To herald the opening of his unprecedented new theme park in 1955, Walt Disney broadcast a series of popular television shows. In March, the segment "Man in Space" touted one of Disneyland's most exciting attractions, Tomorrowland. "Man in Space" drew high ratings from its prime-time audience, and historian Karal Ann Marling noted that its futuristic animation resembled the consumer goods advertised during the show's commercial breaks. "A Ford Fairlane with options and a push button kitchen range heralded a future of magical ease as surely as any lunar vehicle did," she wrote.
In the 1950s, images of the future were tightly interwoven with the social, political, and economic phenomena that defined the decade. From the space race that would grow out of the increasingly hostile Cold War to Americans' continuing obsession with automobiles, the future offered a source of wonderment and fascination -- as well as a means of promoting the most up-to-date consumer products.
Concepts of "the future" shaped the 1950s experience in many ways:
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Walt Disney was making plans for a safe and clean family park, amusement parks had a reputation for being dirty, dangerous, and run down. Disney envisioned his new utopia as a modern, wholesome alternative to older venues. He saw his park as a place dedicated to preserving the nostalgic past -- and celebrating the potential of America's future. Disneyland, made up of four "lands," opened in July 1955. One of the four, Tomorrowland, featured rocket rides "to the moon"; the Monsanto House of the Future, made entirely of plastic and displaying cutting-edge kitchen appliances; and a futuristic replica of Los Angeles' emerging freeway system. Tomorrowland was imbued with optimism for the future and confidence in American superiority. It reflected American pride in freeways, kitchens, and space rockets.
In 1956, the federal government passed the Interstate Highway Act to fund construction of interstate highways across the country. At the same time, young suburban families, with more spending money than ever, were buying more cars. During the 1950s, the automobile industry saw growth and change, particularly in its design departments. Car companies catered to young buyers' tastes as well as their fantasies. Cars were designed to resemble airplanes and rockets, with sleek, lightweight bodies, wraparound windshields, and jet-inspired grilles.
Kitchens of the Future
Car companies exhibited the newest and most exciting household appliances in order to interest wives accompanying their husbands to auto shows. These "Kitchens of the Future" promised unimaginable efficiency at the push of a button for the American housewife, as well as modern, stainless-steel elegance. Americans bought it: in the first five years after World War II, the amount of money spent on household furnishings and appliances rose by an incredible 240 percent, more than in any other spending category. Advertising campaigns in print and on TV promised release from the back-breaking drudgery of housework by comparing "before" kitchens to modern, clean, and sleekly-decorated "after" kitchens. Manufacturers appealed to lower middle-class women by displaying their appliances as upper-class commodities, showing a woman in an evening gown preparing a cake by pushing a button, with time to spare to squeeze in a game of tennis or a round of golf. Cutting-edge appliances promised a future where any woman would have the kind of leisure time usually afforded only to the upper class.
The Space Race
As the Cold War took hold, the United States and the Soviet Union debated the merits of their ways of life -- and raced to launch the first space probes. Americans were convinced of the superiority of American capitalism, pointing to the proliferation of consumer goods that improved their lives. As the United States saw its western frontiers become more and more populated, its fascination with a new frontier -- space -- grew. Radio and television featured programs like Space Patrol, which ran from 1950 to 1955. The show followed the adventures of Commander Buzz Corey as he fought to keep the galaxy safe. Space Patrol was a classic American western, set in a futuristic locale. In the world of Buzz Corey, space was most definitely an all-American place. Americans held onto their fictional images of space even though the country found itself trailing behind in the Space Race. On October 4, 1957, Americans learned with disappointment that the Soviet Union had successfully launched Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit the earth.
Images of the future were as prevalent in the world of plastics as they were elsewhere in 1950s America. Tupperware Home Parties used an outer space theme in some of their promotions and Jubilees, and even scheduled the 1960 Spacecapades Jubilee around the visible orbit of Sputnik. The company considered its own classic Wonderbowl, with its sleek, minimalist style, to be on the cutting edge of dishware, and Tupperware was prominently featured in Disney's House of the Future. Like many Americans in the 1950s, Tupperware's rank and file found excitement, refuge, and hope in conceptions of a better future.
My American Experience
What do you think of the Tupperware story? What's your opinion of the postwar consumer boom, the rise of plastics, and other events of the 1950s? Has Tupperware affected you?