“What’s tomorrow going to be like?” the opening of this 1945 newsreel asked. For many Americans who were watching, the answer was “a better life than my parents had.” World War II was winding down, the postwar boom was just around the corner, and planners were promising incredible things ahead – incredible things like affordable and efficient housing, a sci-fi dream for many of us living in the year 2018.
The Army-Navy “screen magazine” was a short film series played for members of the U.S. military overseas. And by 1945, they were producing a special sub-series called “Tomorrow” that explored the exciting things that those fighting overseas would enjoy after the war was won.
As we’ve explored before, many of these promises to World War II veterans were not kept when it came to housing, especially for black veterans. But it’s fascinating to watch the images that they were exposed to on a regular basis; the promise that a better life was in store. The film, available on the U.S. National Archives YouTube channel, swore it could all be yours if you could just sacrifice a little more to defeat fascism and bring the Allies across the finish line.
The film emphasises the fact that many of the new technologies developed during the war, like Plexiglass for gunner’s turrets, would be incorporated into consumer goods at home. This product pipeline, from America’s battlefields around the globe to American streets, would continue right on through wars in Korea, Vietnam, and even Afghanistan and Iraq.
One of the most popular ideas to emerge from the postwar housing boom was the notion of pre-fabricated houses.
“Pre-fabricated is the word for such houses. The parts of the house are stamped out like airplane or automobile parts,” the narrator says. “Crated, shipped, and set up at a price almost anyone can afford.”
Pre-fabrication was celebrated as a way to bring inexpensive housing to the masses – millions of people who would be returning from World War II and needed a place to live.
“Houses such as these were assembly line-made, proving the theory of many a planner that the assembly line principle which results in low cost and great quantity in everything from toothbrushes to Liberty ships, can be applied to the building trades, as well as other industries,” the narrator continues.
When viewers are shown the kitchen of the future, we get a glimpse of pearly white sinks and some futuristic gadgets, like a built-in waffle maker and a built-in rotisserie.
“And the interior of these homes of tomorrow will spark with as many labour saving devices as an advertising writer’s dream,” the narrator says. “Efficient and pleasant, they will be clean, well lit, skilfully planned, easy to maintain.”
If those gadgets look familiar, that’s because photos of an identical kitchen were featured in Life magazine in 1943 – something that we looked at for the Paleofuture blog way back in 2008. The model kitchen, designed by the Libbey-Owens-Ford glass company, even toured the U.S. in the 1940s to show people what the future had in store.
Photo: Life magazine 1943
“The pre-fabricated houses and the pre-assembled houses are still in the experimental stage, waiting for the final word from the men and women who are going to do the buying and the building” the narrator warns.
And the film adds an extra little bit of propaganda just to polish it all off: “... and changes to building codes, which prohibit the use of many new materials and methods.”
Today, most younger Americans are just trying to pay their rent and have given up the dream of homeownership. There was good news yesterday when the homeownership rate in America ticked back up slightly, but we’re only back to 1995 levels. The postwar dream of housing may not have worked out exactly as every American wanted, but it was a nicer promise than most young people get today.
The promise in 2018? Tent cities and being stripped of your citizenship. Even if you served in the U.S. military honorably. Quite a change from the promises that President Trump himself grew up with as a Baby Boomer. But then again, he was a millionaire by the time he was 8 years old. So he clearly deserves to live the good life.