Prior to 1922 the subject of home improvement had already commanded the attention of the Extension Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture in rural communities and of the National Housing Association in cities. There had been, also, many experiments by industrial corporations for housing their employees, and large scale enterprises for small-house construction by the United States Housing Corporation to provide good housing for workers in war industries. Commercial "Own Your Home" exhibits and newspaper and magazine publication of plans of small houses had helped to call public attention to the possibility of home-ownership and home-building. These efforts were, however, each of them very limited in the territory which they covered or each dealt with only a few of the phases of housing or home life instead of treating the problem comprehensively.
The need was apparent for a nation-wide movement which would command the attention and the service of civic leaders of all communities, urban or rural, to study their local problems of housing and home-life and devise programs for the promotion of building of new homes to meet the shortage occasioned by the war and the improvement of old homes and their premises, to encourage the more general use of labor-saving equipment, the use of more artistic home furnishings, and the development of home-life with reference to high standards of wholesomeness and achievement. It was through the inititiative and vision of Mrs. William Brown Meloney, who was then editor of The Delineator, that this movement got its start.
President Hoover, who was then Secretary of Commerce, was deeply impressed with the need of a popular movement to encourage home-building and home-ownership and agreed to serve as president of the new organization, to be known as "Better Homes in America." Mr. Coolidge, who was then Vice-President of the United States, became the Chairman of the Advisory Council, which was made up of certain members of the Cabinet, chiefs of several Government bureaus, and presidents of National civic organizations interested in one phase or another of home improvement. Thus, the work of Government departments and of volunteer committees, established by Better Homes in America, could be coordinated for greater effectiveness, and from the Government point of view the new volunteer committees would serve as a local medium through which the bulletins and other services of the Government departments could be made to reach community leaders, and through them all citizens in need of advice or help which the Government could render.
1 "How National Attention Was Directed to Better Homes in America," American Civic Annual (American Civic Association, Inc., 1929), pp. 37-43.
During the years 1922 and 1923, the Better Homes in America Campaign was conducted under the direction of Mrs. William Brown Meloney and financed by The Delineator. Five hundred or more communities were reached by the programs during these two years, and a most earnest and unselfish attempt was made by Mrs. Meloney and the owner of The Delineator, Mr. George W. Wilder, to conduct a campaign strictly for public benefit.
By the fall of 1923 it was evident, however, that the campaign had reached such proportions as to warrant incorporation on a National basis, independent of the magazine which had originally sponsored it. A three-years' grant was made by the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Foundation, which was subsequently extended, and the headquarters of the movement was moved from New York to Washington, in January, 1924. Mr. Hoover continued as president of the new organization, of which Mrs. Meloney now assumed the vice-presidency; Dr. John M. Gries, Chief of the Division of Building and Housing of the U.S. Department of Commerce, served as treasurer; and Miss Grace Abbott, Chief of the Children's Bureau, Edwin H. Brown, President of the Architects' Small House Service Bureau, and George W. Wilder, were among the members of the Board of Directors.
The purposes of the movement were stated as follows:
1. To make accessible to all citizens knowledge of high standards in housebuilding, home furnishing, and home life.
2. To encourage the building of sound, beautiful, single-family houses; and to encourage the reconditioning and remodeling of old houses.
3. To encourage thrift for home-ownership, and to spread knowledge of methods of financing the purchase or building of a home.
4. To encourage general study of the housing problem and of problems of family life, and to help each community to benefit from its study.
5. To encourage the furnishing of homes economically and in good taste.
6. To supply knowledge of the means of eliminating drudgery and waste of effort in housekeeping, and to spread information about public agencies which will assist housekeepers in their problems'.
7. To encourage the establishment of courses of instruction in home economics in the public schools, and particularly the construction of home economics cottages and home-management houses where girls in our public schools and colleges may, by actual practice, learn the best methods of conducting household operations and of home-making,
8. To encourage the building of small houses by boys of vocational schools or vocational classes of public schools, and instruction in house upkeep and repair; so that the boys of the community may acquire an intelligent interest in the problems of householding and home-ownership.
10. To extend knowledge of the ways of making home-life happier, through the development of home music, home play, home arts and crafts, and the home library.
