“The Battle of the Centuries”


Ethan Robey

A press release describing the Westinghouse Pavilion at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, now in The New York Public Library’s collection, notes that its theme was “the transformation of life through electricity.” The building was divided into a “Hall of Power,” displaying industrial achievements, and a “Hall of Electrical Living,” featuring household appliances. As the release puts it, “the Hall of Power might be said to be of special interest to men; while the Hall of Electrical Living will particularly draw the attention of women.... The theme of this building,” it continues, “shows the release of women from bondage and drudgery through electricity.”
The most theatrical dramatization of this liberation was a stage show Westinghouse called “The Battle of the Centuries,” a dishwashing contest between “Mrs. Drudge” and “Mrs. Modern.” The women, one working at a large sink piled with dirty dishes, the other benefiting from a new Westinghouse electric dishwasher, “competed” on a stage before an exuberant art moderne mural of piles of dishes, flatware and soap bubbles. The show lasted about ten minutes, and, to no one’s surprise, Mrs. Modern always won.
While the women worked, a male announcer gave a blow-by-blow description, affecting the tone and tempo of a broadcaster describing a prize fight. As documented in a Westinghouse promotional film, the character of Mrs. Drudge was made to be somewhat a figure of ridicule, scorned for her lack of modernity. In the filmed performance, audience members and the announcer poke fun at how much water Mrs. Drudge splashes about the stage. After a boxing-ring bell signals the end of the dishwasher cycle, Mrs. Drudge still continues furiously to wash and dry her dishes. The announcer has to turn to her and say, “Well, it’s all over Mrs. Drudge, you may as well rest now,” and everyone, except Mrs. Drudge, laughs. The announcer then compares the dishes, declares Mrs. Modern the winner, and points out that “Mrs. Modern looks as fresh and neat as when she stepped into the ring, while Mrs. Drudge … well,” he smirks, “I’ll have to leave that to you” at which point the actress playing Mrs. Drudge throws her towel down on the stage in disgust, turns and walks, dejected, back to her workstation.

An announcer gives a blow-by-blow account of the "Battle of the Centuries" dishwashing competition.

An announcer gives a blow-by-blow account of the "Battle of the Centuries" dishwashing competition.

“The Middleton Family” visited the Fair in a Westinghouse promotional film. Here they watch the "Battle of the Centuries."

The worlds of drudgery and modernity were further distinguished in the props and costumes. Mrs. Drudge worked away at a wide, white wooden counter with turned legs, wearing an apron that got quite messy. Mrs. Modern, by contrast, wore a smart dress and spent much of the show sitting on a tubular steel chair, waiting for the dishwasher cycle to finish. The Westinghouse dishwasher, the star of the show, was fitted with a glass door and angled mirrors above, to give the audience a better view of the loaded racks of dishes and the efficient sprays of water inside.
It was a demanding role to play Mrs. Drudge; the “contest” was staged about 40 times a day. The cast included eight women who each took the part of Mrs. Drudge for a two-hour stint and played Mrs. Modern for two hours. In a kind of parody of domestic life, Westinghouse also employed four men who were kept busy dirtying up dishes for the performances.
Staged dramatizations of appliances transforming life featuring allegorical Everywomen were a common marketing technique in the early 20th century. Perhaps coincidentally, there had even been a short film produced by Western Electric around 1915 entitled The Education of Mrs. Drudge. In it, Mrs. Drudge, who laboriously washes the clothes in an old-fashioned washtub, is liberated when her husband introduces her to the benefits of a new, electric washing machine.
At the 1939-40 Fair there was also another Mrs. Modern. In the Community Interests Focal Exhibit, a series of dioramas by noted designer Gilbert Rhode dramatized changes in daily life from the 18th century to the present. The final tableau projected into the future. It began with a spotlit mannequin suspended in a chair in the darkness, talking on a phone. An unseen narrator identified her as Mrs. Modern, and explained that she was ordering a new house. As this Mrs. Modern placed her order, rooms and furnishings slid onto the stage: a whole house made to order, an autonomous unit freeing the housewife from any need for toil at all.

A model of the Westinghouse Building and exhibits, designed by Skidmore & Owings and John Moss, architects.

A model of the Westinghouse Building and exhibits, designed by Skidmore & Owings and John Moss, architects.

