Posted on 6/30/2014 1:26 PM by Grace Jeffers

Home ownership wasn’t always common in the United States.

For a nation in which 67.4 percent of its citizens own their own homes this seems unfathomable but Americans had to be coaxed into becoming homeowners. Selling the Dwelling: The Books That Built America’s Houses, 1775-2000 shows the 225 year story of how "the American dream" of home ownership was made accessible.

Selling the Dwelling: The Books that Built America's Houses, 1775-2000. Grolier Club, New York, NY. Photo by Grace Jeffers.

This story was told in a remarkable exhibition at The Grolier Club in New York City. Lucky for us, a comprehensive 286-page catalogue with 600 illustrations was available there. More than 200 rare books, periodicals, drawings, printed ephemera, and models were gathered. The exhibition began with eighteenth-century builder’s guides, then by nineteenth-century pattern books, and concluded with twentieth-century house plan catalogues.

Selling the Dwelling: The Books that Built America's Houses, 1775-2000. Grolier Club, New York, NY. Photo by Grace Jeffers.

The story begins in 1775 with Robert Bell’s reproduction of Abraham Swan’s The British Architect, credited as the first architectural book published in America. It was the basic structural and stylistic information within these large European treatises that was needed, not the designs for grand classical mansions. Such knowledge was better conveyed by the more modest “builder’s guides," manuals that directed the hand and eye of the craftsmen who were building all of the country’s houses.

Selling the Dwelling: The Books that Built America's Houses, 1775-2000. Grolier Club, New York, NY. Photo by Grace Jeffers. 

As the Republic grew, novel styles of design began to challenge Classical and Federal norms. Designs in Italian and Gothic modes appeared in new domestic pattern books such as Alexander Jackson Davis’s Rural Residences (1837).  Filled with alluring perspective views as well as elevations and floor plans, these books were calculated to appeal more to the customer than the builder.
After a hiatus in construction during the Civil War, American house building resumed in earnest in large northern cities in the late 1860s, propelled by an explosion in architectural book publishing. Some of this literature adopted a new approach for providing less expensive house designs: selling pre-drawn plans through the mail. First attempted in 1856 by Cleveland and the Backus brothers with their book Village and Farm Cottages, the method finally proved to be successful in 1876 when George Palliser issued an inexpensive catalogue, Palliser’s Model Homes for the People, that won customers “from every state and territory in the Union.”    

Cover of American Builder Vol 30, no. 3, June 1925. Private Collection.

By the 1880s, house plan publishing firms such as Robert W. Shoppell’s Co-operative Building Plan Association were producing mail-order catalogues in periodical form, demonstrating the growing importance of magazines in popularizing house designs. Godey’s Lady’s Book  and Ladies’ Home Journal  had been among the first to carry home plans in the nineteenth century, and shortly after 1900, a host of new magazines such as House Beautiful and House and Garden started competing for the attention of well-to-do readers who were planning to build architect-designed houses in the country or the suburbs.

Title page of Palliser's American Cottage Homes Palliser, Palliser & Company (Bridgeport, CT: Palliser, 1878). Collection of Eric Holzenberg.

There was also a growing demand in the early twentieth century for more small houses, a need that millwork companies and national retailers like Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward decided to serve by producing pre-cut homes that could be shipped by railroad for assembly by local carpenters. The exhibition devotes a special section to the advertising and marketing of this new mode of house building.
With so many different businesses issuing house plan books simultaneously, an incredible variety of often elaborately designed and printed publications was produced prior to the Depression, usually accompanied by other forms of advertisement such as home planning guides, company journals, flyers, posters, calendars and paper models. Focusing directly on the consumer, chiefly on women, this vast panoply of promotional material promised a tasteful, convenient, and comfortable dwelling to anyone who purchased the products and services or followed the advice being offered.   
The post-WWII home-building boom reinvigorated plan book production, with modernism gaining a foothold when the undecorated version of the ranch house became part of the vogue for wide, single-level houses in the 1950s and early 1960s.   
The exhibition tracks extensive and rapid changes to the literature of house building after 1970. The level of house catalogue publication declined in the 1970s and 80s, chiefly because large tract developers were making more of the design decisions for new dwellings than were prospective homeowners.  Many smaller house plan publishers went out of business, and the supply of plan books was further diminished in the 1990s, as house designs became increasingly available on internet sites which offered CD-ROMS instead of printed catalogues.

Selling the Dwelling: The Books That Built America’s Houses, 1775-2000 showcases an incredible display of the history of American homeowners.