Plastic Fantastic Future: Disney’s Monsanto House, 1957-1967
By Nicole de Silva
Guests to the Disney parks are never too far from a place to buy or trade themed merchandise. But beyond mouse-eared caps and churros, Disneyland once attempted to peddle visions of progress.
The Disneyland park’s Matterhorn now overlooks the spot once occupied by the Monsanto House of the Future. The house stood for its decade in the Disneyland sun between 1957 and 1967, during which time over 20 million park guests toured its plastic halls. In its presentation of an average American home, meant to forecast the year 1986, the display revealed time-specific fantasies about family life, gender relations, work, leisure, technology, and consumer access.
The house itself was dreamed up by a couple of men at Monsanto’s chemical division who asked: What if not only cheap mass-produced furniture, but also houses themselves could be made of plastics? The time was right for this sort of question. In the immediate post-World War II period, changes like cheap home loans to former military men, broader access to consumer credit, and rising wages among some of the working and middle classes fed a boom in demand for cheap, single-family housing. It was a need that folks like William Levitt and his sons worked to fill—and profit immensely from. Could plastic, the modern miracle material, get in on some of the action?
Their vision was first realized when Monsanto chemists and engineers teamed up with MIT architects to build a prototype “house of plastics” in 1955. The project cost $1 million, about 90% of which came from research and design. Monsanto businessman Robert Mueller claimed that a commercialized version of the house could be marketed to the public for somewhere between $10,000-15,000.
It is hard to separate the Monsanto men’s imaginings from the surrounding Cold War liberal conviction that by broadening access to a high “American standard of living,” the US could show the world the preeminence of its capitalist system. The plastic house was “light, resistant to corrosion and wear" and had “easy formability," so it could be designed for manufacture through mass-production methods. If the production process were streamlined, could this offer an advent of a synthetic American suburbia that would be both cheap and chic?
Ernie Kirwan very much imagined the plastic house as an answer to attractive and affordable housing. The then-20-year old Kirwan was a graduate student studying under the project’s primary architect, Marvin Goody. It was Goody’s 1955 prototype that first drew the attention of Walt Disney. The version that the team eventually erected on Disney property in 1957 had six U-shaped rooms of equal size: a living room, a family room, a combined dining room and kitchen, and two bedrooms. It was raised 8 feet from the ground on a Greek Cross, an inefficient adornment that Kirwan felt detracted from the vision of bringing the design to the masses. Brushing aside his concern, Disney insisted on a dramatic spectacle that would evoke a strong reaction in audiences. “We want people to say, ‘My God, it’s great!” or ‘My God, it’s awful!’” one marketer said. “If they say ‘My God,’ we’ve got their attention.”
And attention they got. The attraction was not treated as a storybook fantasy, but as something with real potential. “It is not just a hoked-up, wildly imaginative novelty, but the product of three years’ sober research and experimentation in contemporary living patterns and construction problems,” reported the New York Times in 1957. The house’s fiberglass construction was a described as “a complete departure from convention” even as “it retains most of the traditional attributes of ‘home.’”
It wasn’t just remarkable for its brightly colored interior, modern angles, and sleek design. The house offered to place the rhythms of family life in conversation with surrounding technological systems. Getting ready for a night on the town? Lights in the bedroom, which resembled a moving projector, could be readjusted to simulate those at the venue at which you’d be seen. Need to take a call while moving around the house? Microphones embedded in the halls would pick up your voice from anywhere inside. Hosting a dinner party? Need to clear up space in the dining room? The three refrigerators and dishwasher could be stored out of sight at the push of a button, and microwaves fueled by atomic energy could prepare a dinner in seconds. Another set of buttons could be used to control the room’s scent and lighting.
Such innovations raised a question: What was the role of the Woman of the Future? Would she be replaced by a menagerie of automated gadgets like ultra-fast microwaves, a dishwasher powered by ultrasonic waves, and rooms and furniture fashioned out of synthetic materials designed to hide or resist dirt?
Questions about the automation of household work and its impacts on women’s roles in family life were never really addressed. No probing questions about what impact technology might have on gender relations appeared on the Monsanto house promotional material. One would not be surprised if eleven-year old Wendy Stuart, named the “Housewife of the Future” in 1957, saw only unmitigated progress in the technologies that would liberate her from the tedious chores of her mother. But her thoughts likely never turned to the tasks she might use her time for instead. Of course, many of the technologies that offered to unfetter the housewife from her “traditional” duties were far from being developed, much less made available on the commercial market.
Regardless of the imaginations of some individual women, one wonders how truly “plastic” the visions of the gender the house offered really were. Historically, advances in household technology have not lessened women’s work but rather transformed it, shifting the kinds of demands they faced and increasing expectations of their performance in other tasks. Were relations of work in the Family of the Future as malleable as the material that constructed its home? It is unclear (and unlikely) that the Monsanto men supposed or desired their project as one that would revolutionize women’s work or family roles.
The Monsanto House of the Future is now a relic of the past, accessible to today’s visitors only through virtual or video tours. But so, too, did its very time-specific vision of “the future” begin to show its age by the late 1960s. Ernie Kirwan has admitted more recently that “as a social progressive, I did not think [the House of the Future] was very successful in accomplishing what I would have liked to see it do.” Plastic could not solve problems of access to comfortable and affordable housing. Neither could it transform the nature of family life or gender relations. But the Monsanto House and the vision of progress it attempted to sell allows us to firmly place Disney himself—and his Tomorrowland project—among the mid-century dreamers who imagined themselves living in a nation transformed by suburbanization, changing ideas about convenience and family life, and “democratized” consumer access.
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Nicole de Silva
It would be hard to separate Nicole's attraction to cultural history from her love for Disneyland. She is passionate about untangling the webs of meanings, imaginings, and dreams that both individuals and communities weave--and in this regard, Walt's own world of fantasy is particularly captivating! Nicole's time spent swing dancing under the stars at Carnation Plaza, sipping Tiki drinks at Trader Sam's, observing interactions among her cherished goats at Thunder Mountain Ranch, and performing during her brief stint with the Dapper Dans (which lasted approx. 5 minutes, pictured here) are all impactful parts of her own imaginative life. Though there is much to excavate from Walt's fantasies, the park's magic comes from the way it invites us to dream up and live our own stories (never detached from our historical surroundings). In the words of Walt himself, "Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world."
Roland Barthes, Mythologies (1957)
Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (2003)
Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (1983)
Gladwin Hill, “House of the Future Built of Plastic,” New York Times, June 16, 1957.
Siegfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History (1948)
“Atoms for Living’ Kitchen,” The Iowa Homemaker 36, no. 15 (1957)
Susan Strasser, Never Done: A History of American Housework (1982)
Dave Weinstein, “Plastic Fantastic Living: Disneyland's spectacular 'Monsanto House of the Future' combined science, showmanship and dreams,” Eichler Network.