"There is something about the architecture of old houses built along Massachusetts Bay, Cape Cod, and Rhode Island from Cape Ann to Port Judith that indicates the sturdy and independent character of the people who settled on these shores and cleared the land."   -- Woman's Home Companion
The impact of modern design and the machine aesthetic on consumer products from ashtrays to automobiles was obvious. Architecture was profoundly impacted by modern design as well; with the influence of the Bauhaus aesthetic, it was an influential catalyst in the evolution of style. Civic buildings, skyscrapers, factories, movie theaters, service stations, and countless other building types assumed the modern aesthetic, or were constructed by proponents of the machine ethic. Certainly, these architects and critics called for a revolution in housing styles as well. Sheldon and Martha Candler Cheney, authors of Art and the Machine (1936), were members of this consortium, asserting: "It is necessary to add, unfortunately, that America has been particularly backward in adoption of the rational house. The examples cited are still by way of exception and prophecies; much more so than in the case of refrigerators, clocks, and washing machines."1

Lewis Mumford also felt the need for a new type -- what the Cheneys called "rational" -- although that which he coveted was perhaps more functional than simply streamlining a refrigerator or a clock. A house that was planned in a new way, he thought, must have a different aesthetic that reflected its interior:

Both the house and the apartment today, it is pretty plain, are merely transitional types. The changes that have been effected in them have been forced from the outside, without sufficient imaginative effort to meet and mold them. It is this final stage in the relation of need and desire that we must now enter. The modern houses which we grudgingly accept and attempt to soften and prettify must be transformed into something superb and creative in their own right -- not a half-baked machine, still less a flimsy piece of imitation Spanish or Tudor, nor yet a pallid compromise between fading memories and new opportunities.2

The thirties definitely saw home designs authored by functionalist pretenders -- Mumford's "half-baked machines." An architect of a 1935 design in Woman's Home Companion claimed, "It is designed primarily for use. The exterior outline just happened. The windows are placed according to their value from the inside. The result therefore must be functional."3 The Internationalists would certainly protest a functionality resting merely on window placement and an arbitrary exterior; however, the primacy of use in determining construction, and an aesthetic relative to this primacy, demonstrates at least a partial sympathy to their mission in a public sphere. A writer for the Wisconsin State Journal blasted traditional housing types, arguing:

#1 -- Colonial designWe have only to look at the new Tennessee Valley projects to see a new 1934 architecural blunder. These architects flooded the valley with a poor offshoot of the worn-out Colonial style; the style that is neat and clean looking, which in reality is a continuous "swipe." It always borrows. This Colonial house, painted white, with lovely pea green shutters that are never used, sells for $3,500 on long-term credit. Cheap enough. But what about its functioning? Its relation to the terrain? Its workability for the family? Its growth? Its materials? These phases have been sorely neglected.4

Unfortunately for this critic, the Colonial aesthetic was a resilient one, and firmly embedded in the public psyche as standard and appropriate. On an almost monthly basis, journals like McCall's and Woman's Home Companion included home designs and floorplans, available to readers for small fees. Most of these designs reinforced the Colonial preference. Colonial clapboards were once functional; New England winters tended to erode clay walls without these wood shields. In this sense, the clapboard was distinctly American, as the milder English climate and lack of usable timber rendered it inconvenient there.5 The Colonial type was revered as peculiarly American. In spite of its ubiquity, an "attractive Colonial entrance. . . gives the house a mark of individual distinction."6 One designer claimed, "the chief charm of a house modeled after the Colonial comes from its simplicity,"7 another noted his plan for "a straightforward, simple Colonial type,"8 and another referenced his "simple Colonial details."9 The "simplicity" attributed to the Colonial was also ascribed to a French Country home, whose "simplicity makes it suitable to the straight-forward practical methods used in building American houses."10 Clearly, this was a simplicity different than that of Mumford and Frank Lloyd Wright. Machine purists thought themselves to also espouse this concept. Another designer from a popular journal, speaking of his design (which he claimed to be modern, in spite of its adaptability to "Italian, Colonial, or Greek Revival flavors"), warned that the exterior should "retain its simplicity and thereby reflect the modern tendency both in design and in economy."11 In a period of economic depression, there was a plapable concern for appearing extravagant. Coupled with the excesses of Victorian design and the ornamentation of the twenties, people wanted to project simplicity. In the case of machine purists, this simplicity was sought in an austere design; for traditionalists, and a far greater number of Americans (particularly in the early thirties), simplicity resided in a national past defined by supposedly simpler times. It was a period before the machine, and a period before the Great Depression.

