"In a rapidly changing world the home was the last bastion of stability and continued traditions."

-- Richard Guy Wilson

Architectural historian Dell Upton has noted that "throughout American history, clients have always been unwilling to grant architects control over such an important aspect of everyday life as the design and furnishing of their houses."1 The radical look of modern design and the machine aesthetic surely exacerbated this antipathy towards academic architecture. Acceptable as a factory aesthetic, or for soaring skyscrapers whose very existence suggested technological advance, modern design seemed antithetical to residential design to that point in time -- in both its purely physical reality and its symbolic import.

This is not to say that the presence of this aesthetic wasn't evident; even outside of Europe and California, modern homes were being built. Non-architects attempted to reconcile themselves to these styles, and sell them as acceptable. Mary Davis Gillies, a writer for McCall's, wavered between the traditional period pieces and new designs, finally arriving at the latter in her discussion of a "modern cottage":

If you say that a Cape Cod cottage has charm and a gentle way of tugging at the heart strings, I'll agree with you. I'll go further and say that the dignity of a Georgian house pleases me and rouses a certain nostalgic feeling for the past.

But just as automobiles have taken the place of carriages. . . and modern plumbing has replaced the rose-bedecked washbowl and pitcher in the corner of the bedroom. . . and gas and electricity have transformed the kitchen -- so modern architecture and furniture win their places in modern homes.

And I, for one, feel that they should.

Today a workman can't spend six months carving a chair. Not is it possible to hire servants who will properly dust and polish such elaboration. Today we have new materials and a new way of living. We like change and variety. Informality is the spirit of the age. Then why not build homes and furnish them to express this spirit?

Some people avoid modern decoration because they feel that, to be effective, it calls for luxurious textured fabrics, rich furs, and delicate white and beige upholstery fabrics.

This is far from true. The fun of doing modern is your freedom from the rules. You can have the things that suit you and your family.2

Of the living room, Gillies added, "This is a modern room, it's true. But its charm is that of the homelike cottage living-room, whether of today or yesterday. It lives up to the family; it does not ask the family to live up to it," before noting, "a friend of mine who lives in a farmhouse one hundred and fifty years old has furnished it in what she calls peasant modern. That is what makes modern decoration a joy -- you can adapt it to your own requirements." Acknowleding the nostalgic properties of traditional styles, Gillies then tried to de-historicize style altogether. Modern, then, is not an aesthetic, but an attitude of "informality" and "freedom from the rules," which might include a seemingly oxymoronic sub-category termed "peasant modern." This is obviously not the rigorous machine purity of the International style, or the austerity of Lewis Mumford's de-personalized dwellings. Yet, Gillies peculiar rationalizations indicate a willingness, for an ex-period piece decorator, to accept and perhaps even embrace interiors and exteriors reflecting the decade's latest aesthetics.

Of the approximately fifty hypothetical house designs produced by Woman's Home Companion in the thirties, five were styled with a machine aesthetic. Yet, as the decade progressed, some of the characteristics of modern design -- strong horizontal planes and less decorative flourish, in particular -- were assimilated into more traditional styles. The impact of the machine aesthetic was evidenced in exteriors, though in an infinitely more subtle fashion than in the vastly changed interiors. The disparity between the two is remarkable. Richard Guy Wilson explained the phenomenon as such:

#1 -- Pittsburgh Paints ad (1939)The machine age in America was ultimately the product of business and the middle class. Americans clung tenaciously to their potpourri of historical styles -- and, in fact, still do. . . . The old traditions continued, but like it or not the world was changing. The areas most resistant to change were the home and its appurtenances. . . . In a rapidly changing world the home was the last bastion of stability and continued traditions. Still, Americans could not resist improvements made in the design and function of new appliances. Modern design sneaked into the home by way of the back door, through the garage, the kitchen, and the bathroom, without much notice or resistance.3

The relative ease with which modern design was accepted into the home seems incongruous with the resistance it met concerning exteriors. A Pittsburgh Paints ad illustrated the seeming unconsciousness of this inconsistency, depicting modern interiors aside a Colonial exterior. Homes like the A. Everett Austin, Jr. House covered modern insides with historically-inspired facades. These homes, imagined and real, seemed to have one foot in the past and one in the futuristic present. In terms of domestic architecture, this was how Americans reconciled the conflicting aesthetics of progress and tradition.

#2 -- A. Everett Austin, Jr. House (1930)In Twentieth Century Limited: Industrial Design in America, 1925-1939, Jeffrey Meikle tried to explain an overall cultural dichotomy, between progress and tradition, through the streamlined design:

The streamlined style expressed not only a phallic technological thrust into a limitless future. Its dominant image, the rounded, womblike teardrop egg, expressed also a desire for the passive, static society, in which social and economic frictions engendered by technological acceleration would be eliminated. Streamlining was paradoxically a style of retreat and consolidation as well as one of penetration and forward progress.4

Meikle wasn't speaking of homes. Yet even if what he claimed were true, the streamlined design wasn't so persuasive a reconciler of progress and conservatism as to be embraced by homebuilders. It seems that if homeowners really had misgivings about the new aesthetics, than they wouldn't accept them into their homes at all. Or if they didn't have misgivings, it would make sense to build homes employing this new aesthetic.