Denial of the physicality of household chores, especially kitchen work, underpinned a good portion of the promise of modernity. Work became pleasure. A 1936 Westinghouse ad proclaims, “It’s a joy to work in a kitchen like this,” and asks women to imagine a kitchen where “electricity cooks meals automatically … even prepares frozen salads and desserts … then does the dishes!” In another Westinghouse ad, from 1939, a young woman, having just watched “The Battle of the Centuries,” incredulously declares, “I always thought housekeeping would be work,” to which a Westinghouse spokesman counters “it’s fun — when you let electricity work for you.”
Traditionally, kitchens were smelly, workshop-like spaces with an ever-present danger of fire, and outside the ambit of presentable rooms of the house: a housewife’s domain. Cleaner technologies and changing social patterns had made the kitchen into a family room and entertaining space in 1930s homes. Paradoxically, the liberation promised by electric appliances came at the cost of communal women’s work. Electric appliances promised a form of freedom, but the housewife with her dishwasher increasingly worked alone, in a room open to family and visible to guests.

Two men dirty dishes in preparation for "The Battle of the Centuries."

As the women who watched "The Battle of the Centuries” were given the dream of becoming Modern, they were also implicitly condemned as Drudges. Compared to 19th- and early 20th-century world fairs, the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair had relatively few exhibits of colonized peoples. World fairs often framed colonialism by demonstrating a colonizing nation’s material wealth and sophistication, and opening up the lives of the colonized to scrutiny and ridicule for all they lacked. At the 1939-40 Fair — the “World of Tomorrow” — fairgoers themselves played the part of a primitive people. Corporate displays demonstrated the deficiencies of their lives, and presented them with the electrified wonders of a perfected world. Even as they laughed at poor Mrs. Drudge, fairgoers understood that they were she, and that the path to ease and contentment simply involved giving oneself, heart and soul, to the men of Westinghouse.
The video in this essay is an excerpt from "Westinghouse Presents: The Middleton Family at the World's Fair" (1939), produced by Audio Productions Inc; Westinghouse Electric. The original 55 minute video was directed by Robert S. Snody and stars Marjorie Lord, James Lydon, Ruth Lee, Harry Shannon, Adora Andrews, Douglass Stark, Georg J. Lewis, Georgette Harvey, Ray Perkins and Helen Bennett. This creative commons video was downloaded from the Prelinger Archives.

Even a water fountain at the base of the Westinghouse Building emphasized futuristic architecture.

Sources Cited

Berger, Meyer. “At the Fair.” The New York Times, 14 May 1940.

“Data on Westinghouse Building and Exhibits Designed by Skidmore & Owings, John Moss, Associate” [c. 1938]. Typescript. New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York World's Fair 1939 and 1940 Incorporated Records, Box 350, Folder 10.

Heimann, Jim. 30s: All-American Ads. Köln: Taschen, 2003.

Hughes, Alice. “A Woman’s New York.” The Washington Post, 5 August 1939.

The Middleton Family at the New York World's Fair. Directed by Robert R. Snody, 1939.

“Movies to Move Audience to Wash Electrically,” Electrical World 68, no. 1 (1 July, 1916): 49.

Nye, David E. American Technological Sublime. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994.

Ross, Phyllis. Gilbert Rohde: Modern Design For Modern Living. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009.

Rydell, Robert W. et al, eds. Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Westinghouse advertisement. Life Magazine, 10 July 1939, inside front cover.

Further Reading

Carlisle, Nancy, Melinda Talbot Nasardinov and Jennifer Pustz. America’s Kitchens. Boston: Historic New England; Gardiner, Me.: Distributed by Tilbury House, Publishers, 2008.

Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave. New York: Basic Books, 1983.

Lupton, Ellen. Mechanical Brides: Women and Machines from Home to Office. New York: Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution; Princeton Architectural Press, 1993.

Nye, David E. American Technological Sublime. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994.

Strasser, Susan. Never Done: A History of American Housework. New York: Pantheon Books, 1982.

Wilson, Kristina. “Designing the Modern Family at the Fairs.” In Rydell, Robert W. et al, eds. Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Wood, Andrew. “The Middletons, Futurama, and Progressland: Disciplinary Technology and Temporal Heterotopiain Two New York World’s Fairs.” The New Jersey Journal of Communication 11, No. 1 (Spring 2003): 63-75.

Ethan Robey is Assistant Professor of the History of Decorative Arts and Design at Parsons The New School for Design. His scholarship addresses issues of display and consumerism in the nineteenth and twentieth century.