Life As We Know It

An MIT-educated chemical engineer who founded the world's first consulting company takes note of the ways technology is transforming the lives of everyday Americans.
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I

Within the last ten years the United States has become the first industrial nation of the world. No one, though he be the seventh son of a seventh son and born with a caul, can hope to foreeast with any degree of definiteness the form which the industrial structure of the country will ultimately assume. Even the general trend of industrial development is the resultant of a bewildering complexity of forces, each of a magnitude largely conjectural. Certain conditions, influences, and tendencies are, nevertheless, recognizable as directive factors in the situation, and from them some conclusions may be drawn legitimately, although without guaranty or recourse, concerning the direction in which our industrial development is likely to proceed.

Since 1870 the curve of population has been rising at a rate which ‑ with some allowance for restricted immigration ‑ indicates a population of 152,000,000 for the country in 1950. We must then prepare to clothe and feed and house some 42,000,000 more people than we do at present. They will, like ourselves, demand much more than food, clothing, and a place to sleep. They will require fuel, though we find it hard enough to get at present; and they will use it in somewhat different and more effective ways. Power must be provided for new industries, new factories, new machines, and for greatly augmented systems of transportation. Many of these new people will travel by the New York subways, and a sagacious management should already be opening boxes of sardines that it may determine how best to insert more sardines. Everywhere room must be found for the automobiles of these new millions, where now there is scant room for our own. Pressure which ‑like that on water ‑ is exerted in all directions will come heavily upon our natural resources, our. agencies for production, and our systems of distribution.

II

In 1919 there were over a million marriages in the United States, whereas in that year only 70,000 homes were built. We are short at least a million dwellings, and some estimates treble that figure. In most parts of the country practically no houses are being built for workingmen. They still cost more and rent for more than many workingmen can pay. Meanwhile, the population grows, and two or three families live where one lived before. The result is not so commendable as where blades of grass are concerned.

Not more than 40 per cent of our population now own their homes. Many apartments have shrunk to one room and bath. We are living on the diminutive scale. Kitchenettes provide our breakfast, luncheonettes supply icecream soda and a ham sandwich, and now, in Boston, one may assemble the family in a diningette for the serious meal of the day. The census may soon designate as a familyette the maiden lady with two goldfish.

Only the very well‑to‑do can now afford servants, and they can do so only on increasingly burdensome terms. At Christmas, who now has the courage to present the cook with ten yards of gingham for a dress? It is not worn with silk stockings and a fur‑trimmed coat. College‑bred girls now approach matrimony with the expectation of doing their own housework, and five-story houses with basement kitchens are as unsaleable as Shipping Board boats. We must obviously rebuild our houses with due regard to the readjustments which the prosperity of the masses has forced upon us.

We may expect, therefore, a great increase and expansion of all those industries that tend to lessen household labor. Already have most domestic industries disappeared in competition with the factory. Who makes soft soap to‑day, or spins and weaves and dyes butternut‑brown? Where is the little dressmaker who came, with Godey's Lady's Book, to live with the family for a fortnight while she made the season's gowns? She is working for better wages behind the counter of the department store, selling ready‑made dresses cut from piles of fabrics with an electric cutter from patterns that embody the latest hints of fashion. Already our trade in women's apparel amounts to more than a billion dollars a year.

Bread‑making, to the advantage of the product, is becoming more and more the business of great companies operating many bakeries, equipped with every facility for orderly and economical production under scientifically controlled conditions. No youthful Franklin would to‑day suggest to his father that time might be saved by saying grace over the barrel of pork. We buy our bacon sliced, in half‑pound jars. Intimate culinary products, such as baked beans, fish balls, and hash, come to many a table hot from the can.

Under the conditions likely to prevail in American domestic life, we must anticipate a steadily increasing output of package‑goods of every sort. The American housewife no longer buys in bulk. Her disinclination to do so ensures more business to the makers of tin plate, container­boards, and paper, and to the lithographer and the printer.

The same conditions may be expected to augment the already remarkable development of the chain restaurant, which justifies the lure of the pancake in the window by the cleanly brightness of its interior and the excellent quality of its food. They may bring emancipation, but they do not seem to make for domesticity.

The Chinese laundryman was a pioneer. He recognized a demand which has immeasurably outgrown his modest and mysterious facilities. Such proximity to godliness as he conferred upon the few it is now the function of many thousands of machine‑filled laundries to provide for all. The washing of linen has become as democratic as the referendum and vastly more scientific.

In my youth I knew a gentleman of large means and frugal tendencies, who kept upon his mantel a jar of benzine, in which reposed those of his black ties which seemed to require restoration of their sober lustre. Now the dyers and cleansers, like the laundrymen, have their national association. To them now go our garments, that for a brief period we may show ourselves unspotted to the world.

All those things that relieve household labor of its drudgery have their assured place in the future. Nature abhors a vacuum only because she has no carpets and rugs to clean. More and more homes will be equipped with electric appliances: toasters, irons, and washing machines; and the electric refrigerator is almost here. There will be a similar extension in the domestic use of gas. It is easier to turn a gascock than to carry coal upstairs, and the discerning ash‑man will apprentice his son to the pipe‑fitter.

One obvious result of the crowding, to which our urban population will be subjected in constantly increasing measure, will be the gradual elimination from our homes of much that has characterized them in the past. A library is already a luxury beyond the reach of many who grew up surrounded by books. There is little place in our present scheme of living for grand pianos, or large furniture of any sort. We are tending in our homes toward the compact and diminutive. We have neither walls nor floor‑space for the superfluous.

III

Demand, to be effective, must be backed by purchasing power, and never in the history of the world has the purchasing power of the masses been so great in any large population as in the United States during and since the war. It is not likely to recede permanently from this high level. In the seventy years from 1849 to 1919 the value of our manufactures increased more than sixty-fold. In the same period the number of wage‑earning operatives increased not quite tenfold. The gain in producing capacity per operative is striking and significant. During recent years the number of persons engaged in agriculture has remained practically stationary. We have passed from an agricultural to an industrial economy, though the basis of our prosperity is still deeply rooted in the soil. During the transition period wages in industry have doubled, while hours of labor have notably decreased. We have thus in prospect a large increase in population with greater producing power, more leisure, enhanced ability to purchase. We must, therefore, assume a greatly intensified demand both for the necessities of life and for many things that we still regard as luxuries.

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