The wonder appliance of the atomic age

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Standing at the crossroads signpost in the middle of the ‘Herald Atomic Age and Industrial Exhibition’, thirteen year-old Phyllis Nicholls symbolised the destiny of humankind. The people of the world were as children before the terrible power of the bomb. The inexorable advance of scientific progress called men and women to leave behind their ancient fears and prejudices, the brutish simplicities that had served from the infancy of civilisation. But as Phyllis looked about the exhibition, from the scale model of Hiroshima to the working demonstration of an atomic pile, progress beckoned her on in an altogether different direction. Beyond the story of the atom, were a range of industrial exhibits where manufacturers displayed their latest wares. There was Kix fly spray, proudly boasting to have the strongest DDT formulation available—‘Flies know the Atomic Age is here when Kix hits them’. Further on, the Toycraft company offered ‘atom power toys (any little atom can push them along)’, Healing revealed ‘the greatest refrigerator advance in years’, and Repco welcomed visitors to ‘a new automotive era’. While visitors pondered their grave responsibilities, they were reassured that science was working to make their lives more happy and healthy, that progress was as close as the corner shop. ‘Science was never more justified’, proclaimed one beverage manufacturer, ‘than in the long and patient researches which produced “Ovaltine”’. 1

Phyllis’s introduction to the wonders of the Atomic Age took place in Melbourne’s Exhibition Buildings, first opened in 1880 for the grand International Exhibition. Then, amidst a marvellous array of products from the world’s greatest industrial powers, the colonies displayed evidence of their own enterprise and ability—a pyramid of biscuits from Victoria, a slab of coal from NSW. It was a moment for the colonists to reflect on their achievements to date, and to imagine the glorious future ahead. It was an exhibition of confidence, of self-belief, and of destiny. 2 In 1923, as the Australian Natives’ Association opened an exhibition of ‘Australian products and manufactures’, the Australasian Manufacturer noted that the Exhibition Buildings had hosted ‘recurring demonstrations of a similar nature’ since the 1880s. Each exhibition marked ‘a great advance over its predecessors as regards quality and variety of exhibits’, the article commented, ‘constituting, therefore, so many milestones on the path of our national progress’. 3

The ‘educational value’ of the 1923 exhibition was judged to be higher that that of its predecessors. Like the ‘All Australian’ exhibition held in Sydney the previous year, the ANA exhibition was intended to foster a sense of pride and confidence in the work of Australian manufacturers. 4 The nation’s dreams of industrial development were unlikely to be realised unless consumers were prepared to buy Australian-made goods. Through their purchases, ordinary Australians could strengthen their nation and force the pace of progress. The exhibition, therefore, offered practical instruction in patriotism and civic duty. But more than this, argued the Australasian Manufacturer, it was ‘good and wise and necessary’ to introduce young people to ‘the real greatness of industry’, to ‘enjoy the romance… associated with all the works of man’. 5

However, it was the romance of technology that increasingly thrilled the crowds as motor shows and electrical displays became annual features in the 1920s and ‘30s. The first Electrical and Radio Exhibition was held in Sydney in 1926, and by 1930 it had expanded dramatically, featuring more than fifty exhibitors across 16,000 square feet of floor space. 6 ‘No other exhibition can be so full of marvellous things as this’, enthused the Sydney Mail, ‘electricity is still the marvel of the age—the magic power’. 7 Most remarkably, perhaps, this ‘magic power’ was poised to transform not just nation and industry, but the home itself. ‘The most important development of electricity in the future will unquestionably be applied to the home’, argued the Australasian Manfacturer in 1923. In an age of miraculous progress, the home represented ‘a survival of barbarism’, the editorial continued, ‘it is not nearly as clean as it ought to be’. Electricity promised to ‘eliminate practically all unnecessary work’, while making the tasks that remained ‘a pleasure’. A ‘revolution’ in cooking was inevitable, and dish-washers and vacuum cleaners would sanitise ‘to perfection’. Domestic life would be ‘saner, cleaner, and, consequently, healthier and happier’. 8

The Sydney Electrical and Radio Exhibition displayed and demonstrated nearly 150 electrical appliances, ranging from waffle-makers to lawn mowers. Visitors were encouraged to consider the ease of life in a ‘completely electrified home’. 9 It was a beguiling vision that lingered on in a variety of guises. The Sydney Morning Herald’s 1955 ‘Refrigeration feature’ reported the comments of Noel Felton, a whitegoods manufacturer, on the development of ‘mechanised homes’. Appliances once considered luxuries had become necessities, he argued, as the ‘modern housewife’ sought ‘a better and easier way of life’. Australians were, as a result, ‘happier, healthier’ and had ‘more leisure than their parents and grandparents’. 10

But the modern home brought with it the challenge of keeping up. To fully benefit from the wonders of a ‘mechanised home’, householders were advised to keep abreast of the newest features and designs. Noel Felton noted with satisfaction that Australians were beginning to emulate the ‘ordinary American’ who ‘keeps right up to date and will use only the latest and best type of electrical appliance’. 11 The habits of consumers started to change in the 1920s, with the growth of local manufacturing and the emergence of the advertising industry. The development of new materials and appliances, the availability of processed foods, and the expansion of new suburbs, all contributed to a ‘cult of home and garden’ that was to flourish in the 1950s and beyond. 12 Increasingly privatised, the urban family surrendered its remaining productive functions and embraced the pleasures of consumption.

