The Future is Now (Thirty-Seven Years Ago)!

For the past two months I have worked part time as a cataloger at the Hagley Museum and Library, identifying and compiling data on the museum’s vast film collection.  Hagley’s vast holdings include roughly three thousand films in various formats (i.e. 16 mm film,, Betamax, VHS tapes) primarily related to business and industry.

Today I came across a film that I would like to share, titled “People, Products and Progress 1975.”  It was created in 1955 by the Chamber of Commerce of the United States and is a collection of visions of the future, a future now long past directed at a popular audience.  The twenty-eight-minute film makes predictions of what life will be like in America twenty years in the future in the far-flung year 1975.  Supplied by materials from various American industries–including the steel, concrete, timber, and energy industries–Arch N. Booth, then Executive Vice President of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States, peers into “Industry’s Crystal Ball” to get a glimpse of the cornucopia of products and innovations Americans in 1955 had to look forward to twenty years hence.

(Unfortunately, as of this writing I have been unable to find a digitized version of “People, Products and Progress 1975,” so for the moment you will have to rely on my description.  However, rest assured if I do I will have a link posthaste.  In the meantime there are some stills available online so you can take in the style and the visions of the future from the lens of the 1950s.)

Told through stylized illustrations and semi-animated slides, Booth presents a Jetsons-esque world of comfort and convenience.   With the far reaching impacts of industry changing the face of American domestic life–self-monitoring, climate controlled houses; transportation–atomic-powered, self-driving cars and long-distance travel in helicopters and flying saucers (also atomic-powered, of course); communication–video phones and wrist communicator watches in the vein of Dick Tracy; and leisure–music generated through punchcard-powered computers and wall-mounted flat screen televisions powered by remote control.  Other subjects covered include the design of cities, space travel, and education.

The visions of the future presented in “People, Products and Progress 1975” reflect the sentiments and aspirations of the time.  America’s fixation with atomic energy in the 1950s evidenced in everything from Civil Defense shelters to atomic monster movies is displayed to frequent references to the propensity of atomic powered devices.  Some of the features modern audiences will find shocking besides atomic-powered cars, planes, and trains are the foodstuffs preserved through radiation and trees specially treated with radioactive materials (the accompanying slide shows workers dressed like the Brotherhood of Steel from Fallout 3 injecting multicolored trees with said radioactive agents).

Viewers will also notice the preponderance of automated devices in this 1955 vision of the future.  It is a world of automated houses, self-driving (and parking) cars and food that cooks itself while still in the packaging.  The film presents a world in which the conveniences of the day have been made moreso through the innovations of American business.

The ultimate message of “People, Products and Progress” is an affirmation of American business and the capitalist system.  Created during the most intense fears of the Red Scare, there was an assertion of institutions that explain American post-war prosperity and set the United States apart from the Soviet Union.  For the businesses affiliated with the Chamber of Commerce, they present the contrast between the Soviet system of state management of business versus a laissez-faire approach to private capital.  A loose regulatory hand then becomes the path to the conveniences of the future.  The progress Booth leads viewers through is one through products, products that have been created through the power of industry and the free-market system.  As he pulls his gaze away from Industry’s Crystal Ball, he assures audiences that all these wonderful things will be possible “so long as we maintain our free market economy, our American way of life.”

Predictions of the future often reflect the aspirations and anxieties of the present, so I encourage you to keep an eye out for current visions of the future and think about how cultures project themselves on the years to come.  Or else, just hold out for a time when flying atomic-powered cars whiz across the sky.

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About kevinimpellizeri

I'm a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Delaware where I am studying the social and cultural impact of video games in America. When I'm not studying history or playing video games I offer my voice on 91.3 WVUD Newark and review bad horror movies at www.horrorsofhorror.com. You can follow me on Twitter at @KDImpellizeri
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One Response to The Future is Now (Thirty-Seven Years Ago)!

  1. Susan Lynch says:

    One must also remember that the workforce of 1955 were the generation that who fought WWII. They wanted capitalism…change….easier times….innovation. I vividly remember the pavilion of the house of the future at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. Everything was automatic. That’s what women and men were looking for. The dream…if I work harder I’ll have a better life than the generation before me. And isn’t progress what the future is. (You cataloged films, slides, video because those are old…even DVDs are old…now we “stream”). Yesterday we landed on Mars….what does the future hold…? And why not?

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