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15 Milestones That Changed Housing

A century's worth of technology, legislation, and plain old capitalism made our homes what they are today

Photo by Brown Brothers

Our home might still be our castle, but as the 20th century came to an end it is clear that methods of design, construction and even acquisition of the American dream are dramatically different from how things were done a century ago. On the surface, it's easy to assume the differences are simply a matter of technology's foray into the home, and indeed a fair amount of our living environment is consumed by tokens of scientific achievement. But just as our homes are a reflection of ourselves, so too can our communities of homes be considered a reflection of our culture as a whole. Perhaps regrettably, tract housing and sprawling suburbs are among the century's most notable contributions to housing's legacy. But elements of housing we consider commonplace—grass yards, large windows and roomy backyards— were equally foreign concepts to all but the wealthiest of home buyers in the 19th century. Even the very fact 68 percent of Americans now own their home is startlingly different from the situation of less than 100 years ago.

To find out just how much the American home has changed over the century, we called on Chrysanthe Broikos, an associate curator at the National Building Museum; Carolyn Goldstein, whose book Do It Yourself examines home repair in the 20th century; David Shayt, an occupational history and hand tool specialist at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History; Joel Tarr, a professor of history and politics at Carnegie Mellon University; and Bill Yeingst, a specialist in domestic life at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

While the sheer number of important changes to the housing industry during the 1900s could compose volumes, 15 milestones stand apart as having had the greatest impact on housing in the 20th century.

1. The Federally Guaranteed Mortgage

While the American dream still eludes some, the fact remains that only a privileged few owned their own home in the 1800s. Then came the amortized mortgage in the 1920s, "a critical financial change," says Joel Tarr, of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. The financial incentives continued

to build with the creation of the Federal Housing Authority in 1934, and in 1944 came the Servicemen's Readjustment Act (the G.I. Bill), which made it possible for vets to obtain guaranteed home loans. That, in turn, evolved into what was

perhaps the most important home-buying stimulus of all: the tax-deductible mortgage. "Suddenly, with little or no money down and low interest rates, a whole generation of Americans could obtain a piece of the dream," says the National Museum of American History's Bill Yeingst.

"Everything combined really stimulates the market," agrees Carolyn Goldstein. "The creation of the federally guaranteed mortgage is what explains the skyrocketing of residential development, even in postwar America." Such economics should continue to fuel the housing market into the coming century.

10. The Refrigerator

This is possibly the most obvious choice, but for good reason. Nineteenth-century iceboxes were effective, but the modern refrigerator enabled households to store larger amounts of food reliably and conveniently for the first time. It was, arguably, the first step toward the modern kitchen. "There's no more important appliance to the household than the refrigerator," Broikos states. In a century of electric gadgets that moved society forward in small steps, the refrigerator represented no less than a leap.

11. The Grass Yard

Always been there, right? Wrong. "The American lawn is a 20th-century phenomenon that stemmed from the pastoral movement in public lawns and parks and took off after World War II," Shayt says. No big deal? Perhaps not, until you realize that today a home without a lawn is considered less valuable, yards are generally designed with a lawn as the centerpiece and many city ordinances even require them. "People didn't tend to have lawns before," says Shayt. "Wildflowers, tall grass and big vegetable gardens used to occupy front yards. We have old pictures of families proudly standing in knee-high grass."

12. Bringing the Outdoors In

Gas fireplaces, skylights, and expansive, sunlit rooms that give the impression that our living room and backyard are one are all modern attempts to blur the line between inside and out. The goal is to simulate nature and open spaces within sheltered walls. "The idea of space and big rooms is relatively new," says Shayt. "A century ago, people would worry about how to use all the space and fill it with furniture, but that's no longer an issue." With simulated nature comes an odd side effect: a cutback on real nature. With today's room sizes so large, home designs increasingly use most of the available property for the house itself, at the expense of the yard.

13. The Interstate Highway System

June 2000 marked the 45th anniversary of the federal legislation that resulted in a $130 billion project to construct the 46,000 miles of roadways that link the nation today. Lost in the shuffle, however, is how the proliferation of such extensive highway networks expanded housing by creating suburbs in areas not previously easily accessible to the city center. "Our mobility quite simply changed our housing," says Tarr. "Suddenly, we could live in a suburban environment that offered large spaces around the houses. Before that, people lived in much denser conditions." Even before the interstates were built, the automobile had begun extending neighborhoods and broadening downtown hubs. But the interstate system took it a step beyond, opening up large stretches of land to eager developers. Still, it took another 25 years of suburban development to produce the two-hour commute.

14. Home Security

Maybe it's a sobering thought, but life would be much different without the dead bolts, chains, and electronic alarm systems that now protect homes. "In the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, people locked their valuables in small chests or boxes," says Yeingst. "It's really in the 20th century when people can put locks on their homes." Sadly, crime wasn't purely the motivator for the growth of home security. In the early going, the interest in security reflected societal misgivings about the melting pot of cultures arriving in the United States. "A lot of security concerns," Yeingst says, "are tied with growing concerns about urbanization and immigration in the 20th century." Still, for better or worse, our house keys have become a part of daily life. "The whole idea of sealing up your house from outsiders is a big change," says Shayt. "One hundred years ago, there weren't even serious locks on the doors, just latches."

