I think what a 21st century visitor would notice at first about middle class life here in 1956 is the size of the homes. They are diminutive by today’s standards and are not all full of brand new plastic Eames chairs as we might see in the magazines of the time. There would be much ‘recycling’ of items handed down, borrowed etc. The middle class homemaker would look at you oddly if you said ‘recycling’, for you see being Green here simply means being smart and frugal. Thrift, it seems, is even taught in high schools and at home. A ‘consumer economy’ has not yet set itself into the psyche of the American public.
There was an increase need for homes after the war. Returning soldiers were already husbands or soon to be and they were getting ready to feather the nest. Many had GI bill aspirations to college and all facets of the middle class (even the lower rungs) were beginning to have a taste of a life they may not have considered before the war: college, their own home, a sense of economic growth. All of these things were held like shiny apples before the donkey cart to the new American middle class families at this time. Yet, these families came to them with the inante thrift and frugality of Depression Children and War Time Ration still fresh in their minds. They also felt their country was now set upon the eve of a Brave New World and all in it would now be done for the good of all.
What is interesting to me is that many things today such as food and clothing are dirt cheap comparative to 1956 yet housing is the opposite. The above kit ranch house of 1200 sq. feet cost $6030 at the time. That is comparative to around $35,000 today. (the image came from a nice Flickr site HERE, they have other houses and prices listed) I can’t even imagine a piece of land that cheap today.
In my research for this post I read a modern article about recent home sizes. I thought this an interesting quote from a real estate agent on L.I. in New York from a modern newspaper, "You know, we are very tenuous," says local architect Ann Surchin. "No one knows when the next 9/11 will happen. And these houses represent safety — and the bigger the house, the bigger the fortress."
I had to laugh at that. 9/11? I mean come on. I am certainly not belittling what happened, but here in 1956 people not only remember a world war that has maimed and killed friends and family, people are still living daily with a very real fear that at any moment the Atomic bomb could come crashing down on them. And yet they have no problem having one bathroom for a family of five or having older children (even teens) share a bedroom. Rather than seclude themselves in fortresses they cannot afford, they open up their new little modern homes with ‘window walls’ and patios to Barbeque with neighbors. Even wealthier individuals who summer here on Cape Cod do not all have mansions. But, their quaint little cottages are going to be decimated with Mc-mansions in 60 years.
So why such a great divide between houses then and now? I think the real answer, again, is the media. What do we watch? What do we see on tv/computer: Perceived wealth; shows like Cribs and many design shows portray homes very large and beyond many peoples means. We don’t even realize anymore that half of the shows being presented are just really highly advanced 30-60 minute ads. Because we find ourselves wanting to emulate the show and buy and have the things the characters have, this really is effective advertising. We are unable to distinguish the reality from the fantasy. We are SO plugged into the digital/media/ad/entertainment world, that our brains have trouble distinguishing the difference. When you consider we mostly give our mind these false images, it follows we then succumb to wanting what they have. There is a realness to it: I see all that wealth and stuff, they have it, it seems real, I have this card, so now I want it and have it. The advertising of today is so genius and smart and sophisticated, even what you look up online is collected and fed back to us in adverts that sell to our own demographic. The level of marketing is more advanced than the intelligence we had access to when in WWII. Advertising here, in 1956, is still a young art/ad man drawing out images and coloring them in to be placed in magazines. There is an innocence that still exists not only in the ads themselves, but in the very nature of the people. In some ways we are so removed from them by how we think, it is as if we are a different species, breed to buy.
I shudder now, when I think of the design shows I used to watch when they would just gut and tear out any kitchen and replace it with the latest style. The idea of using what we have or making do and making it pretty seems completely gone. Which is odd to me when I think the average homemaker or wife today has SO much at her fingertips as far as design inspiration and lessons on how to do it all, but it seems it has just become another form of entertainment to watch OTHERS do it and then hire someone to rip out and replace.
A homemaker in 1956 would not even have access to the money we see today and yet would use what she had to make her home lovely. A woman who was a homemaker in her 20's in the 50's told me she wanted to redo her bedroom and wanted valances. She couldn't afford wood, so she saved up heavy cardboard from boxes, bought fabric and glued and made valances and matching pillows and bed skirts. You couldn't tell the difference, she told me and I believe her. Especially when I think of what house wares today ARE made of and where they are thrown together.
I don't always want to end up seeming to be playing the 'its better back here' game, but some how it always happens. I think really it is more, “Oh, they did that, then why can’t we do that AND still move forward”.Even if you think of me, "Well, your not really there, so of course it seems better” There still seems to be lessons here in frugality, creativity, and action. That means even if you are not a time traveling homemaker like me, you can be a thoroughly modern Millie and start taking advantage of what our 50's sisters did with the power and ease of today! Why spend what we perceive of as less at a big box store for particle board, when you can use scrap wood you might have, a jigsaw, some paint, and fabric and make a custom item fit for you, for less!
Here is another quote from that same modern article on house size. The man has built a large house and says, "I always wanted a house big enough that my kids could be in their room screaming, and my wife could be in a room screaming, and I could be somewhere else and not hear any of them," he says. "And I think I have accomplished this with this house, because this house is so big that everyone has their own space."
I think it is odd that this man should not mind that his children or his wife ARE screaming, as long as he does not have to hear it. I think that says so much about modern family and community dynamics. We don't care what happens to people as long as we don't see it. Who cares that our cheap products are made by children in china, as long as I don't have to make it or see it. It all makes sense. Yet a father in 1956 would not allow a child TO scream in his room for it would firstly upset the family and secondly he would, hopefully, want to know why they are screaming. Because if it is for fun then you have to learn that you cannot just scream when you want just because you are in a big place. How does any of this prepare us for the real world. Does that mean if you go to a large library or the airport, which is also large, you can scream at the top of your lungs? This bigger house size merely adds to the unrealistic atitude we have and give to children who then have to go out into the real world. It also shows our own increasing inability to accept a new reality here in our country. Bigger and more is not better and it is not only leading us down a bad path, but really not the unique original American ideal.
The lead me to consider that increased house size actually affects our overall attitudes. No wonder people are so rude to one another and staff at restaurants and stores. When you have your own bedroom and bath and rarely see your siblings and family members (even to eat) there is no need for compromise. There is no working it out with your siblings to get to the bathroom, so you get what you want, when you want it. Now add that to the instantaneousness of our world. Tv, computers, phone , texting, microwave food, drive-thrus, its all there cheap and ready in a second and if it is a moment late, look out we will shout at you! We want it and we want it NOW and we want it BIG! (Would you like to Super size that? It’s only 20 cents extra for a Venti)
I also find it interesting that the 50’s woman will have to spend much more time IN her home than the modern woman, yet has so much less space. But, to a person whose job it is to maintain the home, decorate it, feed a family and have time for her extra curricular such as reading, sewing, knitting, art and so on, a small house is a boon! It is odd that as the decrease in home food prep goes down the kitchen size and cost goes up. If you were to see this on a graph it would be two lines diverging drastically. And the increase in money spent on rooms where little happens save microwave use and heating up prepared food, we could really have 5 x 5 kitchens with a microwave a few burners and a small stove. But, of course, a bank of freezers and ice boxes would be needed.
I have felt this need to enlarge and live big in my own home often. Before 1955, I always was planning a large home. My ideas and dreams often had endless rooms. But, as I have become a homemaker, the appreciation of smaller space has actually begun to really shine through. At the end of last year (1955) we moved out of our house that was twice the size of our current old antique cottage so we could rent it out. We now literally have 1/2 the size as when I started my project and probably have closer to what an average homemaker would have had at the time. Initially it required me to really downsize and many of those things are still boxed in our out building/barn waiting for a yard sale. Many of the things I had originally intended on keeping but lately I have really begun to see that I have been living without them for the past 7 months and have not noticed, except that there is less to dust and organize. Smaller really is a part of a proper vintage life. Even if we consider the size of 1950’s car, it was large, but not like the monstrous 6000 lb vehicles we have today with tv panels in each seat and ipod docking stations. Our cars are more advanced than the home of 1956, but are we happier, more organized or smarter? I don’t know, I think not.
This house size also got me thinking about kitchen size. Many of the kitchens in my 50’s magazines, though they are ‘redone’ modern versions are still very small in square footage compared to today. When we first moved back to this house, I kept redesigning my kitchen over and over. I started with additions and breaking down a wall into another room (all on paper of course) and pouring over my vintage magazines for ideas and Craigslist for vintage appliances. I had slowly lessened my plan to no additions and just removing a wall that separates my little sitting room from the kitchen to enlarge the space inside. Since our Holiday at Home and my increases desire to sew more and do more art with my non homemaking time, I am really rethinking the entire idea. I do still need a better vintage stove and I have an old 50’s icebox (refrigerator) in storage waiting to be redone, but do I really need more space? The kitchen we now have was added on in the 1900’s and redone in the 1950’s but I stupidly removed the old vinyl (this was years ago) and the original handles to the cabinets. There is very little space in there, yet I have really had no trouble preparing meals, baking a cake and getting hubby’s lunch together all at one time. As it is mainly just me in there, there is no issue of a crowd.
Our Staycation really has had me look at our home in such a new light. The small house became the quaint sea cottage through the perception of our Holiday at Home and now, though I again view it as our main home, have begun to appreciate it’s size. Luckily I added a barn type building a few years ago that I can turn into my sewing/craft/art/50’s club location, so really there is no need to add to this house.
So, if any of you are on the track to redoing any of your home, I ask you to sit down and think about how you really use it. Think about what you do in the kitchen and what would help it out. When you are on a holiday or in a holiday cottage or camping or something such as that, do you enjoy the simplicity of that? If so, then your home can reflect that ease and comfort. You don’t need dirt floors, but you could possibly pare down the amount of dishes you have (make them be a collection you love so each time you drink or give a guest a drink, it is from something you have chosen. It has meaning and artful purpose). I think we just have so much STUFF today, that we don’t really even see it clogging up our lives. It fills every nook and cranny and we give over our lives our contentment and happiness to all this stuff.
I know for me it has been a gradual process over the past year and a half to really come to terms with the STUFF and see it for what it is. And if we are to have stuff around us, let it me things we feel connected to and have personally chosen. The positive aspect for we vintage women, is many 1950’s items are still fairly inexpensive (as the fad grows, this will become less so of course) so sell off 10 items you don’t care about at a yard sale and take that money and buy one dear thing you cherish and put the change in your pin money. It can be very liberating.
Now, from a simply esthetics standpoint, many of the modern huge houses are just ugly. They have no proportion or beauty. They almost feel like an aniseptic office building.The first house here has no trim or ornamentation, nothing to break up the endless expanse of brick and office building windows. I would not want to pay the ac/heating bill for this.
Yet, consider these little 1950’s homes. Consider their charm and position in the landscape. When one has less to build more can be done to it to make it special and livable. (this image from RetroRenovation.com check it out to see more on prefab 50’s homes.)
Here are some house plans from my magazines. (click to enlarge) and you can see how small the rooms actually are.
Even consider something as simple as the outdoor room. Here we see a darling 1950’s version.There is small space, but it is used wisely and you can see it is also practical. There is a place to eat, barbeque, prepare food, but also lawn and garden tools are neatly stored and easily reached. Inexpensive items such as peg board is used with style.
Though this is a lovely modern outdoor room, it almost has a cold feeling to it. I wonder how often that huge grill gets used and that great expanse of space for dinning, where is the intimacy? I am not saying large is bad, when done right and one can have an architect and many friends, but for the intimate needs of a small family on a fixed income, this would be shown as their ideal today. There would be no ‘cute and clever’ solution for them. But, then again, why bother, we can just charge it all, right? And then go off and work more hours to pay it off while not using it and the kids are inside on the computer or texting anyway.
So, house size may seem a simple thing, but once we really start to break down all the factors of cost and emotional connections we have in small as opposed to larger spaces, I feel it is just another layer of the modern dilemma. This is one more point where we have been lead astray from the 1950’s to today that does not, in my opinion, make for an easier or better life. So, next time you are planning a room or house or even apartment, really consider our 50’s sisters and what they had to work with. They were clever ladies from which we can learn a lot.
If you would like to read the article where I took the two modern quotes HERE it is.
Have a great day and Happy Homemaking.