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What the 1950s ‘kitchen of the future’ got right (and what was just plain crazy)

Alice Doner was tall, prone to accidents, and “all thumbs in the kitchen.” So when her husband, industrial designer H. Creston Doner had a chance to build the “Kitchen of Tomorrow” for the Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Company, he did so with her in mind. The resultant kitchen was profiled in a 1943 issue of Life magazine. With sliding cabinet doors, plentiful glass and working-height counters, it suggested relative tame, attainable improvements, but the same can’t be said for the speculation that would follow in a decade.

Take RCA and Whirlpool’s “Miracle Kitchen,” which started traveling around the world in 1956 and made an appearance at the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959. It was meant to showcase a future where everything was controlled with the push of a button, so “the things women don’t like to do are done automatically,” according to a promotional video for the concept kitchen.

In a singing, dancing General Motors film Design for Dreaming, a woman is swept away by a Phantom of the Opera-like figure to Frigidaire’s “Kitchen of the Future,” which also promises to free up time, so ladies can play tennis and go sunbathing. Impressive as these demonstrations looked, it was all smoke and two-way mirrors.

“They had a two-way mirror with a person sitting behind it that could see the room,” Joe Maxwell, who worked on the Whirlpool Miracle Kitchen, told Paleofuture. “And they radio-controlled the vacuum cleaner and the dishwasher.” Today, we’re much closer to this imagined future.

Some of the appliances that may have seemed hopelessly futuristic at the time had glimmers of the gadgets they’d become. Other visions of tomorrow have yet to be realized. The smart home may seem like a distinctly 21st century idea, but its roots clear stretch back to our grandparents’ day.

Food that’s ready in a flash

Then: Bake a cake in three minutes, take two minutes to grill a steak, or drop an entire meal from the fridge into a “magic meal maker” and have dinner ready in seconds. No matter what device you used, cooking, timing, and temperature would be auto-controlled. “Whether you bake or broil or stew,” sings the woman in the GM video, “Frigidaire kitchen does it all for you.” Not only does her glass-domed oven bake the cake, it frosts it and tops it with candles.

Now: There are no auto-frosters — and we’d question any recipe that promises a succulent leg of lamb in seven minutes — but Whirlpool’s kitchen was pretty spot-on with its “electronic oven.” Though ubiquitous in modern kitchens, the first consumer microwave debuted in 1955 and cost $1,300, around $11,400 today based on inflation. And we’re getting closer to even more automated cooking. This indoor grill, debuting later this year, lets you select how “done” you want your steak, then it determines the time and temp to get your food perfectly cooked.

A kitchen with a brain

A-kitchen-with-a-brain

Then: Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, at the push of a button, you could call up a recipe and just the right appliance would magically appear on your countertop? The “Miracle Kitchen” had a Control Panel that served as the “heart and brain” of the room; every task had a prescribed button, and a built-in TV screen, telephone, and transmitter kept the homemaker connected to the rest of the house and the outside world. Meanwhile, Frigidaire’s protagonist was getting phone calls when her cake was done (and she could return the favor and call home to start up the oven), and both ladies were calling up recipes (mostly for cake) that would appear on screen.

Now: Lots of smart homes have hubs, which help connected thermostats, locks, and lights talk to each other. But mostly everything automated in our homes still goes through our smartphones and tablets, which are much more portable than the Control Panel.

Eyes everywhere

Then: That TV in the Control Panel did a lot more than just pick up broadcast channels and display recipes. Mothers could also check on the kids and see who was at the front door. In Monsanto’s 1957 “House of the Future” at Disneyland, a man shaving in his bathroom can even use an intercom-like device with a TV screen to communicate with the stranger on the doorstep. “You see him, but he doesn’t see you,” the voice-over assures viewers in a promotional video.

Now: There are dozens of Internet-connected home-security cameras on the market today that you double as baby monitors, light bulbs, and pet toys. But Monsanto was pretty much on the nose when it came to that intercom; those have been around for years, but companies such as SkyBell are making smart, video-connected doorbells that you see who’s ringing your bell, even if you’re not home.

What a nice gesture

Wave of the hand

Then: With a wave of a hand, one day we’ll all be able to command beverages that lower from in-cabinet refrigerators or conjure up small appliances from the recesses of a cupboard.

Now: It’s definitely coming, and for things other than video games such as Kinect. Myo is an armband that you’ll soon be able to wear that will let you interact via gesture-control with computers for everything from video games to PowerPoint presentations. Goodbye, mouse! And at home, singlecue wants to let your hand motions lower the volume on your TV, dim your lights, and turn down the thermostat. The Ring is a similar idea, though it requires a clunky piece of jewelry to do so.

