Forseeing what the “workshop of the future” might look like can be tricky business. Here’s what brave predictors in the ’30s and ’40s came up with.
Knowing where we came from – and knowing about the tools we used back then – can give us all a better appreciation for modern woodworking equipment and techniques. I thought it might be fun to take a look into the past with an eye to predicting the future.
We all have a vision of what would constitute the perfect woodworking
shop – its size and shape, the tools and machinery, the lighting and even the location and number of electrical outlets. But do we dare envision the perfect woodworking shop of the distant future? What would it look like?
The concept was first explored more than 70 years ago in an article entitled “A Century of Progress: The Home Workshop” in the Sept./Oct. 1933 issue of Popular Homecraft, written by editor L. Day Perry. Since we now live in that very future, it might be interesting to read what was imagined to be in store for us.
“Down along Lake Michigan, near the southern end of Chicago’s magnificent A Century of Progress,” wrote Perry, “there is an exhibit of great significance for the future home builder and homeowner of the country. Here are displayed, in concrete form, the ideas of leading architects and manufacturers as to what the house of the future will be like.”
The Century of Progress fair and exposition marked the 100th anniversary of Chicago, and opened in 1933 on a narrow strip of reclaimed land along Lake Michigan. The exhibits of science and industry were considered the best ever assembled in the United States up to that time. Aimed at the average citizen, they emphasized the remarkable developments resulting from the union of science and industry.
Some of the structures Perry described were modern or cutting-edge only in their building materials; others were modernistic in design, but built of traditional materials used in new ways; still others were completely modern in both design and materials.
“One of the most significant indications of the importance of the home workshop,” continued Perry, “is to be found in the ‘House of Tomorrow.’ Ultra-modern in conception and design, this house is attracting tremendous attention from the visitors to the Fair.”
Perry ignored the house’s glass walls, sun decks and outdoor living rooms, central staircase, combination garage and hangar, modern heating and cooling plant, and all the built-in labor-saving gadgets. Instead he concentrated on the architect’s non-traditional conception of a proper recreation room.
“Mr. George Fred Keck, the architect responsible for this design,” explained Perry, “realizes that recreation should feed the mind as well as relax the body and that the best relaxation from the cares of business lies in the exercise of the creative instinct dormant in all of us. His recreation room, consequently, is a workshop.”
Back to the future
To understand the difference Perry was talking about, take a look at the illustrations of a typical early 1930s workshop. Always an afterthought, it was usually squeezed into a poorly lit, cramped basement along with the coal furnace and its fuel, or into a small garage. Hardware supplies were stored in old jelly and peanut butter jars and coffee cans. By contrast, Perry found the architect’s vision to be both light and airy.
“It is an ideal place in which to spend hours of leisure. It is segmental in shape and the outer wall is practically one large window, admitting a flood of light to the shop. Along one wall are set two neat cabinets with shelves and lockers for all the hand tools and machine attachments the shop owner is ever likely to acquire and with storage space for screws, nails, paints, varnishes, lacquers and all other incidental supplies of the well-equipped shop. Screws, nails and similar small supplies, incidentally, are stored in square glass jars which show at a glance their contents, avoiding the necessity of labeling and which take up little space. There is a place for everything, as there should be in the workshop, offering no excuse for misplaced tools or supplies.”
The cabinets were filled with a representative selection of hand tools donated by such venerable names as the Stanley Works, Millers Falls Co., Goodell-Pratt Co., Cleveland Twist Drill Co. and Russell-Jennings Co. Machinery was furnished by Delta Mfg. Co. which took advantage of the event to show off several new 1933 models.
On the workshop’s right was a No. 620 14" drill press with all its cutters, bits and attachments stored in an adjoining cabinet. On the left were the new No. 700 24" jigsaw and the new No. 785 10" bandsaw, placed so the operator could immediately switch from one to the other. Between the cabinets stood a combination unit consisting of the new No. 360 8" table saw with extensions and the No. 301 4" jointer mounted on the same stand.
At the rear was a sturdy workbench by Christiansen Co. of Chicago, fitted with stops, vises and drawers. To its left was the new No. 930 11" lathe. Both were located directly under the window. The lathe was fitted with a backboard that held all the turning tools, centers, chucks and other attachments.
“Here is a real recreation room,” observed Perry. “Mr. Keck is to be congratulated upon realizing the significance of the home workshop as a place of true relaxation and enjoyment; enjoyment far deeper and more lasting than that furnished by the conventional ‘recreation’ room.
“The house of tomorrow must take cognizance of increased hours of leisure and there can be no more fitting provision than that of the home workshop, where one may find enjoyment and relaxation in creating things of utility and beauty. It is a place for youth and maturity, for we all possess the urge to create and to do in a typically human mechanical way.”
Popular Homecraft was also in charge of the Home Workshop Exhibit located in the third pavilion, second floor, of the General Exhibits Building at the fair. Here the visitor could not only visit a woodshop filled with hand tools and machinery, but see woodworkers actually making items.
Though the country was in the middle of a depression, the fair, unlike previous expositions, was an outstanding success. It was held over for the next summer, and not only paid off its underwriters, but showed a profit.
A post-war future
Popular Homecraft took one last stab at predicting what the workshop of the future would or should look like in “Plan Your Post War Workshop,” which appeared in the Nov. 1944 issue. It’s an idealized vision of a perfect – but totally impractical – workshop made up entirely of machines supplied by Delta Mfg. Co., a magazine sponsor. The photos speak for themselves, and show a woodworking shop with an upholstered couch and chair, figurines, wall prints, even a vase with cut flowers. Of course, there wasn’t a dust collection system in sight. One project would have reduced the room to a shambles. Clearly it was a stage set to promote Delta tools.
The thrust of the article was that the time was right to begin planning the ideal workshop for after the war.
Some of the machines seen are the No. 34-405 10" Unisaw, the No. 37-206 6" jointer, the No. 28-207 14" bandsaw, the No. 40-304 24" jigsaw, and the No. 43-205 shaper.
According to the article, “The photographs shown here and on the cover will give you the general trend that many homecrafters will follow in their shops of the future. New products, materials and surroundings promise a future that should add much to the enjoyment of your workshop hobby. Even the ladies are going to feel more at home in the woodworking hobby shop than in the past; today tells us that.”
It’s obvious that neither effort at foretelling the shape of workshops to come was accurate. Nevertheless, they’re fun to read about.
I’m looking forward to your letters and questions regarding antique woodworking tools and machinery.
Formerly a geologist, Dana Martin Batory is the author of “Vintage Woodworking Machinery: An Illustrated Guide to Four Manufacturers,” published by Astragal Press. His second volume in the series was recently published.