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A Dream House for the Masses

Mises Daily: Wednesday, September 09, 2009 by

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"Affordable housing" is an old slogan and even a worthy goal. It was in our grasp not too long ago, at the tail end of the housing bust, when "McMansions" could be purchased for a song. And what did the policy makers do? They pulled every lever available to drive prices back up as high as possible.

Yet if we look back, we can see that there once was a genuine movement for mass housing ownership.

Drive through any old neighborhood, from Berkeley to Chicago, and you know what a bungalow is. There's a big front porch on a simple one-story house, whose brick and wood blends with the landscape around it. It has glass windows in a variety of shapes and colors.

But the very beauty of these small houses poses questions. These neighborhoods were created for factory workers and clerks, ordinary people from the middle and lower classes. On their relatively low salaries, how could they have paid for the woodwork and beveled glass? What happened in America in the 1920s that these houses sprang up across the country like mushrooms?

The drive for such houses grew out of the Arts and Crafts Movement, a British intellectual group concerned with reviving craftsmanship, and fostering love of nature and the arts. But whatever takes time, skill, and effort also costs money, which put all these handworked items out of the reach of the ordinary British worker. Socialism seemed like the perfect answer to this fundamental problem, the ideal being that workers could actually afford such workmanship! Yet it was capitalism and not socialism that made possible the fulfillment of the Movement's ideals, through the American bungalow.

Now, when we think of the "Arts and Crafts Movement," our minds might go directly to a lamp or an oak chair, but the movement really started as a social and political organization.

The founders, William Morris and John Ruskin, reacted to the excessive ornamentation and sheer volume of stuff typically found in Victorian houses. Nature, they thought, should again be the source for all materials and inspiration.

They idealized the medieval craftsman, believing that society's ills could only be cured by a return to a pre-Industrial Revolution form of production. Ruskin especially saw factory-produced goods as "dishonest," inferior in quality, and devoid of aesthetic value, depriving the laborer of any joy in his creation.[1] Gustav Stickley, the famous American furniture maker, envisioned all household materials made by hand.[2]

At least no one can accuse the founders of the Arts and Crafts Movement of not practicing what they preached: William Morris, indeed, went so far as to grow all the plants necessary to make his own dyes for his woven tapestries!

It was a part of the Arts and Crafts credo that even the poorest-paid workers had a right to enjoy beautiful artwork in their homes.[3] Or as Morris wrote, "What business have we with art unless all can share it?" But how could all these vases, pieces of furniture, art tiles, wallpapers, etc., be accessible to the lower classes?

This was a problem none of the Movement's adherents could solve: the only people who could afford their lovely, handmade items were the very rich. In an attempt to reconcile the contradiction, they turned to socialism, the wildly popular economic theory of their day. Surely, in a society where everyone received a "fair wage," the workers would finally be able to enjoy the arts as the rich did.

Morris himself soon turned from craftsmanship and became the founder of the Socialist League in Britain; he even wrote their manifesto. Despite his hundreds of articles and speeches, the English public never made a sustained effort to put Morris's policies into practice. Unable to compromise either their socialism or their artistry, the Arts and Crafts Movement in England simply went nowhere.

But when the Arts and Crafts Movement came to America, it underwent a radical change. Since the majority of American workers in the early 20th century were making higher wages than ever before, socialism was not popular. In 1921, Socialist Party membership in the United States had dropped to just 14,000 members.[4]

However, on a human level, the nation was ready for a change in style from the many-colored Victorian houses in elaborate gingerbread trim, which had dominated much of American architecture up to that point. As the burgeoning middle class looked around for simple, practical, affordable houses, the American bungalow was born.

Surprisingly, the British had never thought to use the Indian bangla as a template for small houses. Building companies in America, on the other hand, realized the potential.

The average working man's salary in 1920 was $1489 dollars a year.[5] Sears and Roebuck Co. was one of the first to realize the huge potential of these young families, and created the kit house. It was brilliant marketing: a $900 house that would be entirely shipped to you with framing, walls, siding, lights, bathroom fixtures, kitchen cabinets — everything.

From the instructions, the reasonably handy could put the whole thing together themselves, which fit nicely with the ideal of handcraftsmanship. The houses were well built too. They were constructed of solid brick or stone and supported by old-growth timber beams (this was back when a two-by-four was actually two inches by four inches; go to the hardware store sometime and measure now).

More companies got on the bandwagon, added more houses to their catalogues, and offered more options for their existing houses. No matter if you could spend $200 or $2000, there was a kit house tailored for you.[6]

Imagine it: two-thirds of one year's wage would buy you your family home. In our current real estate market, most mortgages are paid over 30 years.

The kit-house companies made sure things stayed simple; they had their salesmen distribute colored, detailed catalogs with all the different floor plans and optional extras. America's working class bought the bungalow kits by the hundreds of thousands.

But what's the point if these houses were merely cheap-looking trash? Whatever happened to the idea of bringing art to the masses? Well, during the 1920s, house builders took a lot of the Arts and Crafts ideas and tweaked them a bit to make them practicable.

Take, for instance, the reverence for natural materials, especially local natural materials. It turns out that those are the cheapest. It can cost less to use river rock in California, brick in the Midwest, and wood on the East Coast, because those are the materials easily available. Plus, whenever you use the stone, clay, or wood from your area, it looks right; the house fits in with its natural surroundings (a key point in Stickley's writings).

And instead of rejecting the use of machines outright, the bungalow designers used them only for the repetitive, time-consuming parts of creation, so that the craftsmen would have time for the really artistic parts: those beautiful, stained-glass cabinet doors, for example. The artisan created the designs, picked what colors he wanted, then simply let the glass cutter do its job. The result was a beautiful, genuinely handcrafted piece that looked perfect in the front window.

Now that the fashion in homes became focused on simplicity, the home's clean lines without ornamentation looked elegant and sophisticated. This fashion helped to make the houses more affordable.

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Standardizing the floor plans along with the material measurements took a further chunk off the price tag, while leaving room for the homeowner's individual tastes. When the plans specified, say, a built-in, dining-room china cabinet, the owner could pick the local traditional wood or the mahogany. For the walls, he could choose Spanish-themed stencils or a Frank Lloyd Wright geometric pattern. For paint, he could choose pastels or earth tones. He could also add any kind of special detailing or craftsmanship to his kit bungalow for a small fee.

What an irony it is that the capitalist entrepreneurs so despised by the Arts and Crafts Movement turned out to be its saviors. The machines, which the socialists viewed as the ruin of the artistic tradition, preserved all William Morris's fabulous textiles and Gustav Stickley's wood furnishings for the homes of American mill workers. So the next time you drive through one of those old working-class neighborhoods, enjoy the artistry and craftsmanship of those bungalows. The American Dream House: brought to you by the free market.

Notes

[1] Unto this Last, John Ruskin, 1860.

[2] In The Craftsman magazine.

[3] Art and Socialism, William Morris, 1884.

[4] www.marxisthistory.org

[5] The Value of a Dollar, Scott Derks, 2004.

[6] The Houses that Sears Built, Rosemary Thornton, 2004.