Lewis Mumford unequivocably condemned decoration and possessions as expressions of individuality and personality. In terms of domestic spaces,
Mumford's words suggest the attitudes he battled against. Homes, with their decorations and furnishings, were a language in themselves, broadcasting their inhabitants' values, socio-economic status, perceptions of self, and idealized projections of self. Writing in the 1990s, social critic Joan Kron wrote, "to put no personal stamp on a house is almost pathological in our culture"2 -- a claim as applicable to the thirties as to today. McCall's writer Mary Davis Gillies argued that without "personal knickknacks," the home would be "as barren as a barn" and unliveable.3 In the previous month's edition Gillies, when speaking of a room furnished with 18th-century replicas, rhetorically asked, "Wouldn't you know nice people lived in this room?"4 Expression through possession was the mantra of magazines in the thirties. Modern furniture would "give new life, luxury and prestige to your entire home."5 "Your setting reveals your personal awareness of the age you live in. As surely as the tilt of your hat, it is a measure of your style consciousness."6 Philadelphia's Evening Bulletin lauded "The Most Interesting Woman!," who "is manager of a single-family home. . . the greatest purchaser of home products on earth. Her plans for home improvement are continuous. Her dreams of umlimited spending are glorious adventures."7
Of course, periodicals and their advertisers sought to maximize consumption habits; it only makes sense that journals of the day are rife with arguments for need. Magazines such as Woman's Home Companion, The Saturday Evening Post, and McCall's are remarkable, during the thirties, for their blatant appeals to reader anxieties in terms of health, hygeine, and domestic responsibilities. Women were barraged with warnings about bad breath, dirty teeth, body odor, malnourished children, shabby floors, and the judgments of more fashionable neighbors. Cleanliness was one subject that Mumford and the masses could agree on: "Let us consider the interior. How shall we decorate the modern house? Pardon: there is one question that comes before this; namely, how shall we keep it clean?"8 The primary crossroads for these demands for cleanliness, the invention of new gadgets for the convenience of the homemaker, and the impact of modern design proved to be the kitchen. An article in 1930 claimed:
Homes required "all the modern electrical aids to easy housekeeping"10, as "the success of a house depends on how well the essential elements for health, happiness, and efficient housekeeping are worked out."11 The metallic finishes and streamlined curves of modern design most frequently revealed themselves in kitchens and their electronic aids to homemakers. A writer for McCall's claimed of a waffle-maker: "Easy? Yes -- and what a hospitable ornament this new model is!"12 Toastmaster also acknowledged a "demand" (and perhaps perpetuated one) for the fusion of convenience and modern design in the kitchen: "It's Toastmaster's response to America's demand for more and more beauty in the conveniences of modern living. And beauty aside, it's the grandest toast-maker that engineering skill has ever devised."13
The cleanliness craze and new machine-made technology also manifested itself in synthetic floors, which were less costly than wood floors. Customers might even purchase marblized linoleum or rubber floors marked by "shields and coats of arms [to] express an Early English character,"14 lest they lose all sense of connection to an imaginary past. Sun rooms also facilitated the transition from traditional to modern aesthetics in home interiors. These rooms walked the line between outdoors and indoors, and "unlike any room in the house, stepping into the sun room. . . gives one the pleasant illusion of travel, of having a different place to go to, even though it is merely crossing a door sill!"15 For this sense of fantasy, perhaps, the introduction of modern furniture was less threatening in this space that was but half a part of the home. Primitive aesthetics, like straw mats and rawhide chairs, also symptomatic of modern design, appeared in these fantastical spaces.
Modern design got its foot in the door via the kitchen, and took over that space with relatively little resistance. However, the modernization of the remainder of the house was a different proposition. While "simplicity" was a favored concept for Mumford and Wright, it was also liberally used in magazines, albeit with a different connotation. The readership of these popular journals usually found "simple" to be followed by "Colonial." Colonial housing types were the standard, as idealized in advertisements and proposed housing designs. This traditional style was also regularized in interiors. Early American reproductions were said to have "a quaintness and charm that immediately give character to the whole room," inspired by the "simple pioneer home,"16 or perhaps "the romance of famous Cape Cod."17
Dining and Living rooms proved particularly resistant to modern style. The formality of such rooms, and their role in projecting ideals to visitors, maintained their traditional flavors. Pictorial wall treatments -- from antiquated maps of Connecticut to British hunting scenes -- usually resided in these spaces. Of course, self-representation through interior design assumed manifold forms, within socio-economic classes and between them. The conservative sensibilities of a Town and Country audience tended towards a more aristocratic, European tradition (hence the hunting scene), whereas a readership of more modest means, of the Woman's Home Companion for example, would tend to idealize an American Colonial past.
Acquiescence and resistance to modern design speaks of cultural changes in the thirties; changing floorplans mark a period of social shifting as well. A designer claimed, in 1937, that "it is generally admitted that the living-room is the center of life in the family."18 While many living and dining areas maintained a formal air, as noted previously, the economy of space became increasingly stressed. A designer for McCall's voiced this position, arguing "if we are going to have a dining room, let's use it."19 This emphasis on space and functionality echoed the entreaties of the International style. In both academic architecture and the designs appearing in lay journals, like Woman's Home Companion, dining rooms and living rooms were combined -- or the dining room disappeared altogether.
