The Home of the Future, According to the Past

Vintage magazines from the 1940s

This past Sunday I bought three vintage magazines from the 1940s at the flea market, one of which was a magazine called The American Home. I had never heard of The American Home, even thought it was “a fixture on the American publishing scene” according to The New York Times (source: wikipedia). It turns out the magazine folded in 1977, the victim of declining circulation. So it seems that in every generation, the business of running a magazine is so precarious that even the mightiest of industry ships can sink like a stone. RIP House & Garden.

In my copy of the February 1943 issue of The American Home, the war looms over each article and advertisement. The theme of the issue was “The Home of the Future” which is especially fascinating to read from the vantage point of the year 2011  — which sounds futuristic and even little bizarre even to those of us who are living in the year 2011. To their credit, the writers and editors of The American Home didn’t predict that we would all be living like The Jetsons, with Rosie the Robot offering us coffee in a Brooklyn accent. Their predictions were much more prosaic, grounded firmly in the industry of home building, with the attendant obsession with materials.

From the magazine’s introduction to the series of articles on The Home of the Future: “The American Home invited leaders of industry, manufacture and design to contribute their forecasts concerning the new life ahead… we can expect a canvas on which vision, ingenuity, and good American horse sense will be the principle ingredients.”

A Few Predictions, Using “Good American Horse Sense”

“Let’s start these predictions about your post-war home with a flat, unqualified statement that the time is not far distant when all frame houses will be prefabricated…To begin with, let’s start thinking of the home as a machine…Any prefabricated house can be so erected that it is demountable — able to be taken down in a few hours and re-erected elsewhere.”  — F. Vaux Wilson, Jr. of the Homosote Company

“One outstanding feature of the new homes will be their flexibility. Within a given area, with the aid of mobile walls, any number of space combinations can be achieved. Our rooms will become larger or smaller as the needs of the family dictate. More activities can be accommodated within the confines of the house walls without enlarging the total plan area.” –Vernon F. Sears of the U.S. Plywood Corporation 

Homosote and Plywood: Modern Miracles

It’s easy to forget — or fail to realize in the first place — what a big deal certain developments were. Such as plywood. Bendable wood that could be molded into shape (and held its shape) was a revelation, giving rise to all sorts of possibilities, including customized mobile interior walls. And the miracle of plywood gave us all those silhouettes that we have come to associate with superior mid-century design, such as the Eames chairs — advances in engineering that we now take completely for granted.

Eames Plywood Chair

Pass the Oxtail, Hold the Judgment

Reading these magazines gives me a glimpse into a time when the activities of everyday life were difficult and laborious — no wonder the post-war period saw a rush toward convenience food, the suburbs, and lots and lots of plywood cabinetry. I think I should be a little more generous in my judgment of the decisions, design-related or otherwise, of the past — in the same spirit with which the people of the past were generous in their assessment of life in the future. They were sure we would all be happy and healthy, living a life in the grassy green suburbs away from pollution and congestion, with our movable walls and demountable houses making everything easy and trouble-free, enabling us to live the good life, or “Life After Victory” — which was the phrase used in the opening article in The American Home, February 1943.

I don’t know when or if Victory will ever come, in the sense of modern life doing away with all our ancient troubles, those same impulses that lead to war over and over again. But I do know that an appreciation for the domestic lives of the past can lead to the best of both worlds: the comforts of contemporary life with the wisdom provided by our heritage. In other words: there’s value in knowing how to sew a dress or cook a stew, even though to navigate the modern world, all you really need in order to acquire clothing or a meal is a credit card and a can opener.

Speaking of food preparation, in the spirit of a deep appreciation of The Home of the Past, here are a few recipes, taken directly from my vintage issue of The American Home. These recipes, designed for the middle class American housewife, are a reminder that what we think of as a new idea — the current vogue for nose-to-tail eating for instance — is usually grounded firmly in prior human experience.  The Home of the Future, according to the past.

Braised Oxtail Stew

Braised Oxtail Stew

2 oxtails

2 tbsp. drippings

1/2 cup minced ionions

1 small clove garlic, minced

2 tsp. salt

1/8 tsp. pepper

1 tbsp. vinegar

2 cups hot water

4 large carrots

4 medium-sized potatoes

4 medium-sized onions

Preparation time: 4 hrs

Have butcher cut oxtails in pieces at the joints. Wash and dry thoroughly. Melt drippings in a Dutch oven or dep well of an electric range and brown the oxtails. Add onion and garlic and cook until tender but not browned. Add salt, pepper, vinegar, sugar and water. Cover and simmer 3 hrs. Wash and pare vegetables and cut in quarters. Put in the kettle with the oxtails, and cook until vegetables are tender – about 30 min. This is delicious the second day when the full flavor has had a chance to permeate through the stew. If you are a defense worker, make it when you come home in the evening and heat it thoroughly the next night for dinner. Serves 4 generously.

Mock Venison Stew

4 lamb hearts

Flour, salt and pepper

2 tbsp. drippings

1 cup water

4 onions, sliced

1/2 cup celery, chopped

3 carrots, diced

1 tbsp. tarragon vinegar

2 bay leaves

Preparation time: 1 hr., 40 min.

Split open hearts and remove veins and arteries. Wash thoroughly and dry. Slice crosswise in pieces 1/2″ thick. Dredge in flour and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Brown well on all sides in drippings and add water, onions, celery, carrots, vinegar and bay leaves. Cover and simmer 50–60 minutes until heart is tender. Discard bay leaves; remove to platter; drop bread dumplings into sauce. 3 calves’ hearts may be substituted.

bread dumplings:

1 cup whole wheat bread crumbs

1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. grated onion

1 egg, well beaten

3 tbsp. melted butter

4-5 tbsp. stock or milk

2 tbsp. chopped parsley

Salt and pepper

Flour

Mix crumbs, baking powder, onion, egg, butter and enough stock or milk to make a stiff paste. Add parsley and salt and pepper to taste. Make into tiny balls the size of a marble and roll in flour. Keep in refrigerator until ready for use. Add balls to boiling sauce and cook until done — about 15 min. Add heart, cook 5 min. longer. Serves 3-4.

Yellow Split Pea Soup With Pork Feet

2 cups yellow split peas

2 qus. water

1 medium-sized onion, chipped

1 raw carrot, grated

2 pork feet

1 1/2 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. pepper

1/2 tsp. paprika

Preparation time: 5hrs, 15min.

Wash the peas. They may be soaked overnight, although it is not necessary. Place peas in a large kettle and add water, onion, carrot and pork feet. Bring to boiling point, cover and simmer for several hours until peas have cooked into a puree consistency and meat has cooked from bones (usually about 5 hrs). Add seasonings to taste. The soup may be strainted but it is not essential. Shred meat with fork for serving. Serves 6 generously or makes 8 – 10 average servings.

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2 thoughts on “The Home of the Future, According to the Past

  1. I always enjoy reading old books or magazines to get a glimpse of how much things stay the same. The same issues seem to arise again and again for people. Perhaps we just never really learn anything.

  2. Funny…I’m serving lamb hearts stuffed with pigs feet and oxtail frittata at brunch with dear friends this Sunday

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