Utopian Designs: Outer Space and Domestic Technology in Bowman Jets, Rockets, Spacemen Cards

Apologies (as usual) for the extreme lateness in this post – I’ve been traveling, conferencing, on holiday, sick, the works. Anyway, here it is. This is from a paper I did at a colloquium in my department – I’ve modified and shortened it a bit.

Sadly, I do not have access to “real” versions of Bowman’s Jets, Rockets, Spacemen cards, but images of the entire set can be found here. Here I discuss the ways in which the illustrations on the cards reflect wider contemporary design, and the idea of suburban safety

Although the Space Race tends to be associated with the later years of the Cold War, it was also a popular theme in the immediate aftermath of World War II. In part, this was because of the desire to augment national security: missile delivery systems relied on rocketry; but space exploration and travel also became increasingly important to the presentation of a progressive, innovative United States in counterpoint to a regressive, ideological Soviet Union. Space-age technologies were seen as having the potential to power the nation at every level, meaning that they infiltrated day-to-day life, and were manifest in tangible, everyday, and ephemeral objects. Similar design can also be seen in science fiction of the period, as well as in countless advertisements of the period, many of which linked space-age technology and design to travel by air, road, or sea, domestic architecture and power, and small appliances.

In Bowman’s trading card set, Jets, Rockets, Spacemen, the ostensibly imaginary visions of a utopian outer space are, in fact, distinctly domestic, mirroring contemporary earthbound innovations. I propose that the domestication of space in the cards, produced just as American citizens were moving in droves from cities to suburbs, uprooting many children from familiar homes to unfamiliar ones, serves two purposes, which together contribute to a wider contemporary project.

First, it allows space to be presented as an environment that, although inherently alien, remains familiar and safe and, through its suburban depiction, allows this familiarity to be mapped onto perceptions of the suburb. Second, the cards invite boys to envision expansion to new areas as both progressive and adventurous. The spatial character of the suburbs and related domestic technologies are depicted in outer space to render them exciting, yet with familiar form. In this way, those consuming the cards are encouraged to understand suburban relocation as an adventure, but one in which they may feel secure.

Jets, Rockets, Spacemen

package
Taken from https://www.psacard.com/articles/articleview/6976/psa-set-registry-1951-bowman-jets-rockets-spacemen-trading-card-thats-blasting-off-popularity

The Jets, Rockets, Spacemen card set was produced by Bowman Gum in 1951 and their rhetorical power is multimodal; collectors are invited to engage with them visually through the beautiful, intricate images, imaginatively through the hero-story of the text, spatially by interacting with them physically, throwing or flipping them, or socially by collecting and trading them.[1] The original set comprised 108 cards, released in three parts of 36, produced by the George Moll advertising agency. Each card featured illustrations of an imagined outer space on one side, with narrative, written by Gordon Palmer, on the other.[2] The story is set in the imminent future, and although the United States is never explicitly mentioned, Bowman gum had a patriotic streak,[3] and the space station from which the young, unnamed hero leaves is in Manhattan, so it is fair to surmise that it is American. The hero blasts off into space for the first time, as a new crew member of the 6X52, a rocket that will take him “beyond the stratosphere.”[4] The rocket center also serves as a base for the UN and the so-called Solar League, in the defense of universal peace. In the context of the Truman Doctrine and the early Cold War, this kind of rhetoric would have been familiar to boys; indeed, this narrative aligns with other sets of cards of the period, which warned boys about the importance of assisting weaker peoples and defending global peace against the spread of communism.

The story continues card by card (although may not have been collected or read as such) throughout the set, except on cards 34 through 39, and 106 through 108, which feature airplanes (the “Jets” of the series.) In a twist, the last space card, 105, promises a thrilling new episode, following the escape of an alien iron man, Malpo the Mighty, but this never materializes. The accidental loss of the artwork for part four, and subsequent abandonment of part five,[5] means that the story ends abruptly, on a cliffhanger. Part five was recovered and released as an extension during the 1980s, but the original 1951 set remains extremely popular with collectors, with a top-rated set of the cards selling in 2009 for $28,440,[6] and card number 45 alone being valued at $315.[7] However, even in their original form, the cards were a highly commoditized product, marketed to a preadolescent audience, with the intention of frequent repeat purchases. Therefore children were roped into the burgeoning suburban consumerist society of the early 1950s from a young age.[8]

We can infer that it was white boys who were intended to identify themselves with the hero of these cards for two prominent reasons; first, not a single woman appears in all 108 cards; second, the entire crew of the 6X52 spaceship, and indeed every spaceman in the Solar League, is depicted as white. In the early Cold War period, white, middle-class boys were presumed to be future leaders, to the exclusion of boys of color, and of girls, and were the assumed audience of rhetorics of American identity. Indeed, cards such as these became what John Bloom calls “icons for an idealized image of all American boyhood, which is to say … of a specifically white, early post-World War II, middle-class boyhood.”[9]

It was boys like these who may have been moving to the suburbs by the early 1950s, suburbs that were, as Lewis Mumford wrote in The City in History, “secure enclaves …inhabited by people of the same class, the same income … witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless pre-fabricated foods, from the same freezers, conforming in every outward and inward respect to a common mold.”[10] It is these people to whom space age domestic technologies were marketed, and these factors are also apparent in the cards. The threats to the hero and his crew are often animal or vegetable in nature, and must be tamed by the latest technology. Space ships and stations, by contrast, are inhabited entirely by white men (and, inexplicably, a pet parrot.) They are, therefore, secure enclaves within which the hero is safe among others like himself.

