In his December 6, 1933 address entitled, "The Right to a More Abundant Life," President Franklin Roosevelt promised:

I have pointed out to Congress that we are seeking to find the way once more to well-known, long established but to some degree forgotten ideals and values. We seek the security of the men, women and children of the Nation.

That security involves added means of providing better homes for the people of the Nation. This is the first principle of our future program.1

"The unit of American life is the family and the home. . . . It is the throne of our highest ideals."

-- Herbert Hoover

In the face of debilitating economic and social conditions, Roosevelt rhetorically bound American values, the security of citizens, and their homes. The President's words echoed those of Katherine Bissell, of the popular journal Woman's Home Companion, who earlier that year wrote:

It is an ill wind, they say, that blows no one any good and this so-called depression has forced us all, it would seem, to consider more carefully the real values of living. Now more than ever American families are realizing the desirability of owning homes of their own and longing for the feeling of security which such ownership brings.2

A Home of Your OwnHome ownership, particularly during the tumultuous thirties, meant stability and security -- for the individual, for the family, for the community, and for the nation. A 1932 article in McCall's argued that if a woman properly taught her daughter the skills of homemaking, "she will know how things should be done. She will feel behind her the security of a charming home," before adding, "recently President Hoover said, 'nothing contributes more to social stability and the happiness of our people than the surroundings in their homes."3

The sense of security home ownership provided transcended the physical. For Roosevelt, allowing foreclosures would mean "a loss of spiritual values -- the loss of that sense of security for the present and the future so necessary to the peace and contentment of the individual and of his family."4 These words came on the heels of a Hoover Administration that more explicitly bound spirituality, morality, and the American:

The unit of American life is the family and the home. It is the economic unit as well as the moral and spiritual unit. But it is more than this. It is the beginning of self-government. It is the throne of our highest ideals. It is the source of the spiritual energy of our people. For the perfecting of this unit we must bend all of our material and scientific ingenuity. For the attainment of this end we must lend every energy of the government. . . . From the homes of America must emanate that purity of inspiration only as a result of which we can succeed in self-government.5

On December 2, 1931, Hoover presided over the first meeting of the Conference on Home Building and Home Ownership. He argued the significance of his cause, claiming "the sentiment for home ownership is so embedded in the American. . . .To possess one's own home is the hope and ambition of almost every individual in our country."6 Not only was it the ambition of its citizens on a personal level, but the welfare of the very country demanded the preservation and proliferation of home ownership:

Your Home Is Your CastleEvery one of you here is impelled by the high ideal and aspiration that each family may pass their days in the home which they own; that they may nurture it as theirs; that it may be their castle in all that exquisite sentiment which it surrounds with the sweetness of family life. This aspiration penetrates the heart of our national well-being. It makes for happier married life, it makes for better children, it makes for confidence and serenity, it makes for courage to meet the battle of life, it makes for better citizenship. There can be no fear for a democracy or self-government of for liberty or freedom from home owners no matter how humble they may be.7

This idealization of home ownership was widespread. An advertisement in The New Yorker asserted that Philadelphia's large number of homes "makes all the more vivid the independence, security and contentment of 'Man's Castle' -- his single-family dwelling."8 People wished to own their own homes because "they feel that they are securing increased comfort and a certain freedom and independence"9 and "deeply rooted in most of us is a yearning for a home of our own - a place where we can express our individuality, where we can alter, improve, and change details to our heart's content."10 Cultural critic Lewis Mumford allowed that "the dwelling house is the last romantic place of refuge, the last portion of the environment wherein a man can express himself, and fulfill his personality, and live after the manner of his dreams."11 Ownership provided, at the very least, a small scale autonomy, and thus aligned itself with the American ideal of individual sovereignty.

For A Gentleman's Small Estate

Self-rule allows for self-expression. In a public sense, self-expression announces personal liberty. In a consumer culture, one's things speak of their owner. As cultural historian Joan Kron noted, "having is intricately tied up in being. . . we use our possessions in the same way we use language -- the quintessential symbol -- to communicate with one another"12 This notion of "speaking possessions" applies to the interiors of homes in the thirties, and is well evidenced in the journals of the day. A Saturday Evening Post advertisement informed its reader: "Your own social and business progress frequently depends upon having a house that truly tells what you are."13 An article argued that a well-decorated room is "guaranteed to give a lift to family life and to the lady of the house that inward satisfaction that follows when she says, 'I'm glad you like it. I always feel as if this room were a part of me.'"14 The connection of personality and the home, both its exterior and interior, was a tenacious one in the 1930s.