An advertisement published in the Australian Women’s Weekly in 1956 shows a typical nuclear family barely able to contain their joy as they survey the symbols of modern life through a shop window. Toasters, irons, kettles, radios and vacuum cleaners all promise delight and fulfilment. ‘May 13th is Mothers Day’, readers are reminded, and of course ‘it’s so satisfying to give Hotpoint’. 13 Ownership of the most up to date consumer desirables infused domestic life with a buzz of excitement, Helen Harbour, a suburban housewife in the 1950s, organised regular celebrations of her new acquisitions. 14 It was a trend gently satirised by the Current Affairs Bulletin, suggesting that the average family might soon be unable to afford ‘both a healthy mind and a healthy body’, such was the growing list of appliances deemed essential to modern living: ‘A Dishmaster, Wipemaster, Mixmaster, Icemaster, Skymaster, Panmaster, Sleepmaster, Musicmaster, Mousemaster, etc, etc’. 15

Just as exhibitors at the ‘Herald Atomic Age and Industrial Exhibition’ sought to invest their products with some of the revolutionary force attributed to the bomb, so advertisers commonly invoked the prestige of science to promote their latest products. Westinghouse advertised its refrigerators as bearing ‘the same name that produced the world’s first Atomic-powered submarine’, while the Blendor-Mix was claimed to be ‘the wonder appliance of the Atomic Age’. 16 Appliances were ‘styled for tomorrow’, or ‘scientifically accurate’, and even the Sunbeam Mixmaster was declared to operate at ‘scientifically correct speeds’. 17 Through their purchases, consumers were encouraged to participate in the new age of science, to feel that they were in the vanguard of change. 18

There is something rather familiar in advertisements for the 1923 Electrical and Radio Exhibition that reminded the public ‘no home is a real home without radio’. 19 The ‘electrified home’, like the ‘mechanised home’ or the ‘automated home’, was not merely a place of residence, it was a way of living, a way of enjoying the benefits of progress. Now we plan our ‘networked homes’, ‘smart homes’, where our appliances talk to each other, monitor our habits and anticipate our needs. But the aspirations remain the same. Developments in technology continue to shape our expectations of domestic life, to define the meaning of a ‘modern home’ and a ‘modern family’. Then as now, we are encouraged to believe that progress can be bought off the shelf, that new appliances offer new lives, and that old problems and conflicts can be discarded like worn-out washing machines.



Notes:

  1. Advertisements for the industrial exhibitors were included in the souvenir booklet, The Herald Atomic Age and Industrial Exhibition, Herald & Weekly Times, Mebourne, 1948.
  2. Graeme Davison, The rise and fall of marvellous Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1981, pp. 1-6.
  3. ‘A.N.A. Exhibition of Australian products &  manufactures’, Australasian Manufacturer, vol. 7, no. 359, 17 February 1923, p. 13.
  4. ‘The “All-Australian Manufactures” exhibition’, Australasian Manufacturer, vol. 7, no. 343, 28 October 1922, p. 11.
  5. ‘The A.N.A. Exhibition – a revelation of what Australia can do’, Australasian Manufacturer, vol. 7, no. 357, 3 February 1923, p. 10.
  6. SMH, 26 March 1930, p. 9.
  7. Sydney Mail, 2 April 1930, p. 20.
  8. ‘The coming age of electricity’, Australasian Manufacturer, vol. 8, no. 377, 23 June 1923, pp. 9-10.
  9. Sydney Mail, 2 April 1930, p. 20.
  10. SMH, 29 April 1955, p. 10.
  11. ibid.
  12. Macintyre, 1901-1942: The succeeding age, pp. 217-21; Stephen Alomes, Mark Dober, and Hellier Donna, ‘The social context of postwar conservatism’, in Ann Curthoys and John Merritt (eds), Australia’s first Cold War, George Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1984, pp. 3-5.
  13. Australian Womens Weekly, 9 May 1956, p. 27.
  14. Pam Rehak, ‘Helen Harbour: housewife of the 1950s’, in Marilyn Lake and Farley Kelly (eds), Double time: women in Victoria, 150 years, Penguin, Melbourne, 1985, p. 420.
  15. JLJ Wilson, ‘The family’, Current Affairs Bulletin, vol. 13, no. 5, December 1953, p. 78.
  16. Australian Womens Weekly, 28 October 1953, p. 52; 6 May 1953, p. 27.
  17. Australian Womens Weekly, 23 September 1950, p. 75; 3 March 1951, p. 53; 14 September 1955, p. 65.
  18. Alomes, ‘The social context of postwar conservatism’, pp. 6-7.
  19. SMH, 26 March 1930, p. 9.

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