One-size doesn’t fit all

adjustable sink

Then: Both the Monsanto and the Whirlpool houses were filled with height-adjustable furniture, from drawers that raised up so you don’t have to bend over to sinks that sunk down to child-level. Everything was adjustable, whether you’re “tiny, typical, or tall.”

Now: Yeah, we’re still basically using step stools and stooping. Pretty much the furthest we’ve come on this front are height-adjustable desks that let users sit or stand.

Bottomless coffee

Then: The woman in the Whirlpool video seems fairly enthusiastic about the prospect of having access to unlimited coffee. Of course there were percolators in the ‘50s, but the automatic drip machine wouldn’t catch on until the 1970s in the U.S.

Now: While there isn’t a magical fountain of coffee in every cupboard, coffee makers have become fairly inexpensive, and you can even buy espresso machines for home use. Probably the closest thing to Whirlpool’s miracle is the soon-to-be-released GE Café fridge, which has a built-in Keurig coffee maker. Of course, you still have to put the K-Cup in there. It can’t do everything for you.

Hide and seek

Hide seek

Then: It seems the minimalist look was in: Hidden sinks, fridges concealed as cabinets, appliances that stayed tucked away until they were needed. Even the Libbey-Owens-Ford home had a top that covered everything up, so the surface could be used as “a study bench for the children or a bar for dad.”

Now: The idea of hideaway appliances is still around, but it’s a balancing act of space and convenience. For those so inclined, you can buy kitchen mixer lifts, for example, but it’s unlikely you’ll often see mechanically moving shelves built into a kitchen. There are so many moving parts, something would be bound to go wrong — like if your coffee maker refused to rise out of the cabinet at 6:30 a.m. on Monday.

It slices, it dices, etc.

Then: There’s one machine to rule them all in the Whirlpool kitchen: “a unit to help in the preparation of meats, fruits, and vegetables.”  It peels, slices, dices, cores, and more. To whip, blend, and churn, you just need to make a few minor adjustments to a single gadget. Instead of a separate washer and dryer, both operations happen in a single unit.

Now: For many Europeans and Australians, the dream of ‘50s was realized in the Thermomix, a machine that’s a scale, blender, steamer, stirrer, chopper — it does 12 functions in all. The $1,600 machine never caught on in the U.S., where we still use one-trick ponies such as waffle irons and toasters. As for laundry, combination washer-dryers were based on already available technology; today they’re more common in Europe than the U.S.

Look Ma, no dirty hands

Then: Out-of-sight meant not only out-of-mind but also auto-clean. Waste generated by the all-in-one appliances disposed of itself. The plate storage cabinet was both a dishwasher and mobile cart that would bring out clean dishes then wait patiently as it was loaded with dirty ones. Floors stay clean with a self-propelled, self-charging; vacuum that of course empties its own dust bin.

Now: While 93 percent of houses built in the 2000s have dishwashers, there are still lots of homes and apartments that don’t even have a dishwasher, let alone one tucked behind every cupboard door. Garbage disposals are common enough in the U.S., but they’re tied to sinks instead of being incorporated within large appliances. The closest thing we have to this vision is the robot vacuum, which can clean on a schedule and return home to its charging station. Human overseers still have to clean the waste bins (and put their cats on top of them).

Off the back burner

Then: Instead of a dedicated cooktop, the kitchen of the future would take advantage of a special material that would heat only the cooking utensil and keep the rest cool. The unused part of the surface could double as a table, so you could see your food cooking in front of you, Benihana-style.

Now: Yet another kitchen feature that the mid-century dreamers took from nascent technology, induction cooktops leave the cooking surface cooler, because its electromagnetic currents actually heats the metal pot instead. Gaggenau makes a full-surface cooktop that lets you cook anywhere on it, instead of being limited by burners.

Beyond Christmas lights

Then: Not quite mood lighting, the vision here was to change the tint of the bulbs with the temperature, a soft blue when it was warm and a comforting yellow when it turned cool.

Now: The Whirlpool video still has to walk over to the Control Panel and turn on the light. With the advent of the smart light bulb, you can turn the lamp on or off from your phone, and products like the Philips Hue let you access a rainbow of colors for them. If you still like the idea of transitioning the shades based on the weather, you can set up an If This Then That recipe.

Put your foot down

Creston Doner sink handles

Life

Then: Worried for his clumsy wife, Creston Doner decided to eliminate sink handles so his wife wouldn’t bash china cups into them. Instead, she could use foot pedals to pump out water.

Now: Much like the foot-activated liftgate on the Ford Escape, Dornbracht has an ultra-fancy sink that turns on via a foot sensor. Just hope that Mr. Whiskers doesn’t turn it into a paw sensor.

Update 3/30/2016: This post was updated to reflect OneCue is now called singlecue.