The American kitchen has always been a battleground for competing visions of the future. But one of the most radical ideas for the kitchen of tomorrow wasn't some Space Age design with all the bells and whistles — it was actually having no kitchen at all.
At the turn of the 20th century the kitchen of tomorrow was often depicted as communal, fulfilling a socialist vision that was drizzled throughout the works of men like Edward Bellamy and Upton Sinclair. Other times, like immediately following World War II, the kitchen was so high-tech that it was hard to tell where the line between techno-utopian promise and techno-utopian parody was exactly. But sometimes the kitchen wasn't even part of the futuristic food equation. Because thanks to that lovely, new-fangled invention known as the telephone, food was little more than a quick call away.
The illustration above comes from the August 1926 issue of Science and Invention magazine and ran with an accompanying article about the future of the "cookless household." As the magazine explains, there were now caterers who had started doing something pretty revolutionary: home delivery of food that was ordered by phone. Those who didn't have traditional kitchens (or the time to cook) were able to easily make an order over the phone and receive their meal within an hour. Over 5,000 families in England were doing just that in this experiment, the magazine raved. And there's no doubt that the Americans would soon enjoy this service from New York to San Francisco.
But even as revolutionary as the food delivery service depicted in the magazine was, this innovation — which today is taken for granted thanks to sites like Seamless — was actually a long time coming.
In his 1880 poem "A Century Hence," William McClung Paxton wrote of the coming food delivery revolution. Paxton envisioned that by the year 1980 not only would the average person have home delivery of any food they desired — it would come from hundreds (if not thousands) of miles away.
An order for supper, by telephone, now,
Had scarcely been made by my host,
When in sprang a servant, I cannot tell how,
With coffee, ham, biscuit and toast.
He brought from St. Louis a steaming hot bowl,
With viands I never had know,
Fresh fruits from the topics, — pure ice from the pole,
And meats from the temperate zone.
Today, of course, we've come to expect home food delivery to be a reliable part of urban living. But unlike the kitchenless household of the 1880s, the traditional role of the domestic servant as it was widely understood in the 19th century has changed dramatically. No longer would an upper-middle class family's personal maid be the one to go acquire food from far off lands. Restaurants and catering companies themselves would be the ones to bring this service to the people.
Someone in 21st century Seattle can now order a Philly cheesesteak straight from the City of Brotherly Love, even though no American would dare call their food deliveryperson a servant. But thanks to the wordsmiths of Silicon Valley, it might not be long before you call your pizza guy a food ninja. And as prescient as Paxton's 19th century poem about food delivery may have been, he somehow didn't foresee the rise of the ninja.
Image: Scanned from the August 1926 issue of Science and Invention magazine, poem first read in Warren Belasco's fascinating book Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food