-century modern gal myself in particular, I DO love all the amazing storage space. THAT is some clever thinking. Go Jetsons, go!

Anonymous said...

I want to see Ed Begley Jr jump on his bicycle and power that house. Poor guy would probably die just after an 1/2hr dinner party. LOL

I don't know why but it reminds me of the house from Bewitched. Maybe it is all the magical electric things. ;)

Jenn Thorson said...

Chyna- okay, I usually know your pop culture references, but you're going to have to enlighten ME to what film Ed Begley powers something by riding a bicycle... :)

Melanie said...

Hey, loved the post. Thanks for the great "tour". That is a house my hubby would LOVE. He's into gadgets in a big way, but loves the past more than the present. He'd fit right into that house.

Jenn Thorson said...

Melanie- Your hubby might just change his mind after facing a, say $500, electric bill. :) But it sure does have STYLE! Thanks so much for visiting and saying "hi!"

Anonymous said...

What a treat, thanks for sharing! Can you imagine if they lost their electricity for severals days, all those Bird's Eye frozen meals, melting away!

I really enjoyed the beautiful images. :)

Clay said...

Hi - I'm almost 4 years late to this post, but I think it's great. I actually live in a Westinghouse Total Electric Home! We used to have all of the funky electric panels and controls on the walls, but they were removed almost 30 years ago during a renovation, sadly.

I wanted to point you to this brochure of all of the houses plans, in case you hadn't previously seen it: