Little White Houses

Little White Houses: How the Postwar Home Constructed Race in America

DIANNE HARRIS
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 392
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctt3fh6f2
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  • Book Info
    Little White Houses
    Book Description:

    A rare exploration of the racial and class politics of architecture,Little White Housesexamines how postwar media representations associated the ordinary single-family house with middle-class whites to the exclusion of others, creating a powerful and invidious cultural iconography that continues to resonate today. Drawing from popular and trade magazines, floor plans and architectural drawings, television programs, advertisements, and beyond, Dianne Harris shows how the depiction of houses and their interiors, furnishings, and landscapes shaped and reinforced the ways in which Americans perceived white, middle-class identities and helped support a housing market already defined by racial segregation and deep economic inequalities.

    After describing the ordinary postwar house and its orderly, prescribed layout, Harris analyzes how cultural iconography associated these houses with middle-class whites and an ideal of white domesticity. She traces how homeowners were urged to buy specific kinds of furniture and other domestic objects and how the appropriate storage and display of these possessions was linked to race and class by designers, tastemakers, and publishers. Harris also investigates lawns, fences, indoor-outdoor spaces, and other aspects of the postwar home and analyzes their contribution to the assumption that the rightful owners of ordinary houses were white.

    Richly detailed,Little White Housesadds a new dimension to our understanding of race in America and the inequalities that persist in the U.S. housing market.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-8216-4
    Subjects: Architecture and Architectural History, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xi)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-25)

    Between 1945 and 1960, a pervasive iconography of white, middle-class domesticity circulated widely in various media and became instantiated in millions of new homes across the United States. This book examines the ways textual and visual representations of those houses continuously and reflexively created, re-created, and reinforced midcentury notions about racial, ethnic, and class identities—specifically, the rightness of associating white identities with homeownership and citizenship. By looking carefully at house form and at representations of house form, I seek to understand the ways in which postwar domestic environments became poignant ciphers for whiteness, affluence, belonging, and a sense of...

  5. 1 THE ORDINARY POSTWAR HOUSE
    (pp. 27-57)

    It can sometimes be difficult to imagine that very ordinary, ubiquitous aspects of the built environment hold rhetorical power. The field of spatial rhetoric, in fact, is a fairly new one, emerging since the 1980s along with the ascendancy of semiotic theory and its movement into humanities disciplines outside English. The idea that visual and textual productions hold rhetorical and persuasive power is a much older and well-accepted one, and despite several decades of scholarly investigations into the social and political history of architecture, it still does not go without saying that buildings, landscapes, and city spaces may also be...

  6. 2 MAGAZINE LESSONS Publishing the Lexicon of White Domesticity
    (pp. 59-81)

    As a very young child, I eagerly awaited the monthly arrival by mail of my mother’s copy ofMcCall’smagazine. I could not yet read, but the periodical’s text mattered little to me. Instead, I coveted the “Betsy McCall” paper doll that was included toward the back of each issue. Cutting out the doll and the smartly designed accompanying outfits was fun; each new magazine signaled the arrival of a new toy. The paper doll also kept me, and thousands of children like me, busy for at least a short period of time so that my mother could read the...

  7. 3 RENDERED WHITENESS Architectural Drawings and Graphics
    (pp. 83-109)

    Visual representations of postwar houses, interiors, and landscapes have a surprisingly uniform appearance. They typically favor the perspective or axonometric view and feature pastel colors, biomorphic garden forms, and well-dressed and neatly coiffed women in high-heeled shoes. This is a graphic style we have come to associate readily with the 1950s, and these images sometimes seem comical now for their contrivance and naїveté. Although they appeared commonly in popular publications of the period, these images—considered here as part of the vast archive of postwar architectural history and visual culture—have not received the attention of architectural historians or art...

  8. 4 PRIVATE WORLDS The Spatial Contours of Exclusion and Privilege
    (pp. 111-157)

    My grandparents’ house sat on a corner lot in Van Nuys, California. The house and detached garage occupied a substantial portion of the lot, but the sides and back of the lot were completely sealed off from the street by a high, stockade-style fence. Sometime in the last decade or so of his life, my grandfather cut a small circular portal into the fence along the driveway, so their dog could have a window on the world but no one could look in. A long, narrow space for drying clothes sat along one side of the house, concealed from the...

  9. 5 HOUSEHOLD GOODS Purchasing and Consuming Identity
    (pp. 159-183)

    My grandparents’ house was always immaculately clean, orderly, and filled with a sense of the new as displayed in their possessions, decor, and furnishings. Their house was not like my friends’ houses, or my friends’ grandparents’ houses. There were no doilies, no lace, no carved furniture, no rocking chairs, no rag rugs or early Americana knick-knacks. Instead, my grandparents favored the modernism of Charles and Ray Eames and George Nelson. As a young man in Germany, my grandfather had been captivated by the works he saw that were produced at the Bauhaus. For him, as for many of his generation,...

  10. 6 BUILT-INS AND CLOSETS Status, Storage, and Display
    (pp. 185-227)

    Although my grandparents did not maintain a kosher household, my grandmother kept an extra set of dishes and cookware for use when kosher-observant relatives came to visit. However, storage of these items posed a problem because her house was not designed for observant Jews and their arrays of kosher dishware. Like most houses, it was designed for a generic public presumed to be white and Christian. My grandmother did manage to find some space for her dishes in the small utility room that housed their washing machine and dryer, but still, the absence of more abundant storage space for extra...

  11. 7 THE HOME SHOW Televising the Postwar House
    (pp. 229-261)

    The master bedroom of my grandparents’ house contained a television that my grandfather had mounted inside a cabinet high above my grandmother’s clothes closet. The cabinet door had been removed so that the tube stared out from its lofty perch near the ceiling, perhaps six or seven feet above the floor. It seemed a part of the wall, an integral part of the room. Lying on my grandparents’ king-size bed, I could watch TV and change the channels with the most space-age device known to me at that time: a remote control. At the push of a button, Mr. Ed...

  12. 8 DESIGNING THE YARD Gardens, Property, and Landscape
    (pp. 263-313)

    When they first purchased their Van Nuys home in 1955, Rudy and Eva Weingarten must have found the design and maintenance of the garden surrounding their house somewhat puzzling. As European immigrants who had previously lived either in shared housing with relatives or in rentals, the prospect of taking care of front and back yards was both exciting (this is ours, we can grow whatever we want) and troubling (we know very little about gardening or horticulture, we are very busy with our own business and don’t have much time or extra money to devote to gardening, we want to...

  13. Epilogue
    (pp. 315-317)

    In recent years the U.S. housing market has experienced a dramatic set of shifts. As the national and global economy plunged into the worst recession since the Great Depression, and as the predatory lending practices of the previous decades came to their eventual and inevitable conclusion, the so-called housing bubble burst and thousands of residences nationwide became foreclosed properties. A new kind of housing crisis emerged, one that saw Americans from diverse backgrounds suddenly without the homes they had worked for, saved for, and imagined as a key part of their own American Dreams. The history of suburbia and suburban...

  14. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 319-322)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 323-356)
  16. Index
    (pp. 357-365)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 366-366)