A 1930 advertisement for Ladies' Home Journal promised:

Escape! Release for an hour from all thought of budgets and breakfasts and beds to make. Flight for a while that makes home happier when the journey's done -- and the story's ended. The Ladies' Home Journal, month after month, combines romance with reality, escape with the easier, better ways to do the everyday tasks of homemaking.12

For most women, the home was both work environment, and respite. For men, the home was an enclave away from the rigors of the professional world. The advertisement panders to a sense of escapism, and certainly the home -- the locus of ownership and private control -- was where this escape would be sought.

A Cape Cod design in a 1932 Woman's Home Companion was the most popular design that journal had produced to that point,13 as recorded by the number of plan requests from readers. #2 -- Cape Cod designA 1930 design claimed, "this type of house is quite similar to the type evolved by our forefathers and now oftentimes referred to as the Cape Cod house"14 and another wondered, "what a fascination there is about a little white clapboarded or shingled house with green blinds," before adding, "there is something about the architecture of old houses built along Massachusetts Bay, Cape Cod, and Rhode Island from Cape Ann to Port Judith that indicates the sturdy and independent character of the people who settled on these shores and cleared the land."15 Judging by the rhetoric of these designers, a comfort for many homeowners was identification with the staying power of a vigorous northeastern heritage.

#3 -- Big Indian Association ad (1937)Others sought to tap into this nationalism with the iconic log cabin, where one might experience "the quaint charm and solid satisfaction of pioneer life. . . enriched by new lesiure, new attitudes and new conveniences."16 These cabins were of course fully equipped with the technological advances of the day beneath their imitative log siding. A 1932 log cabin design explained, "there is something romantic in all of us that at times seeks the primitive and simple life of the country -- whether it is a return from the tedious cares of business and household, or just a desire for a change of atmosphere or a different point of view. This urge the log cabin. . . seems to satisfy."17 Other designs also tapped into this pull towards the image of rural America. One home, "modeled after the old-fashioned 'keeping room' of our forefathers," possessed "an atmosphere of old time simplicity."18 Magazines also frequently offered designs ranging from suggestions of southern plantation life, to English and French country cottages.

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These traditional designs were marketed not only as timeless, but placeless as well (excepting their frequent insistence on American precedent). Houses were suitable "for the United States and could be imagined in Georgia, Maine or Oregon,"19 or "the climatic conditions from Alaska to Key West and from San Francisco to Cape Cod."20 Designers believed "that our Colonial style is. . . traditionally suitable to all parts of the country."21 A stuccoed, California bungalow designed by a reader, specifically for a Pacific vista and its coastal climate, was claimed to need "no definite local setting" by the collaborating architect.22 Of a French Colonial cottage, the architect argued:

The house that is perfectly suited to the southern part of the country is not always so well suited to the northern part, but the house illustrated here, adapted from the Norman French architecture, can be built of almost any material, is practicable for almost any climate, and will harmonize with other houses in its locality.23

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Car ads
The willingness to claim stylistic "harmonizing" with any environment is certainly remarkable. An attempt to claim the suitability of a design to any region was perhaps, at first, driven by a desire to sell design plans to readers. Yet, following President Hoover's Conference on Home Building and Home Ownership in 1931, plans were offered simply for the price of postage. Why, then, this insistence on the ubiquity of Colonial styles? It was not only these magazines' architects who were broadcasting this aesthetic. A quick survey of automobile ads in The Saturday Evening Post reveals the idealization of the traditional home, as it provides the background for the stylish new cars. When modern architecture served as a canvas, it was not modern homes, but the buildings of the city and its neon nightlife. A brief series of Ford ads bucked this trend by presenting futuristic looking homes in the distances; soon, however, this series was discontinued, and Ford returned to a romanticized rural landscape as background.