This is not a condition peculiar to the thirties. Of the preceding decades, architectural historian Mary Corbin Sies found that architects and clients "believed that the American home was the repository of moral purpose, the register of the character of the American people, the expression of America's most righteous democratic ideals."15 This was a sentiment shared by Presidents, journalists, and advertisers in the 1930s. Sies goes on to argue:

The design program that emerged during the period [1877-1917] was more concerned with content than with style. It did not advocate a unified style of expression, conservative or otherwise. Instead, it called for designs that embodied a unified set of assumptions concerning the purpose of the American home and promoted a unified set of principles for achieving that purpose. The most consistent influences on the design program were not aesthetic, professional, or regional issues at all but a set of cultural and prescriptive assumptions about the home that were truly national in their scope.16

There's No Place Like HomeThe idealized home in the 1930s obviously assumed different forms for different people. The emergence of the Moderne and International styles in the twenties created new options for home builders. Interiors and exteriors were challenged by a new modern style and a machine aesthetic. The home, both inside and out, became a sort of battleground for traditional and progressive designs.

By looking at proposed homes and those represented in the periodicals of the time, we might sketch a portrait of what was acceptable as a home. In granting, even partially, Sies's claim, that "cultural and prescriptive assumptions about the house" influenced design, a study of the representation of the home might suggest some widespread cultural attitudes of a restive period.

Home ownership was a primary issue for Americans in the 1930s. How the house was presented, both inside and out, tells us how they wished to be viewed, and how they viewed themselves.

1Franklin Delano Roosevelt, My Friends -- Twenty-One History Making Speeches, eds. Edward H. Kavinoky and Julian Park (Buffalo: Foster and Stewart Publishing Corporation, 1945) 30.

2Katherine M. Bissell, "Built and Lived In," Woman's Home Companion April 1933: 38.

3Mary Davis Gillies, "Let's All Be Experts," McCall's March 1932: 26.

4Franklin D. Roosevelt, On Our Way (New York: The John Day Co., 1934) 71.

5Walter Friar Dexter, Herbert Hoover and American Individualism: A Modern Interpretation of a National Ideal (New York: MacMillan Co., 1932) 160-1.

6Herbert Hoover, The State Papers and Other Public Writings of Herbert Hoover, ed. William Starr Myers, vol. 2 (Garden City: Doubleday, Doran and Co., Inc., 1934) 37.

7Hoover, State Papers 37.

8The Evening Bulletin, advertisement, The New Yorker November 27, 1937: 37.

9A. Raymond Ellis, "An English Cottage," Woman's Home Companion March 1931: 43.

10Marcia Mead, "Look Before You Leap," McCall's April 1932: 40.

11Lewis Mumford, "The American Dwelling House," American Mercury April 1930: 469.

12Joan Kron, "The Semiotics of Home Decor," Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, eds. Sonia Maasik abd Jack Solomon (Boston: Bedford Books, 1994) 70.

13When Good Furnishings Get Together, advertisement, The Saturday Evening Post August 16, 1930: 106.

14Gillies, "It Doesn't Cost Much to Put Personality in Your Living Room," McCall's February 1939: 60-1.

15Mary Corbin Sies, "'God's Very Kingdom on Earth': The Design Program for the American Suburban Home, 1877-1917," Modern Architecture in America: Visions and Revisions, eds. Sidney K. Robinson and Richard Guy Wilson (Ames: Iowa State UP, 1991) 3.

16Sies, 5.


#1International Correspondence School, advertisement, Saturday Evening Post July 8, 1939: 52.

#2Dutch Boy, advertisement, Saturday Evening Post March 28, 1936: 117.

#3Chester A. Patterson, advertisement, Town and Country December, 1935: 12.

#4The Evening Bulletin, advertisement, The New Yorker October 2, 1937: 39.

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