Entertainment rooms, with electrical connections and wiring for radios, also became popular. One home design appearing in a popular magazine, was "highly convenient. . . for everyday living, especially as it provides for great independence away from the members of the family."20
The most significant structural adaptation of homes was the emergence of the garage. Once non-existent, then concealed towards the rear of homes, the garage quickly became foregrounded in the thirties -- "in conformity with the modern viewpoint, the garage is located at the front of the house."21 Garages came to be a part of the house itself, and were often more easily accessed by visitors than the pedestrian entrance. One designer remarked, "worthy of special note is the garage. The motorcar is actually sheltered in a room in the house."22 If the house's form speaks of the needs of those who built it, these designs indicate the burgeoning automobile culture that has come to symbolize the American Dream as much as home ownership.
For all the changes home interiors underwent, one feature above all others persisted in both academic and popular architecture -- seemingly in spite of its lack of real functional value in an age of climate-controlled interiors. In a letter describing her ideal home, a reader of Woman's Home Companion wrote, "There must be a fireplace in a large but not too formal living-room."23 The living areas were changing, but the demand for fireplaces marked nearly every home design popular journals presented. "Practical ideas are put to flight in no time,"24 by a fireplace -- the feature that "dominates"25 and "announces that it is HOME."26 Even the International style seemed to overlook this nostalgic accessory recalling days before technology and the machine rendered it inefficient and unnecessary.
Yet, modern design proved persuasive. Advertisers, recognizing possible misgivings, couched their sales pitches in tradition-oriented rhetoric. A Modernage furniture ad thus established its credentials:
One ad asked it's readers: "do you know modern? Not weird angles and gew-gaws, but simply-designed, dignified furniture made of exquisite woods."28 Another claimed a design that was "intimate, livable, modern -- a sane middle course between austere modernism and out-moded forms of a past era. It's period is now"29; yet another graciously offered, "we invite those who wish to 'modernize' their homes (without going modern to the nth degree)."30 The anxieties of homemakers were anticipated and manipulated by the distributors. Certainly, advertisements and articles advising period piece replications and antiques persisted. Yet, furnishings of this modern aesthetic were soon crowding the pages of periodicals. Presumably, consumers were increasingly willing to purchase items of modern design, and thus identify themselves with the modern aesthetic and the "progress" it stood for. However, exteriors would prove to be a different story altogether.
1Lewis Mumford, "The American Dwelling House," American Mercury April 1930: 477.
2Joan Kron, "The Semiotics of Home Decor," Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, eds. Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon (Boston: Bedford Books, 1994) 73.
3Mary Davis Gillies, "18th Century Accessories," McCall's September 1932: 76.
4Mary Davis Gillies, "Socially-Minded Furniture," McCall's August 1932: 66.
5Doernbecher Furniture, advertisement, The Saturday Evening Post August 5, 1939: 73.
5Creative Design, advertisement, The New Yorker October 30, 1937: 60. [check -- may be 10/23/37, p. 10]
7The Evening Bulletin, advertisement, The New Yorker November 27, 1937: 37.
9A. Raymond Ellis, "The April House," Woman's Home Companion April 1930: 40.
10Mary Davis Gillies, "Let's Turn on the Lights," McCall's November 1938: 70.
11A. Raymond Ellis, "Dutch Colonial," Woman's Home Companion February 1933: 80-1.
12Kathleen Robertson, "Six Servants Speaking," McCall's January 1932: 58.
13Toastmaster, advertisement, The Saturday Evening Post September 1939: 73.
14Margery Taylor, "Floors Step Up," McCall's July 1932: 48.
15Hope Harvey, "The Sun Room of the Companion House," Woman's Home Companion April 1930: 47.
16Mary Davis Gillies, "Simplicity Regained," McCall's July 1932: 28.
17Helen Perry Curtis, "An Embroidered Map," Woman's Home Companion August 1931: 52.
18Alfred Shaw, "In the Tasmanian Tradition," Woman's Home Companion May 1937: 119.
19Stratton O. Hammon, "Economy Cottage," McCall's August 1932: 26.
20A. Raymond Ellis, "The May House," Woman's Home Companion May 1930: 47.
21Walker and Gillette, "For Less than $5,500," Woman's Home Companion November 1935: 112-13.
22Llewellyn Price, "Small but Spacious," Woman's Home Companion February 1937: 100.
23A. Raymond Ellis, "We Build Our Dream House," Woman's Home Companion January 1931: 78.
24Harold Ehlert, "An English House for Americans," Woman's Home Companion October 1931: 67.
25Katherine M. and Frank Harper Bissell, "The Home-Keeping House," Woman's Home Companion March 1934: 76-7.
26Stratton O. Hammon, "With a Proud Past," McCall's January 1932: 69.
27Modernage, advertisement, The New Yorker September 4, 1937: 55.
28Berri, Inc., advertisement, The New Yorker October 1, 1932: 44.
29Doernbecher, advertisement, The Saturday Evening Post July 8, 1939: 69.
30Modernage, advertisement, The New Yorker October 30, 1937: 81.
#1The Evening Bulletin, advertisement, The New Yorker November 27, 1937: 37.
#2General Electric, advertisement, The Saturday Evening Post March 28, 1936: 51.
#3Toastmaster, advertisement, The Saturday Evening Post September 1939: 73.
#4Kathleen Robertson, "Six Servants Speaking," McCall's January 1932: 58.
#5Augusta Owen Patterson, "Victor White Murals in a Syosset House," Town and Country April 1931: 63.
#6Harold Ehlert, "An English House for Americans," McCall's October 1931: 67.
#7Ethel Gordon Thompson, "Planned Round a Garden," Woman's Home Companion January 1939: 44.
#8Stratton O. Hammon, "With a Proud Past," McCall's January 1932: 69.
#9Galen W. Bentley, "A House for an Inside Lot," Woman's Home Companion August 1937: 67.
#10Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, The International Style: Architecture Since 1922 (1932; New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995) 131.
#11Modernage, advertisement, The New Yorker September 4, 1937: 55.
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