In spite of the persistence of traditional exteriors, a more austere modern aesthetic did appear, increasingly frequently, in magazines' pages. Yet, writers were entirely conscious of the balancing act they must perform for readers, convincing them that what they were seeing in modernism's strong lines and stripped appearences was really a continuation of old forms. Popular designer Perry Duncan entreated his readers:

Based upon a belief that any sound architectural style must evolve gradually, this house, designed in the modern spirit, has not forsaken the tradition that has become familiar and beautiful to us through centuries of development. Most people do not wish to live in a house that is queer or freakish. The symmetry of this entire design is calculated to give an appearance of dignity and simplicity.24

A home featured in Town and Country, dubbed "Neo-New Orleans," was "thoroughly modern yet represents no abrupt break with tradition."25 Another home was designed, "recognizing the fact, however, that most so-called 'modern' homes are cold in appearance and inclined to be extreme in style," and so they "tried to make this modern house as livable, comfortable and charming as any of the popular traditional types that have come to be regarded as homelike."26 Tradition, simplicity, and charm were characteristics of the home in the popular mind. While a machine aesthetic might be acceptable or even desired in one's surroundings -- particularly as they pertained to facilitating the mundane aspects of existence -- designers knew that the to change the external image of the home would require persuasion. It wasn't enough to be "scolded for years by the new thoughtists, whose vituperations have been translated from every known guttural and sibilant lanuage into battling English."27 Individuality and self-ownership were woven into the fabric of the American Dream, and home ownership was a visible expression of these supposedly peculiar American qualities. A 1934 design expressed and addressed possible anxieties eloquently:

Do you like the modern houses -- the way they look that is? Perhaps, like many people, you find them confusing. Or possibly you may even regard them as curios, believing that no one could be so foolish as to want to build one of them. The house we are showing was designed with the intention of making a modern house that would be pleasing in appearence to the average person. A hard thing to do. All of us like things we are accustomed to and if we see something that differs radically, our first feeling is one of aversion, particularly when applied to something as personal as our home. Gradually as it becomes familiar our attitude changes somewhat and we like it better.28

Certainly, modern architectural design became more acceptable throughout the decade. Furthermore, one must acknowledge that a home is likely the largest investment a family would make, and thus investors would probably tend towards conservative styles. Yet, the influence of the machine aesthetic on design during this period was universal and significant. #11 -- General Electric adThe rhetoric of designer and architects point towards anxieties concerning the appearence of homes. What was developed in the thirties was not the functional home of the Bauhaus or Mumford, but was functional on separate planes. A 1935 General Electric ad offered:

What is the 'New American' Home? 'New American' is not a style of architecture. It is a house designed from the inside out to provide greater comfort, less labor, and better health for the entire family. These 'New American' Homes are not any particular style of architecture. On the outside they may be Colonial, or Georgian, or even so-called Modern. But inside they all have one thing in common. . . they are the most livable homes you ever saw.29

For the most part, the class of American homeowners seemed relatively unconcerned with having home exteriors match their interiors; it seemed acceptable, even preferable, that the insides cater to cleanliness and convenience, while the outsides reflect an imagined tradition of simplicity and rural charm. Even as he sought a new aesthetic in home design, Mumford stated, "today no one can build an adequate house who does not also take pains to create an adequate community. The failure to emphasize this fact is one of the little jokers in the Own-Your-Own-Home Movement."30 While proponents of a Colonial style often claimed it to express individuality (seemingly in spite of its ubiquity), it was the standard acceptable style for American homes -- and thus of home-owning communities. Architect John Milnes Baker might be used to point out Mumford's inconsistency on this point when he wrote,

If an architect fails to consider the psychological needs of the client as well as the physical needs, his or her buildings can never be truly functional. . . such [modern] homes are usually an affront to nature and the community, much like a rude and assertive boor who enjoys making a spectacle of himself wherever he goes or a religious fanatic with a missionary zeal.31

Baker adds that, "the notion of 'starting from zero' was too cerebral for most Americans" (a judgment I will resist passing), which suggests the multiple meanings of the home in the American mind. While many sought to fuse the psychological and physical needs of homeowners, and in a sense disown the past, most were unwilling to do so. Speaking of Henry Ford's construction of the Dearborn Museum in the late 1920s, cultural historian Miles Orvell claimed, "like many Americans, Ford was looking in the rearview mirror while driving full speed ahead, not fully content with the direction in which things were headed."32 I suggest that most American homeowners in the thirties had a similarly ambivalent relationship with "progress." They were willing to accept its functionality and aesthetic to a certain point, and that point was the architectural styles of their homes.


