Houses in American Culture

Anybody see this editorial on the housing crisis from today’s Washington Post?

The scholar makes several good points about the nature of housing in the country. Home ownership was limited and Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and the religious as well as the architects all thought that housing would promote moral character. He doesn’t mention that in the culture “home” inspired a range of values in U.S. culture, including nostalgia, intimacy and privacy, domesticity, commodity, delight, austerity, comfort, and well-being.

He mentions that these people thought the tenements and apartment houses lacked the privacy necessary to raise moral children. Actually, those housing reformers of the late nineteenth century he discussed perpetuated the belief that tenements were still improper environments for living. They claimed that this type of housing served as breeding grounds of crime, juvenile delinquency, prostitution, and disease.

Most Americans believed that apartment buildings and any other kind of shared dwelling were aberrations of the model home that promoted promiscuity and wifely negligence of duties toward the home and her children.

The two biggest areas that I include in my book that he neglects to mention is that houses soon meant other things in the culture than vessels for creating moral character. Houses demonstrated the homeowner’s high status in the community.

Popular magazines described the mansions of the elite and nouveau riche in urban and suburban communities around the nation. These homes strove to present elegance and historical roots that demonstrated the class and importance of the owner. Today’s McMAnsions do the same thing for the same reason just for more people.

The owners favored for their residences architectural styles, such as Second Empire, Romanesque, or Renaissance that carried connotations of power. Most significantly, these depictions of the social elite households presented spotlessness, order, and tranquility as the foremost personality traits and values of their owners.

The author notes that in the twentieth century more people owned homes. Not surprisingly, the purpose for a house began shifting. The house’s stylish echoes now showed the owner’s personality.

Some owners adopted the newer architectural styles, such as Arts and Crafts. These places also set their owners apart by creating the impression that innovation and adventure figured into their personalities. Media depictions of prominent people’s homes involved showing them inside very larger and expensive houses, demonstrating their ranking through the size and cost of their homes.

The article pays little attention to gender and home ownership. The piece cites a home building in 1950 who said, “No man who owns his house and lot can be a communist.” Most depictions of houses that showed women showed them as the Mrs of the house.

Intriguingly, one of the few places where women as home owners appeared is in items as Hollywood. Here actresses and others owned their homes and showed their personalities.


2 comments so far

  1. Mike Licht on

    You omit the fact that most individual townhouses, semi-detached houses, and stand-alone dwellings were historically rentals too, not just apartments.

    Home ownership should not be confused with single-family house residency.

  2. bla2222 on

    That’s true that other types of homes were generally rentals up through the World War II era. In cities, two-family houses were particularly prevalent.

    Historically, the culture has always promoted the single-family home as part of the republican ideal, linked with the notion of a self-sufficient farm.

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