Wilson saw the traditional Colonial style both as resistance to the modern, and as a possible equator of tradition and progress:

Colonial Revival styles, popular since the 1880s, became even more so. Modern man felt nostalgia for a past age when life appeared simpler and it seemed possible to control one's own destiny. This explains, in part, the reluctance to modernize the home except for functional areas, like kitchens and bathrooms: a man's 'castle' was not a 'machine for living,' but a retreat from the realities and confusion of modern life. Of course there were also aesthetic reasons for the resurgence of the style's popularity; its forms were simple, functional, and classical, traits characteristic of 1930s design.4

As I have noted, "simplicity" was a popular term in the thirties, and a problematic one for its number of applications. Furthermore, the "functionality" of the Colonial aesthetic, with its non-working shutters and vestigal clapboard siding, is debatable -- certainly in terms of the functionality being espoused by the International style. Considering these points, it is difficult to claim that the Colonial aesthetic was actually an appropximation of machine aesthetics.

#3 -- click for larger image
#4 -- click for larger image
#5 -- click for larger image

The New Yorker
The concept of home ownership was, and to some degree is, embedded in the American psyche as almost essential to citizenship. A cultural obesession with Puritanical origins and a democratic colonial past -- the myth of the oppressed gaining autonomy in a new world, void of a landed aristocracy -- serves as the backdrop for the idealizing of the home. Particularly in a time of rapid change and confounding economic depression, people coveted a stable, usable past. Traditional homes served as an anchor for this image of traditional stability (however inaccurate it was). Cartoons from The New Yorker in the thirties mock the appeal of the rural, "authentic" home. People embraced a sentimental nostalgia; the location for this nostalgia, once the house entire, came to be merely its exterior.

Colonial homes in WilliamsburgAny seeming incongruency is better understood if the notion of "functionality" is expanded beyond a purely physical sense to psychological and emotional considerations. A well-designed modern home was perhaps a "machine for living"; that is, it facilitated and acquiesced to the behaviors of its inhabitants. These homes, however, were not metaphysically functional. They did not consider the mythical import of the house in terms of the American imagination. The hybrid homes -- of Colonial exteriors and modernized interiors -- did. Americans in the thirties sought the basic benefits of the machine; they coveted freedom from the mundane processes of existence. Once these machines and the aesthetics that assured one they were cutting edge, made their ways into kitchens and bathrooms, people were more willing to accept them into other parts of the home. People could change the shapes of their homes, discarding the traditional dining room, or fusing it with a living area to maximize the use of space -- a change certainly reflective of a functional tendencies. Yet, most were unwilling to live in homes that suggested a factory aesthetic. The home was an escape -- from the daily chaos of the modern world in a real sense, and to a simpler, idealized America in an imaginative sense. Because of the close affiliation of American nationalism and the ideal of home ownership, Americans, unlike their European counterparts, were unable to embrace a modern machine aesthetic for their homes in the thirties.

In "The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy" (1911), George Santayana said of the "American mind":

It has floated gently in the backwater, while, alongside, in invention and industry and social organization the other half of the mind was leaping down a sort of Niagara Rapids. This dualism may be found symbolized in American architecture: a neat reproduction of the colonial mansion -- with some modern comforts introduced surreptitiously -- stands beside the skyscraper. The American will inhabits the skyscraper; the American intellect inhabits the colonial mansion. The one is the sphere of the American man; the other, at least predominantly, of the American woman. The one is all aggressive enterprise; the other is all genteel tradition.5

By 1940, this dichotomy between "aggressive enterprise" and "genteel tradition" would be found not between that "colonial mansion" and the skyscraper, but simply in the colonial mansion itself. Santayana's peculiar American dualism had manifested itself in the seat of the American Dream -- the American home.

1Dell Upton, "Pattern Books and Professionalism: Aspects of the Transformation of Domestic Architecture in America, 1800-1860," Winterthur Portfolio 19 (1984): 114.

2Mary Davis Gillies, "I Call This Cottage Modern," McCall's October 1938: 48.

3Pilgrim, 271-72.

4Pilgrim, 303.

5Miles Orvell The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989) 152.


#1Pittsburgh Paints, advertisement, McCall's March 1939: 79.

#2Pilgrim, 39.

#3cartoon, The New Yorker October 8, 1932: 17.

#4cartoon, The New Yorker July 29, 1933: 17.

#5cartoon, The New Yorker September 4, 1937: 20.

#6Spiro Kostof America by Design (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987) 11.

link to 30s link to XRoads
Site created by Ben Lisle, American Studies @ UVA