Back to the Future


It had been a hundred years of staggering change, so people felt like making predictions about the century to come--the 20th century.

From the time of the Columbus Quadricentennial in 1892 until mid-1901, there was a lot of earnest speculation about the future, and even the future’s food. Much of it was way off the mark; every age has to learn that what it considers important doesn’t necessarily turn out to be important. But quite a few predictions were on the money, if not always in a way the predictors would recognize.

One of the things on people’s minds was the explosive growth of cities. In England, H.G. Wells anticipated today’s vast suburbs (even, in a way, shopping malls) and shrewdly foresaw a restaurant boom: “Dotted at every convenient position along the new roads, availing themselves no doubt wherever possible of the picturesque inns that the old coaching days have left us, will be wayside restaurants and teahouses. . . .” It’s not as though he predicted McDonald’s, maybe, but it’s not bad.


This dizzying growth frightened many other people. In 1850, two out of three Americans were farmers, but by 1900 only one-third were, suggesting that we’d soon be dependent on food imports. On top of that, deep thinkers had been predicting throughout the post-Civil War boom that we were about to have catastrophic shortages of coal, iron, petroleum and even wood.

One pessimist was Erastus Wiman, director of Western Union Telegraph Co. Our wheat lands were becoming exhausted, he warned in 1893, and cultivation was having to move farther and farther north: “Minnesota and Dakota furnish now three-fourths of the entire flour product of this country. In 15 years, it is alleged, the exporting of all food products, including provisions, will cease.”

Today our farm population is less than 3% and we’re still exporting wheat, so the optimists had the better of that issue--but not always for the reasons they thought. New York Gov. W.R. Grace saw our salvation in . . . the newly admitted territories of the Southwest; with irrigation, they’d become America’s next wheat bowl. He wasn’t alone. John W. Noble, President Benjamin Harrison’s secretary of the Interior, was another who looked forward to Arizona wheat.

Lawyer and economics writer Van Buren Denslow got closer to the mark by predicting better seed selection and intensive agricultural techniques, which would raise the production per acre tenfold. He also mentioned the introduction of new crops, and that came true too; our leading agricultural export today is soybeans.

But none of these writers guessed that industry would save agriculture by producing carefully designed fertilizers and pesticides. And none dreamed that what we really would end up importing was fresh fruits and vegetables, not grain.

Naturalist Felix L. Oswald foresaw the Dust Bowl of the 1930s: “Before the middle of the Twentieth Century, the increasing frequency of summer droughts will confront the farms of our middle states with the alternative of ruin or forest culture”--what we’d call conservation today.


On the other hand, Oswald went way overboard in his cult of forest culture: “Breadstuffs, as well as . . . vegetable oils, will to a large extent be derived from trees that enrich the soil with their fertilizing leaves. These trees will outlive their cultivators, whose labor they will limit to the pleasant work of the harvest month. They will also protect against the worst plague of the plains by affording shelter to myriads of insectivorous birds.”

A burning crisis in the 1890s, which lasted right up through the 1920s, was called the Servant Problem. Middle-class women had always had servants such as cooks and maids, or at least a “housekeeper” who cooked and cleaned. But with rising prosperity, fewer and fewer Americans were willing to go into domestic service. And those who did were less skilled, less contented in their work and perhaps less honest.

Popular author Ella Wheeler Wilcox predicted, “The government will establish colleges for the training of servants.” Denslow anticipated that servants could be summoned by a touch of a button: “They will be turned on or off at pleasure, like water or gas by the general office.”

Miriam Leslie, publisher of the popular periodical Frank Leslie’s Weekly, had a ruthless solution: “Anarchy in domestic matters is the near result of the present attitude of the domestic official. I am inclined to prophesy that a species of ‘civil service’ will be the result. Centralization is the law of the future and a paternal government must establish domestic depots where every class of servants shall be trained and placed under stringent regulations.”

One of the few who got it right, though his may have seemed quite a wacky prediction at the time, was Republican Sen. John J. Ingalls of Kansas. He wrote that electricity would simply eliminate the servant problem by giving us powerful household utensils. He added, “Woman, having more leisure, will elevate her political and social status from subordination to equality with men.”

Popular writer John Habberton predicted, “The kitchen stove will give place to ranges heated by water-gas 1/8a quite toxic fuel mixture created by forcing steam over incandescent coal 3/8, and men and children as well as women will know how to cook. People of means will eat to live--not live to eat. All household labor will be esteemed too honorable and important to be intrusted to menials.”


Understandably, John J. Carty, chief engineer of the New York Metropolitan Telephone & Telegraph Co., foresaw a glowing role for electricity: “It will be possible for the cook, for instance, by simply turning on the electric current, to procure heat sufficient for all cooking purposes. . . . Already there are electric cooking ranges in existence. I presume that these will be so highly developed that they will serve the most exacting requirements of a $10,000 chef.” Score 90% for the engineer.

H.G. Welles predicted that the telephone would mean “ 1/8a 3/8lmost all the labor of ordinary shopping can be avoided.” It wasn’t until the Internet age that anybody seriously began to imagine that again.

In the Saturday Evening Post, Chicago Mayor Carter H. Harrison foresaw the filtered, aerated, purified water supply we take for granted today. “Garbage collection will be daily at all residences,” he predicted, “and twice a day at large institutions. Garbage will be converted into material for building or fertilizer.” The idea of houses made from garbage intrigued quite a few others at the time.

New York’s Grace patriotically predicted, “American genius is going to show Europe how nutritious and desirable American corn is for food purposes when it is properly cooked.”

Well, cornflakes have been pretty successful, but hominy or succotash--not so much. Of course, we might count the many hidden appearances corn makes in processed foods as cornstarch, corn oil, corn syrup and so on.

Mary E. Lease, Populist Party leader, offered the most daring prediction of all: “Science will take, in condensed form from the rich loam of earth, the life force of germs now found in the heart of corn, in the kernel of the wheat, and in the the luscious juice of the fruits. A small phial of this life from the fertile bosom of Mother Earth will furnish man with sustenance for days. And thus the problem of cooks and cooking will be solved.”


But Denslow was just being witty, by his lights, when he claimed, “Educational methods will be so modified as to reveal a high and fine art in broiling a chicken--but will dismiss the senseless and soulless clatter of the piano to the limbo of the obsolete.” Instead we have the senseless, soulless clatter of kids’ TV and video games.