In popular culture, the 1950s often come across as a sort of dream — an ever-shifting montage of one-car families, tract houses, trips to Disneyland, a friendly president named Eisenhower smiling from beneath a gleaming bald pate and, of course, “Dick and Jane” readers.
But the ’50s were, among other things, a time of radical change (see “Mad Men”) and nowhere is that so clearly reflected than in the Johnson County Museum’s 1950s All-Electric House.
What appears to be an unassuming ranch home sits behind the main museum in Shawnee on Lackman Road north of Shawnee Mission Parkway. And as a recent tour revealed, this house — built in 1954 as a model home developed by KCP&L to show off the wonders of electricity — was on the cutting edge of suburban-living technology.
Garage-door openers were, at the time, an exotic novelty. So, too, was the ability to open and close the living-room drapes at the push of a button, as a tour guide recently demonstrated. She pushed another button and a wall painting of a seascape slid to one side to reveal the screen of what would have been a built-in cathode ray tube television. (My guide pointed out that if the TV needed servicing, there was only one way to get it out — through an opening on the opposite side of the wall in the compact kitchen.)
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The living room also included an “electric fireplace” that created the illusion of a crackling fire without generating heat. A waist-high pocket door to one side of the fireplace was the place to stow one of the most important accoutrements of 1950s living: TV trays. Evenly spaced electrical outlets on the living-room baseboard made it possible to plug in dozens of other devices.
On the bathroom ceiling was a lighting fixture that brought to mind the segmented Martian “eyes” in “The War of the Worlds,” the sci-fi classic that had been released the year before the model home opened. Look up and you can see three bulbs: an amber light, one for tanning and one described as an “ozone bulb.”
In the master bedroom were two single beds — a reflection of the conservative standards of ’50s TV and movies — and light controls within reach of one of the sleepers. The kitchen and a small adjoining room included an electric range (natch), a machine that could both wash and dry clothes, a GE freezer and a scary-looking “mangle iron,” a device into which you fed clothing that wrapped itself around a thick roller and came through the process wrinkle-free.
The home was warmed by an electric heat pump, also a novelty for the time. The house used no gas. In back was a green patio with partial brick wall, which my guide told me was replicated to the T.
The house was occupied by five families from the time it was a model home to the point where it was acquired by the museum and transported from its original site in Prairie Village. The original price was $50,000 at a time when the average home cost $15,000.
Visitors are shown a pre-tour video that gives you the backstory on the house as well as the history of the economic boom of the ’50s. And it points out that the Nifty-Fifties weren’t so dreamy for all Americans. African-Americans and other minorities fighting for civil rights at the time could not have bought a home in the Electric House’s original neighborhood. That freedom would come later, much later.
Other attractions in the metro
The United Federation of Doll Clubs maintains a doll museum at 10900 Pomona, just south of Kansas City International Airport. The collection includes antique and contemporary dolls. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Admission is $4. The federation is also hosting a conference for collectors July 16-17 at the Marriott on 12th Street. Visit ufdc.org or call 816-891-7040.
At Weird Stuff Antiques, you can probably find what you want, especially if your tastes run to old ukuleles, vintage commercial signs, guitar amplifiers, bicycles, felt-top card tables, alligator boots and old cars. And anything else you might be able to think of. The appropriately named company is in the process of moving from 901 Tracy to the River Bend Antique Flea Market & Estate Liquidators at 700 Woodswether Road beneath the Broadway Bridge. Check it out at www.weirdstuffantiques.com or call 816-868-6206.
1950s All-Electric House at Johnson County Museum
6305 Lackman Road, Shawnee
Hours: 1 to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday; guided tours every 30 minutes
Cost: $5 adults; $4 seniors; $3 kids ages 5-12.
Contact: 913-715-2550; www.jocogov.org