The issue of Better Homes and Gardens featured in the picture on the right belonged to my wife’s grandmother. It’s been in our possession for some time now, but I only recently really took notice of the cover image. This picture from the September 1959 issue seems to say much about the idealized suburban dream of that time. Magazines are often aspirational. They want to capture the imagination of their readers and create the sensation that, “yes, you too can have all this!” The idyllic suburban scene tells us some interesting things about what the readership of Better Homes and Gardens did and perhaps did not aspire to and also provides some insight into how the suburban dream of today differs from earlier incarnations. Ignoring as much as possible all of the complex socio-political and economic forces that contributed to suburbanization, I wanted to think about what Better Homes and Gardens was trying to say the “good life” looked like in 1959.
Where the Sidewalk Ends
Something’s missing. That was what jumped out at me right away with the cover art. It took a minute to register that the neighborhood depicted has no sidewalks, and that was the absence I felt looking at the picture. There could be simple aesthetic reasons for this. Adding a maze of sidewalks would certainly make the picture busier, and the focus here is clearly intended to be on the homes. Still, it’s an interesting attribute of how Better Homes and Gardens chose to communicate what a dream neighborhood looks like. Certainly we know now that lots of places have been built without them in the decades that have followed. Was this neighborhood drawn up this way because we idealized not wanting walking anywhere, or was it done to keep the focus on the houses?
My sense is a little of both. Cars and garages feature prominently in the setting, representing both status symbols and a practical necessity of the environment. By extension, not needing to walk to accomplish basic errands represents wealth and prosperity here. Above all else, this vision of American suburbia is about leisure and comfort, about life being easier and more pleasant. Errands and commuting could be quickly and comfortably completed by automobile, leaving more time for recreation. So it makes sense that, despite the lack of sidewalks, the street is still active. There are children playing near every home shown. A postman walks right through the middle of the street where a dog jumps up at him in that classic trope.
The idea of the street as a “dangerous” place appears not to have emerged at this point, and I think that’s more telling than the absence of sidewalks. In fact, the depiction of the way the outdoor space is being used seems to convey that while automobiles are the primary modes of transport, their role is largely seen as outside of the neighborhood itself. You drive to get to and from home, but within the neighborhood you run, play and walk. I’m pretty confident that’s how most folks in suburban neighborhoods would say it works today as well, but at the same time road design and outsized fear in many places seems to conflict with that.
Moving past the sidewalks, the next attribute of the neighborhood is of course the homes themselves. This vision of suburbia is in some ways surprisingly modest given what we associate with most new suburban developments today. It’s no secret that new home sizes have increased dramatically since this was published, but I found it surprising that the dream layouts were not bigger. Perhaps it’s due to Better Homes and Gardens aiming more for practicality than other magazines. The largest floor plan shown within tops out around 1,900 square feet. This is definitely above average by the standards of the day but not staggeringly so. Further, one floor plan only has two bedrooms, a notion that would be preposterous today for a new home built in a suburban development.
The layouts are all in what is described as “today’s preferred long and low style.” In general, these layouts would not have been terribly compatible with smaller city lots, but the actual size of the homes is really not much different from a great deal of the old housing stock within Minneapolis and St. Paul where I live. If the purpose of moving to the suburbs in 1959 wasn’t about having a huge house, what was the purpose? It seems the suburban dream is about outdoor and recreational space as much as the houses themselves. There are several scenes of families entertaining on patios, for example. Also, the cover references sections on fall flower arrangements and, in another great American trope, the generic “Johnny” learns to handle a gun. This section is a discussion of using a firearm safely for hunting, not self-defense, maintaining the focus on recreation.
While large lots and open space are still commonly invoked as reasons for moving to the suburbs, the focus on active recreation does not seem as important as perhaps it once was. Changes in our activity levels cannot be simply chalked up to suburbanization, but it’s still a problem. When you marry changes in technology and entertainment options and preferences with design that creates unsafe places and a culture that sees danger around every turn, it’s a recipe for sedentary lifestyles.
The Suburban Dream’s Great Escape
A great deal of the promise of suburbanization was about escape from the ills of the city. Fear of crime, cramped living spaces and the stress of congested city life could all be alleviated. Such promises must have appealed strongly to second and third generation families where parents or grandparents shared horror stories of the living conditions they experienced not long after arriving in the country. Being able to afford even a modest home in a suburb was the American Dream coming true. It made you a landowner. It meant you were providing fresh air and green space for your children. It was a major step up the social ladder. With a significant portion of the first suburbanites made up of families that were just starting to acquire some wealth as the American middle class grew rapidly, it’s easy to understand how the version of city life these people experienced might be unappealing by comparison. Indeed, the first wave of suburbanization was probably a pretty fantastic experience for those who could afford it, made even more so by the way it was and is subsidized.
As I look at this picture, I keep wishing we could go back and speak to the people depicted. Or rather, the type of people they represent (who are, of course, all white). If we could ask them some questions based on what we know today, would it change anything? Would they choose a place like this if they knew it actually cost much more than the sticker price to build and sustain these places? Would they care if that cost of living was being subsidized by future generations? Would they want to live there if it meant their children couldn’t play in the street? How would they feel if they knew their grandchildren would spend so much time in a car that they never learn their way around? How much would it affect them if they knew what so much of our suburban development has turned into compared to what they were seeking?
I wouldn’t delude myself into thinking that their decisions would be entirely different, but what I don’t take away from this picture, and my own memories of my grandparents for what it’s worth, is a sense that the aspiring suburbanites of the late 1950s envisioned neighborhoods that would be hostile to children playing outdoors. I don’t think they were looking for places that emphasized high-speed auto travel at the expense of walking safely or that they wanted their grandchildren to be largely unable to bike to the ball field or walk to school. That stuff came later as collateral damage once we had gone too far down the path of automobile reliance. Such is the nature of unintended consequences, but unintended or not they are no less real for us to deal with today.