1Martha Candler Cheney and Sheldon Cheney Art and the Machine (1936; New York: Whittlesey House; New York: Acanthus Press, 1992) 172.

2Lewis Mumford, "The American Dwelling House," American Mercury April 1930: 472.

3Donald M. Douglass, "Designed to Live in Permanently," Woman's Home Companion October 1935: 92.

4Alvin Rosenbaum Usonia: Frank Lloyd Wright's Design for America (Washington D.C.: The Preservation Press, 1993) 132.

5James Deetz, "I Would Have the House Stronge in Timber," Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early American Life (New York: Anchor Books, 1977) X.

6A. Raymond Ellis, "The Fifth 'Best House to Live Build,'" Woman's Home Companion November 1932: 52.

7Gerald K. Geerlings, "Painting the Colonial House," Woman's Home Companion April 1931: 130.

8Mary Davis Gillies, "Backgrounds to the Front," McCall's January 1932: 28.

9A. Raymond Ellis, "The Best House to Build," Woman's Home Companion September 1932: 29.

10A. Raymond Ellis, "A Manoir House from Normandy," Woman's Home Companion April 1931: 132.

11Gerald K. Geerlings, "A House Built Close to the Ground," Woman's Home Companion February 1934: 94.

12Ladies' Home Journal, advertisement, The Saturday Evening Post August 23, 1930: 103.

13A. Raymond Ellis, "The Perfect Small House," Woman's Home Companion April 1932: 57.

14A. Raymond Ellis, "The May House," Woman's Home Companion May 1930: 47.

15A. Raymond Ellis, "A Cape Cod Cottage," Woman's Home Companion June 1931: 43.

16Page and Hill Co., advertisement, Town and Country August 1936: 89.

17A. Raymond Ellis, "Log Cabins," Woman's Home Companion March 1932: 46.

18F.H. Bissell, "The Home-Keeping House Is Built," Woman's Home Companion October 1934: 84.

19Alfred Shaw, "In the Tasmanian Tradition," Woman's Home Companion May 1937: 119.

20Margaret Goldsmith and Daniel M. C. Hopping, "A French Colonial House," Woman's Home Companion March 1936: 121.

21A. Raymond Ellis, "The Best House to Build," Woman's Home Companion July 1932: 50.

22Llewellyn Price, "Patio Home for Sunshine," Woman's Home Companion February 1939: 48.

23A. Raymond Ellis, "Norman French Style," Woman's Home Companion September 1930: 130.

24Perry M. Duncan, "For Young Moderns," Woman's Home Companion September 1933: 48.

25Augusta Owen Patterson, "The Alworth House at Miami Beach," Town and Country February 1939: 63.

26H. Roy Kelly, "A Modern California House," Woman's Home Companion April 1936: 113-15.

27Augusta Owen Patterson, "Revolutionary Cottage," Town and Country August 1936: 61-2.

28Wallace Wolcott, "A Modern House," Woman's Home Companion April 1934: 56.

29General Electric, advertisement, The Saturday Evening Post October 12, 1935: 48-9.

30Lewis Mumford, "The American Dwelling House," American Mercury April 1930: 474.

31John Milnes Baker American House Styles: A Concise Guide (New York: WW Norton and Co., 1994) 137-38.

32Miles Orvell The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989) 168.


Images

#1The Architectural Forum The 1938 Book of Small Houses (New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1938) 96.

#2Stratton O. Hammon, "Economy Cottage," McCall's August 1932: 26.

#3Big Indian Association, advertisement, The New Yorker September 4, 1937: 37.

#4Alfred Shaw, "In the Tasmanian Tradition," Woman's Home Companion May 1937: 118.

#5Studebaker, advertisement, The Saturday Evening Post February 29, 1936: 97.

#6Plymouth, advertisement, The Saturday Evening Post June 29, 1939: 1.

#7Pilgrim, 79.

#8Ford Motor Co., advertisement, The Saturday Evening Post February 29, 1936: 65.

#9Ford Motor Co., advertisement, The Saturday Evening Post March 1936: 37.

#10Ford Motor Co., advertisement, The Saturday Evening Post July 1936: 60.

#11General Electric, advertisement, The Saturday Evening Post October 12, 1935: 48.


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