At the turn of the 20th century, middle and upper-middle class technologists were obsessed with the "servant problem," which you might know better as the old adage: It's so hard to find good help these days. These were the technological leaps that would to make unreliable human assistants as obsolete as broken butter churns.
The "servant problem" was a popular complaint in women's magazines, was studied in academic journals, and was even cited by Upton Sinclair as partial inspiration for his efforts to start a utopian community in New Jersey. More recently, it's a key component of countless a 1980s snobs-versus-slobs comedy movie where some rich person bemoans the incompetence of their domestic servants, or self-aware action movies where the supervillain utters it about his inept henchmen.
In the early 20th century, though, the servant problem is reflected in the sincere complaints by middle and upper middle class people that their maids, butlers and cooks were unreliable in some way. Sometimes complaints centered around the inefficiency of their workers, while other times it was about the workers showing up for work at all.
It's important to remember that these weren't just the idle, isolated complaints of the one percent. The middle class in places like the United States and the UK had become accustomed to cheap labor—incredibly cheap labor, when you recall the history of the American South. And having at least one domestic servant around was considered a societal norm for those with the money to do so. As Agatha Christie recounts in her autobiography, many middle class families didn't see domestic labor as a luxury. It was simply a question of how many servants you could afford.
As David M. Katzman describes in his book Seven Days a Week: Women and Domestic Service in Industrializing America, there weren't enough workers to go around when the ranks of the middle class swelled.
The servant problem was a middle-class one, since the upper class could always command the hire of whatever servants they needed. The expansion of the middle class — accompanying modernization, urbanization, and industrialization in Western society — apparently occurred more rapidly than the growth of the servant pool, and complaints of a servant shortage followed widespread hiring of servants. From the start, commentary on servants noted the general shortage, the inefficiency of those employed, and the constant turnover among household workers.
Enter the techno-utopian saviors. In many Western countries of the 1920s, electricity was quickly becoming standard in urban residential life. Inventors and technology enthusiasts finally saw an answer to the servant problem in the rise of the machines.
This enthusiasm for domestic machines in the first two decades of the 1900s is fairly evident. But nowhere is it more pronounced (at least until the postwar boom of the 1950s) than during the rise of the middle class in the 1920s. The machines would catapult the middle class home into the future—without having to depend on those terribly inefficient humans.
The March 1924 issue of Science and Invention magazine featured a page of eight different innovations that had recently been exhibited in Paris, including the shoe polisher above. The answer to the servant problem—finally replacing those undependable, low paid humans with dependable unpaid machines—was just over the horizon. Soon, they promised, the domestic servant would be a relic. And the robotic servant of tomorrow would be little more than a push-button away.
The servant problem seems to be closer to the French than it is to the Americans. At least, that would appear to be the case after examining the recent Exhibition of Household Arts held in Paris. Above is shown one of the most ingenious devices that appeared in the exhibition—a mechanical shoe polisher. It is run by an electric motor and does the job just as well as the bootblack.
The first public demonstration of television hadn't even happened yet when this illustration for the TV of tomorrow ran in Science and Invention. If a TV was indeed on display at the exhibition in Paris, there's a good chance it could've been one of those illusions used by department stores (using little more than a mirror or film projector) to attract customers. As the magazine notes, leaving the house will be a rare necessity to get entertainment in the future:
Of course, no home is complete without its entertainment, and, thanks to the engineers, it is no longer necessary to buy tickets and fuss with taxi drivers to get it. Simply go to the radio set, select the type of entertainment you desire, and the scientific genii renders it. The music issues forth from the loud speaker and the television of tomorrow will show us the image of the performer.
Liberating women from the " drudgery of the kitchen" was a common promise of technology at the turn of the 20th century. Who needs to hire a chef when you can let all these newfangled machines do the work for you? Whether it was with an automatic potato peeler, a mechanical coffee grinder, or an electric oven, the future was going to be so easy for women. Right?
That the housewife can take all the drudgery out of kitchen work with the aid of a few electrical and mechanical appliances is shown here. There is one for each of the small, annoying jobs that fall to the daily lot of the housekeeper. A self-regulating electric oven, a potato peeler, meat chopper, air purifier and water carbonator are a few of the pieces of apparatus seen at the show.
By the 1920s the number of Americans working "white collar" jobs had reached nearly a quarter of the workforce. And these desk jockeys were increasingly excited by all the gadgets that allowed them to do their jobs more efficiently. The telegraphone was the message-machine of the future. Away from the office when an important client stops by? No need to worry about unreliable secretaries who can be so undependable. Your visitors can simply press a button just outside your office door and record a message that you can listen to when you return.
There are many businesses where the owner finds it necessary to spend a large part of his time out of his office and where the number of callers does not warrant keeping an assistant to answer such calls. The telegraphone settles his problem. The visitor, on finding the man out, simply pushes a button and speaks his message into a mouthpiece.
When it comes to electric contrivances for the home, none held greater promise than the vacuum cleaner—a miracle machine that you couldn't help using with a smile on your face. At least if we're to believe the illustration above.
The vacuum cleaner has come more or less into general use as a cleaner for the house. As time passes it is becoming more and more important as the different attachments find handy uses. Two of its first cousins, however, an electrical floor scrubber and waxer, are little known, though they fill a long felt want. Two types of these pieces of apparatus are shown in the above illustration.
This serving table of tomorrow was seen as the perfect contraption for a family that was "too small to need a maid" and yet wanted the luxury of keeping dishes hot right there at the table.
For the family that is too small to need a maid, many of the useless steps that cause the wife so many annoyances at meal time are circumvented by this simple arrangement. The serving table, shown above, is a kitchen in miniature. It has an electrical connection and contains an oven for keeping the dishes already cooked, warn, a grill for cooking, an electric percolator, etc.
The electric dishwasher wouldn't invade American homes until after World War II, but the 1920s saw its fair share of devices (or at least promises of devices) that would automate the after-dinner manual dishwashing ritual.
Almost every housewife will worship the inventor of this electric dish washer. It is so perfected that it is only necessary to stack all table ware, including the silver, in a rack, set them into the machine and manipulate three adjustments when—lo—they come out dried and polished. There is no necessity to depend on the janitor for hot water; the machine heats its own water.
Want to sleep out on a porch in the winter? Well, me neither. But apparently somebody did. And this illustration promised that it would be all done automatically—complete with electrically heated blankets!
And here the sting is taken out of sleeping out of doors in winter. After disrobing it is no longer necessary to walk across the cold floor to the sleeping porch and then to spend several shivery minutes while the bed warms. Retire in a warm room, get into a warm bed, press the button, ah—the bed rolls to a pair of folding doors, pushes them open and rolls out into the night.
Of course, some of these gadgets came into common use — like television, dishwashers, and vacuum cleaners — while others like the telegraphone would never really take off in their 1924 versions.
The servant problem would surface again as a term in 1950s America, but by then worker's wages had risen enough that it just wasn't practical for many middle class families to justify paying domestic labor. As we witness growing income inequality in the United States — and the suppression of wages that goes along with it — who knows if the upper middle class may find non-robotic servants quite fashionable (and affordable) yet again. The rise of the so-called "sharing economy" (which often amounts to a "disruption" of livable wages for working class people, be they taxi drivers or personal assistants) is perhaps the best indication that it might.
Then again, I suppose we're just a better Siri and a self-driving car away from making those human-dependent relationships every bit as obsolete.
Images: Scanned from the March 1924 issue of Science and Invention magazine