15. The Energy Crisis

You remember it as gasoline rationing and lowering the thermostat, but the energy crisis of the 1970s also meant a dramatic change in home design and construction. "Oil prices of the '70s really drove a lot of energy saving in home building," says Tarr. "It led us to better weather stripping, insulations and even double-paned windows." It was a profound change after generations of constructing homes designed to incorporate the air from outside. "Sealing your house is very different, because a century ago, the idea of a house that breathed was attractive," says Shayt. "You'd simply isolate parts of it with ice or furs to cool or warm yourself, but you'd never seal the whole house against the flow of air." Arguably, we still shouldn't, because one unexpected side effect of such measures is only now beginning to surface. "In trying to fill all the holes and cracks, you breathe the same body of air longer, so we've in turn caused air pollution problems inside the home," Tarr notes. Fortunately, air exchangers and proper mechanical ventilation can make even the tightest of houses healthier and more comfortable.

2. Indoor Plumbing

You probably take it for granted, but the miles of galvanized steel, copper

tubing and PVC that snake throughout our homes dramatically changed the way kitchens and washrooms were designed and led to amenities such as the washing machine. But, naturally, the biggest advantage was the advent of the plumbed-in chamber pot, or toilet. Convenience aside, the resulting controls on sewage not only improved health and cleanliness but also actually changed our design approach from the functional "water closet" to the elaborate, expansive master bathrooms found in many homes today.

3. Electrification

A nation accustomed to rising and retiring with the sun was inexorably changed when the electrified house left the midnight hour as bright as day. "You had electric lamps in upper-income houses before 1900, but everything else comes after, and it completely changed the home as we know it," says Goldstein. Eventually fuses and breakers led to increased levels of safety in comparison with candles and oil lamps. Today, everything from sprinklers to your favorite appliance depends upon internal wiring, and only blackouts hint of the after-dark nature of homes from just a century ago.

4. Plywood and Drywall

Today's two most common home building materials no less than revolutionized the economics of housing. Both are sturdy, lightweight alternatives to the board sheathing and plaster used early this century. Moreover, these mass-produced panels in a standardized size cut down drastically on installation labor by eliminating extra handling, skilled finishing and a lot of cutting. The result: Buildings that go up faster, cost less to produce and, in most cases, are stronger and more flexible than those of the past.

5. Levittown

The most famous mass-produced housing development in the nation, Levittown remains the symbol for tract-home communities. Located some 30 miles east of New York City on Long Island, the 6,000-acre tract of more than 17,000 homes was developed from 1947 to 1951. "It really stands as the icon of postwar suburban lifestyle," says Yeingst. "It brought us the whole concept of the inverted assembly line, where the sites remained fixed but the crews moved from site to site, which kept costs down." At one point, workers produced 35 houses a day. While the concept of carbon-copy homes was not new, Levittown raised knock-off housing to an art form. "Levittown expanded the concept of the American dream for a broader range of Americans," says Yeingst. "Contractors like William Levitt changed the housing business with their organization of labor and production." Modern builders continue to follow the lead set by Levittown with an efficiency that has held off the promise of factory-built housing for decades.

6. The Wrecking Ball

In this century, the "throw-away society" approach to housing has become as uniquely American as our building efforts. "People have torn down more houses this century than perhaps any other time," says David Shayt, of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. "The phenomenon of destroying our architecture is not one you find elsewhere." While some homes were burned in the 18th century in order to salvage nails, most often the material components of a house were so valuable the rule was to add on, not obliterate. "A fair bit of one's life was invested in the timbers and masonry of one's house," says Shayt. "That's why handing one's house down to children and grandchildren was much more the case than it is today.

7. Synthetic Fibers

Today, wood floors are charming, but in the 19th century they were the only option. Then along came synthetic fibers, and suddenly we could afford to fill our homes with plush, wall-to-wall carpeting. "This idea of wall-to-wall carpeting, this indoor fur on the ground, is an important product of this century made possible by the lowered cost of synthetics," says Shayt. "Once the FHA started to include wall-to-wall carpeting as a requirement," says Goldstein, "it became standard and even expected, which was a real change from the past." Today, synthetic materials often cover furniture, walls, and windows as well.

8. Air Conditioning

What seems today like little more than a convenience altered the way our homes look and function. "Air-conditioning changed the home tremendously," says Chrysanthe Broikos, of the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. "A lot of traditional house features were designed for passive cooling, like high ceilings, deep eaves and deep front porches. But once you became dependent on mechanical cooling, those passive features tended to disappear." Artificially cooled air also enabled designers to use large windows and sliding glass doors, and helped launch the housing booms throughout the South. "Air-conditioning made possible the expansion of the Sun Belt cities. You wouldn't want to live in Houston or Tucson without it," Tarr says.

9. Home Safety

The 20th century brought about the first formal efforts to curb hazards in the home. Lead-free paints, building codes, and asbestos removal are some of the dramatic examples, but even subtle changes have been made with safety in mind. "Design changes have steered us toward the ranch-style house versus a multistory house with stairs," Tarr says. "It's simple: Cut down the number of stairs, and you reduce accidents."