A kitchen unit with integrated rotating spit, surmounted by a steaming basket: this advertisement for a multi-purpose gas cooker dating from 1882 demonstrates that technological innovation in the home started long before the 20th century.
Yet from 1900 onwards, the increasing availability of electricity inspired a wide range of inventions aimed at alleviating house tasks and introducing more comfort.
At the dawn of the century, American engineer John Thurman succeeded where inventors since the 16th century had failed: designing a device to mechanically clean floors. His gasoline-powered, motorised machine from 1899 used a principle quite reverse to the vacuum cleaner we know today, blasting dust out of carpets instead of sucking it in.
British inventor Hubert Cecil Booth patented his ‘Puffing Billy’ in 1901. It was the size of a coach, horse-drawn and moved from house to house. Walter Griffiths catered for the domestic market with a portable vacuum cleaner operated by bellows. The 1910s saw the start of sales in Scandinavia by Fisker and Nielsen, followed by the Swedish brand Electrolux.
In America, James Spangler put together the first electric, portable and filter-equipped vacuum cleaner before teaming up with his cousin’s husband William Hoover. Their machine was widely used by the 1920s, when the market was growing more competitive and commercial campaigns were battling for the consumers’ favor.
After World War II, the vacuum cleaner stopped being a luxury product and was used in middle-class households as well. Soon consumers had a plethora of options, including filter-less, rechargeable, handheld, multifunctional and extra-stylish versions.
The vacuum cleaner was the first in a long series of tools and appliances that would find their place in the market. From 1907 onwards, the washing machine alleviated the heavy task of washing and drying clothes by hand.
Five years later, the first electric refrigerator for the home became available. Yet the device was a product for the happy few, costing almost twice as much as a Ford T. The so-called Kelvinator, a brand later usurped by Electrolux, competed with Frigidaire in the 1920s for a slice of that luxury market.
Home cooking became even easier when Clarence Birdseye invented a procedure for quick-freezing and a double belt freezer in the 1920s. With these innovations, he founded an entirely new convenience food industry.
With the increasing speed of modern life, customers increasingly turned to food that was simple and quick to prepare.
The sheer number of appliances oozing from the postwar years is staggering, with microwave ovens, dishwashers, can openers, juicers, mixers and toasters, heating, massaging, hairstyling, tanning and grooming devices flooding the market from the 1950s onwards.
This was the age of ‘baby boomers’ and double-income households, in which family time was sacred and middle class budgets allowed for small luxuries.
With more women entering the workforce, smart appliances helped them to take care of chores more quickly - even if, for the time being, it was still mostly women and not men making use of them.
Interview with a salesman about the dishwasher revolution and its impact on women’s lives, 1969. RTBF. In copyright
The era represents a peak in the invention, production and advertisement of appliances promising highly efficient features saving time and labour, as well as answering a growing demand in the middle class market for consumer goods. But the industry created its own opportunities as well, installing the firm belief in its audience that buying into the ever-widening range of products would lead to a happier life.
To keep customers returning, existing appliances were improved and made multifunctional, allowing for families to streamline domestic life and free up more time to participate in social activities.
Devices became smaller, more portable and better integrated in interior design.
Modern media helped commercials spread, combining the promise of luxury and convenience with the promotion of a worry-free, liberated lifestyle.
With the endless offering of household appliances, demonstrations and courses helped consumers to make efficient and safe use of their electrical aids.
This school program offers assistance and useful insights in tasks such as ironing, vacuum cleaning and coffee grinding.
By the end of the century, however, most people had fully mastered the technology in their houses. The convenience of the smart home, on the other hand, spurred a heavy dependency on gadgets, devices and appliances. The technological revolution will arrive at a point where people don’t know what to do without anymore, Isaac Asimov - science fiction author and ‘father of robotics’ - believes.
His projection of the future sounds daunting, but is closer to the truth than we might like to admit. Still, it shouldn’t keep us from dreaming big, nor to build upon the marvels of 20th-century technology to make our homes fit the new millennium.