Kelvinator ad, 1947
Ad for Kelvinator, 1947

The technology mentioned by Mumford is important here, because each of those that he mentions appears in the cards, and each is presented as similar in design to contemporary domestic items. Boys living, or preparing to live in early 1950s suburbia, would have been familiar with such technologies (as this advert for Kelvinator suggests,) and the aesthetics associated with them, from all manner of contemporary media, from the products themselves, and their commercials, to television shows, and from magazines to toys. There are multiple examples of domestic design and technology appearing as space gadgetry in these cards, but I focus on three; the design features of the space ships and stations themselves, communication devices, and the subplot of the attack of the vegetable men.

The spatial design of space

One of the most striking features of Jets, Rockets, Spacemen, is just how suburban many of the places visited by the hero appear. Although the space settlements are referred to as cities, they follow regular layouts, like tract housing (and in the early days of the postwar suburbs, tract housing plans were also often referred to as cities.)

Space Patrol
Screenshot of opening to 1950 TV show “Space Patrol”

Space stations resemble cookie cutter houses and are connected by curving highways and railways, resembling those advertised by Bohn and other contemporary engineering firms, such as the Bohn Aluminum and Brass Corp., and Vanadium Corp..

 

Space buildings and ships alike have picture windows, providing wide vistas over the galaxy, while ships also have “telescreens,” just as suburban homes had televisions, their “windows on the world.” As Laura Scott Holliday notes, “promises of kitchen technologies [were] initially established through the showcasing of cars alongside kitchens [and] … appliance design echoed automobile design during much of the postwar period,”[11] Accordingly, the design of spaceships themselves in the cards closely resembles that of contemporary cars, and of futuristic imaginations of other modes of transport that featured in advertising of the period, as well as domestic appliances, particularly refrigerators. They feature the “bulbous streamlined forms, baroque chrome “gorp” trim, and color trends”[12] common to the period, and as such would have been familiar to boy readers not only as staples of science fiction but also as everyday items.

Gendered Domestic Communication

In Jets, Rockets, Spacemen, the crew communicate not only with each other but with assorted other communities along their journey, and use various means to do so. Several appear futuristic but are in fact familiar, being portmanteaux of contemporary communications technologies, such as the telescreens, and the “videoscope radiophone” (card 100). That the latter is used by the spacemen to watch a baseball game (Cleveland Indians at Chicago White Sox) which, owing to time differences, actually occurred eight years before their journey, reminds children that however far from home these spacemen are, they are still in touch with home, and the great American pastime. However, the more familiar technologies tend to reflect communications among the spacemen themselves, whereas much of the communication between spacemen and other groups is telepathic, reflecting the gendered nature of the streamlining of domestic design. Holliday remarks that science fiction frequently uses technology to reduce domestic operations to nothing, allowing male pioneers to transcend mortal limitations. In this sense, the transcendence of communications technology with “others” in space demonstrates the form of dominant masculinity that technology allows abroad, while the use of technology among their “own” tethers the boy hero to the security of the home.

Hygienic Space

In several stories, our heroes battle space threats through the use of non-violent technologies which reflect recent developments back on earth. Several escapes are achieved through the use of magnetism (a technology which experienced a boom in the post war period.)[13] On cards 86 through 88, the crew are attacked by “giant vegetable men from Tropicana.” They overcome these “rampaging vegetables,” “with beady beet-like eyes” by building a “mighty army of ice robots” who kill the vegetable men and save the day. This story may be read in context of the enormous growth in domestic refrigeration during the postwar period, and of narratives of hygiene and security. Fridges were marketed as a way to keep vegetables fresh, and above all healthy, retaining nutrients but ensuring that food was safe, and commercials often featured images of fruit juice. Tropicana Products, Inc also experienced large growth during this period, in part owing to improvements in refrigeration, but also because of developments in flash pasteurization, a method by which fruit is subjected to high temperatures. In another episode of Jets, Rockets, Spacemen, the rocket is attacked by a giant space blob, which is defeated by alternating high and low temperature application, invoking ideas of the dual role of pasteurization and refrigeration in ensuring the death of the likes of bacteria.

Florida Oranges Ad, nd.
Undated ad for Florida Oranges (source: https://www.oldride.com/carphotos/gallery/638913244428.jpg)

More broadly, suburbs were a project of sanitization, a move away from what George Kennan referred to as the “‘grotesque decay;’” of the city, the “blighted, ‘indecent skeletons;’ including ‘blocks of saloons and rooming houses, with seedy-looking men slouching in front of the windows of the closed stores, leaning against the walls, in the sunshine, waiting.’”[14] In this context, it is not a leap to suggest that vegetable men might also represent the so-called “seedy” or dirty elements of the city, which must be sanitized or escaped from, or perhaps the wild nature of the exurbs that must be tamed by surburban development, while ice robots could be read as —  and indeed resemble — the new-fangled refrigerators that signified the cleanliness and modernity of the suburban haven.

