Modern Marvels & the McFaddins
Story by Judith Linsley
During World War II, author Anne Morrow Lindbergh and her husband Charles, the famous aviator, rented a house near Detroit. Technology was her husband’s life, of course, but Anne complained that their house was “crammed with gadgets, special systems that all require a specialist if something goes wrong.” To her, the convenience wasn’t worth the frequent maintenance necessary to keep the “gadgets” going.
Lindbergh wasn’t alone in her attitude. While most Americans welcomed 21st-century technological innovations for making their lives easier, healthier, or more enjoyable, others had their doubts.
The telephone, most essential to modern communication, raised fears early on: loss of privacy in the home, declining manners, distraction from daily tasks. A Smithsonian magazine article, comparing early concerns about telephone overuse to today’s worries about obsessive text-messaging, observed that the telephone was originally intended for business, not for, as one source snippily remarked, “twaddle between foolish women.” That idea was soon discarded, of course, as women at home pre-empted the phone as their perfect social network tool.
Both Ida McFaddin and Mamie McFaddin Ward loved the telephone. Ida’s granddaughter Rosine McFaddin Wilson recalled that for them, “It was a luxury not to have to wait to see friends at a party, or send a note by the groom. You could just pick up the phone, and they talked all morning, calling each other back if they heard a new bit of news that needed airing.” In 1940, Mamie and Ida used the phone to invite guests to their open house. In 1901, one etiquette author had deemed that practice “inexcusable”; in 1920, Emily Post gave her blessing to phone invitations, and that settled that.
During the early 1900s, the phonograph also had its naysayers. According to the Smithsonian, commercial availability of the phonograph allowed people to listen to music alone, which was thought to promote antisocial behavior. The new technology also raised fears of “‘gramomania,’ an obsession with buying and collecting records that would lead one to ignore one’s family.” Nowadays, some claim that easy digital access to music not only reduces artists’ royalties but supersaturates the market, creating a jaded listening public. Any generation can have too much of a good thing.
Some technological innovations were perceived to be inhuman and heartless. When wartime rationing caused metal zippers (first used in women’s clothing in the late 1930s) to be taken off the civilian market, Anne Morrow Lindbergh was delighted. Zippers frequently broke, but her animosity went deeper: “I always did hate them—cold, slippery, metallic things….They never hold when you want them to. They are rigid when you want them to ease a little. No resilience, no charm, no texture. Take a button, now, you know where you are. It holds till death, but it will give, too, humanly, if you gain a half an inch. Besides, the feel of a button—so friendly and comfortable, warm to touch.”
Ida McFaddin might have felt the same resentment against the unyielding nature of technology in 1936 when, with her personal secretary away, she tried her hand at typing her own correspondence on a portable manual typewriter. She got the job done, but numerous errors left her frustrated with the “infernal machine,” as she called it, and she complained that she was “getting worse with every letter.” For someone like Ida, noted for long, eloquent letters and elegant penmanship, this method of communication must have been particularly difficult.
In most areas, the McFaddins and Wards stayed abreast of technology, buying radios, room air conditioners, and luxury cars, and eventually traveling by air. In others, they lagged behind, perhaps partly because they weren’t directly affected. Mamie and Ida didn’t feel the need to buy modern household appliances; the cook, Louis Lemon, actually preferred to cook on a wood stove, while (except in the very early years) dirty clothes were sent out to the laundress or the dry cleaners. Consequently, the house never had a dishwasher, washing machine, or clothes dryer.
One piece of technology Mamie gladly embraced was the Shepard HomeLIFT elevator that she installed for Ida in 1948, when the stairs became too difficult for her mother to climb. She refused to install central heat and air, however, having been told (erroneously) that she would have to lower the ceilings in the house.
As with all her purchases, Mamie bought the best and expected them to last. When she died in 1982, the 1938 Westinghouse refrigerator and the 1952 Roper range were still being used in the house. The Electrolux vacuum cleaners in the house had also been around for years.
Both ladies enjoyed the latest in hair treatment, though their hair styles (notably Mamie’s) weren’t necessarily current. Mamie carefully recorded permanent wave statistics in her diary, enumerating in 1937, “79 curls & baked 7 minutes, off 2 or 3 [minutes] & on 7 or 8 again; took a nice wave, used No 2 sockets.” She and Ida enhanced their beauty routine in the 1930s with the purchase of a salon hair dryer on a stand from their hairdresser.
After Ida died in 1950, Mamie did very little modernizing, wanting to keep unchanged the home where she and her mother lived. Later, in planning to leave the house as a museum, she reiterated that it reflect the changes they had made together. Her decision actually simplified interpretation of the museum, something that I’m sure was greatly appreciated by those who were involved.
Quotes are from Anne Morrow Lindbergh, War Within and Without: Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 1939-1944; Clive Thompson, “Rocking the House,” Smithsonian, January 2016; “OMG! We’ve Been Here B4,” Smithsonian, March 2016.
The McFaddin-Ward House (MWH) offers free docent-led and self-guided audio tours. Audio tours are available for the 1st floor of the MWH, Carriage House, and Gardens.
Wednesday – Saturday, 9 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.
Sunday, 12:30-2:30 p.m.
Docent-led visits are available
Wednesday-Saturday, 10 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.
The MWH encourage reservations, but walk-ins are always welcome. To make your reservation, call (409) 832-2134.
Visit the website at Mcfaddin-Ward.org