“The house of the next century will be furnished from basement to attic with steel, at a sixth of the present cost — of steel so light that it will be as easy to move a sideboard as it is today to lift a drawing room chair. The baby of the twenty-first century will be rocked in a steel cradle; his father will sit in a steel chair at a steel dining table, and his mother’s boudoir will be sumptuously equipped with steel furnishings, converted by cunning varnishes to the semblance of rosewood, or mahogany, or any other wood her ladyship fancies.” - Thomas Edison, 1911
In 1911, Thomas Edison made a few predictions about what our world would look like in the future. He hit the nail on the head when it came to things like air travel and the use of electricity in trains. But, in some of his other predictions, he was less correct.
One of these misfires revolved around steel. While Edison was correct predicting the decreased price and increased availability of steel as a building material, he was wrong about how we’d use it.
Before we talk about how he was wrong, let’s talk about why he made this prediction in the first place.
In 1911, steel was very much at the forefront of American industry. Steel production was up and the United States was leading the world in it. This was still the time of Carnegie and U.S. Steel. We were constructing steel bridges and steel buildings, and our relationship with building materials was evolving.
It’s not surprising some of Edison’s predictions revolved around the steel industry. In fact, it would’ve been weirder if Edison hadn’t mentioned it — which might also have had something to do with the fact that he had a stake in the steel industry itself.
Edison wasn’t totally wrong. We do use a lot of steel in building. But we don’t really furnish our homes with it outside of stainless steel appliances. Why is that?
Well, probably because it might feel like living in a warm meat locker. On a practical level, steel is durable, stands up well to abuse, and is lighter than some alternative materials. If Edison was right about the price decline, it made sense that we’d use it wherever we could, right? Wrong.
Steel is pretty profoundly uncomfortable and, aesthetically speaking, best in small doses. It’s a cold material that doesn’t say “home sweet home,” and if we’re being honest, Edison’s steel bassinet conjures up images of rocking your baby to sleep in a feed bin.
On a practical level, it makes sense. In fact, we kinda sorta tried it, but we’re idiot humans that love comfortable things that look nice. Steel doesn’t fit the bill when it comes to home furnishing. Even grain silo homes, which more-or-less exist to be all metal, are filled with warmer, more comfortable materials inside.
Now, there’s a certain distinction as Edison talks about steel made to look like wood. Are there methods for doing that? Sure! But, it’s not super easy or exceedingly cheap. Also, because humans are lazy, were not exactly running to Crate & Barrel to buy steel dining tables to paint old farmhouse style.
Would there be advantages to using steel the way Edison suggests? Most likely. But the benefits of steel don’t quite outweigh the cost of feeling like you’re coming home to the inside of bank vault with beds. Maybe in an alternate future.
Photos via Wallace G. Levinson / LIFE Photo Archive