Conclusion

In conclusion, in aligning its utopian vision of outer space with domestic technology, the cards present outer space as akin to suburban space; where buildings are welcoming and provide comfort, where threats from people who do not look like “us” are kept at bay, where communication reinforces the gendered norms of technology, where nature made hygienic, and where order and security are maintained. These ideas expand outward as well, just as in outer space and suburban space, in the cards, the progressive technologies of the space age allow the heroes of the Solar League to extend this security and order across the cosmos, just as the United States uses them to spread peace across the globe.

Like contemporary commercials, the illustrations in Jets, Rockets, Spacemen highlight domestic technologies as marvelously futuristic, encouraging boys to see elements of optimism and futurity in their situation, but also safety in the upheaval; they may be moving, but they are going somewhere that is protected by people like them.

Toys, particularly those that allowed social networks to be built and maintained, may have served an important function in helping boys make this transition. Lynn Spigel has discussed how the move to the suburbs could be extremely stressful, because “people often left their families and life-long friends in the city to find instant neighborhoods in preplanned communities. Blocks composed of total strangers represented friendships only at the abstract level of demographic similarities.”[15] Spigel notes that television allowed suburbanites to bond vicariously over a shared idea of social connectedness “on the national networks.”[16] These cards also promoted the sameness of network television; all boys shared in the same story, applying the same notions of adventure with familiarity and peaceful alliances with new acquaintances in making new friends in the unfamiliar suburb. Boys are encouraged to acknowledge that being somewhat afraid is acceptable, but that to buckle up and face their voyages to new “settlements” is imperative. By doing so, they can see new places, learn new things, continue their life’s journey alongside new found suburban friends, and patriotically serve their nation in the pursuit of global security.

The rhetoric of security is critical to this story, and to the lives of the boys to whom it is addressed, and their families. The postwar period was characterized by optimism about American scientific advancement as a means of attaining and maintaining global peace, but the contradiction between atomic power’s massive potential for both progress and annihilation created immense unease. Many children had lost fathers, brothers or other relatives in the War, and shift from cities to new, planned towns, away from extended family and friends, created a sense of isolation. Therefore, it was imperative that the suburbs be rendered familiar and safe to such children (and indeed to their families,) to instill a sense of security and minimize any anxiety they may have felt about their existence in the early atomic age. Self-reliance was seen as critically important to survival, as evidenced in numerous civil defense pamphlets and movies, which emphasize the need for, and duty of, the citizen to ensure the survival of his own family, home, or city.

 

Images of Jets, Rockets, Spacemen cards can be found at this site: http://www.lowellsplace.com/jrs/jrs_main_page.html

[1] John Bloom, House of Cards: Baseball Card Collecting and Popular Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 52-57. There are myriad variations on games that can be played with cards; some are listed at http://www.streetplay.com/thegames/baseballcards.shtml

[2] Kurt Kuersteiner, “The Next Jets-Rockets-Spacemen Trading Cards,” The Wrapper 2007.

[3] Kuersteiner writes that “Bowman’s five star trademark stood for ‘Child, church, home, school and community.’” (ibid)

[4] Card #1

[5] “The Next Jets-Rockets-Spacemen Trading Cards.”

[6] http://www.psacard.com/articles/articleview/6976/psa-set-registry-1951-bowman-jets-rockets-spacemen-trading-card-thats-blasting-off-popularity

[7] http://www.psacard.com/cardfacts/non-sports-cards/1951-bowman-jets-rockets-spacemen/octoplant-thwarts-jaguan-attack-45/574958

[8] Evidence from collectors on collector sites, in ethnographic studies, and in studies of card culture, all suggests that boys collected in preadolescence but that many began to see it as childish once they reached their teenage years. It is, however, interesting that so many resumed collecting as men, suggesting that memory and nostalgia continue to be important.

[9] Bloom, House of Cards, 4.

[10] Cited in Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 1987. 60.

[11] Laura Scott Holliday, “Kitchen Technologies: Promises and Alibis, 1944-1966,” Camera Obscura 47:16:2: 86.

[12] Scott Holliday, “Kitchen Technologies: Promises and Alibis, 1944-1966,” 87.

[13] I.S. Jacobs, “Role of Magnetism in Technology,” Journal of Applied Physics 40:3 (1969).

[14] Matthew Farish, The contours of America’s cold war (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) 2010. Kindle location 2636

[15] Lynn Spigel, “The Suburban Home Companion: Television and the Neighborhood Ideal in Postwar America,” in Sexuality & Space (Princeton Papers on Architecture) (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996), 201.

[16] Spigel, “The Suburban Home Companion: Television and the Neighborhood Ideal in Postwar America,” 205.

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