Those Pragmatic Americans

Perhaps not surprisingly considering how long it took America to develop a literature of its own, it was nearly the 20th century before American preferences began to show up in American homes:

The great American innovation in the home was to demand comfort not only in domestic leisure, but also in domestic work. Giedion makes the point that the organization of work in the home was well under way before mechanized tools became available. He should have added “in America,” for the introduction of efficiency and comfort into housework occurred first in that country. The earliest exponent of what would come to be called home economics was Catherine E. Beecher, who wrote A Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School in 1841. Although it was concerned primarily with managing the household, this textbook also included a chapter “On the Construction of Houses.” Like her English contemporary Robert Kerr in The Gentleman’s House, Beecher emphasized the importance of health, convenience, and comfort in house planning, although she placed a good deal less emphasis on “good taste,” holding it to be “a desirable, though less important, item.”

Perhaps it’s not entirely coincidental that the American philosophy of
pragmatism was developing as Beecher was writing her treatise, for there seems to be several parallels between her ideas and theirs.

Considering our own recent trend towards larger homes, it’s interesting to note that Beecher advocated smaller homes than had previously been stylish:

Beecher’s obsession with reducing the size of the house was not simply a question of saving money though a small house always costs less to build than a large one. She was suggesting something different: that a small house, because it was easier to take care of and use, could be more comfortable than a larger one. The disadvantage of a large house, she wrote, was that “the table furniture, the cooking materials and utensils, the sink, and the eating room, are at such distances apart, that half the time and strength is employed in walking back and forth to collect and return the articles used. This appreciation for smallness was something that had disappeared from the domestic scene since the snug Dutch home. Its reappearance marked an important moment in the evolution of domestic comfort. In this, as in so many things, Beecher was ahead of her time, for the nineteenth century still associated comfort with spaciousness, and the idea of living in a reduced area would have been difficult for most people to accept. But it was only a question of time.

I know when I look at huge mansion-like homes I’m not at all envious, but, instead, wonder who has the time, or desire, to clean that big of a house. Surely, there must be better things to do. Of course, I’ve always considered a living room a waste of space and money considering how seldom it is used.

Although I find myself drawn to Frank Lloyd Wright, and other high-tech, homes, looking at the new homes that surround me suggests that Rybczynski is right when he argues that efficiency has become more important than design in modern homes:

This was where Le Corbusier parted company with the domestic engineers. He was still, in a sense, a nineteenth century architect, fighting the battle of the styles. That was what the New Spirit was all about a new style, a style suited to the twentieth century, a style for the Machine Age, a style for more efficient living. His was not simply a modern home, but a home that looked modern. He was right about the need for domestic efficiency, even if that was not always evident in practice, but he was wrong about its effect on the appearance of the home. Efficiency did not depend on what the interior of the home looked like, but on how work was organized within it. If the kitchen was planned according to the principles of scientific management, it really did not matter if the cupboards had colonial trim or flowered porcelain handles, just as long as things were in the right place and not too far apart. And if people felt more comfortable, and worked better, with patterned tiles or cheery curtains, well, that was efficiency too. It was not the absence of wallpaper and ogee trim that made a house “modern,” it was the presence of central heating and convenient bathrooms, electric irons and washing machines. Like most architects, Le Corbusier did not understand, or would not accept, that the advent of domestic technology and home management had put the whole question of architectural style in a subordinate position.

Obviously no one style has come to dominate the American home, but God help the architect who’s kitchen is too small, too inefficient, or too far from the serving area. No matter how beautiful a home may be, most Americans wouldn’t buy it if lacked adequate closet space.