11. To encourage special study and discussion of the problem of character-building in the home.
With the help of the Extension Service of the Department of Agriculture and the State Parent-Teacher Associations, the State Federation of Women's Clubs, the State Supervisors of Home Economics, chambers of commerce, and other civic organizations, leaders were picked in cities, towns, villages, and rural districts to serve as chairmen of local Better Homes committees. In the intervening years the number of such committees has grown from 760 in 1924 to 7,279 in 1930. Each community chairman is urged to place on his or her local committee representatives of each of the civic and educational organizations of the community that are interested in any specific phase of home improvement, and as far as possible to secure the cooperation and advice of leading local architects, builders, home economists, landscape gardeners, and other specialists.
Programs for the study of local housing conditions and for lectures and discussions on home-ownership, home-building, home-financing, gardening, and related subjects are characteristic features of all Better Homes campaigns. Ordinarily, the local movement heads up in National Better Homes Week, which of late years has been the last week in April. Many hundreds of the committees, however, conduct year-round programs.
Home-improvement contests are conducted by the majority of Better Homes Committees, but take many forms as they may cover improvements of all aspects of the home or may consist of a group of special competitions for kitchen improvement, living-room improvement, home-gardens, home landscaping, boy's room and girl's room contests, and so on. Architectural drawing contests for best plans of small homes have been conducted in many states; and, beginning with the State of Massachusetts in 1928, general contests for the best examples of good architecture in houses already built, new or old, have been conducted on a state-wide basis, with the help of local representatives of the American Institute of Architects.
In many hundreds of cities and counties each year the central feature of Better Homes Week is the demonstration of one or more houses of good design and construction completely furnished on a predetermined budget proportioned to the cost of the house, and with grounds carefully planted and landscaped. Many of these demonstration houses are designed by the local committee with the help of local architects, or make use of plans issued by the Architects' Small House Service Bureau (a non-profit organization established by the American Institute of Architects to provide plans of well-designed houses of from three to six rooms at minimum cost). Other committees borrow for demonstration the best available small house built by local contractors or owners. In rural communities where there is little need for new building, the demonstrations are usually of old houses which have been remodeled or reconditioned to illustrate that appropriate improvements in the comfort, convenience, and beauty of homes can be made at relatively slight cost. Not infrequently the remodeling of such homes becomes a community project- members of the committee, school boys and girls, and interested citizens from all walks of life, take part in the actual work of painting, papering, carpentry, and decoration.
Among the notable Better Homes Campaigns of recent years, Santa Barbara, California, has been outstanding for its demonstrations of scores of new houses built largely from plans drawn in small-house architecture competitions, and constructed at a cost averaging about $5,000, though ranging from $1,500, for a three-room house, to $10,000 and more for houses of seven or eight rooms. These programs have been under the direction of Miss Pearl Chase, Director of the Community Arts Association of Santa Barbara, and have been supplemented by garden contests, border-planting contests, and a variety of other contests, and frequent public tours of prize-winning homes and gardens.
In Greenville, S.C., the Better Homes demonstrations, year after year, have been conducted through a local committee backed by the Woman's Bureau of the Greenville Chamber of Commerce. New homes and reconditioned homes for persons of moderate means have been supplemented by demonstrations of the best available types of homes for industrial operatives and for Negroes.
At Little Rock, Ark., the demonstrations are annually sponsored by the City Federation of Women's Clubs, and, like those of Greenville, S.C., have included homes for Negroes as well as for whites, and homes for families with incomes of various sizes.
Fig. 79. - A home-builder's clinic where problems of home financing and home building may be discussed is one of the many Better Homes projects. (Clinic at Kohler, Wis., Better Homes demonstration.)
The home economics departments of public schools and colleges have frequently taken over the direction of local Better Homes campaigns with the cooperation of citizens' organizations. In scores of instances, new houses have been built as the central feature of the demonstration which would serve after Better Homes week as permanent home-management houses for the use of students of home economics. The selection of the plan, as well as the selection and arrangement of the furnishings, have been carried out by the students under the direction of their teachers. Notable examples of this type of demonstration have occurred for instance in Port Huron, Mich.; Buffalo, N.Y.; and Ames, Iowa. There have been several instances, also, of the actual designing and building of houses for demonstration by boys enrolled in carpentry or other vocational classes in public schools, as in Utica, N.Y.; St. Helena Island, S.C.; Stockton, Calif.; and Akron, Ohio.
Fig. 80. - Hanging a door in the Akron, Ohio, "boy-built" house. Better Homes in America encourages the building of houses by schoolboys, in order that the best possible training may be given the next generation of home builders.
Negro committees have been organized in all of the southern states. In rural communities their programs consist largely in whitewashing or painting of homes, repair of fences, steps, and porches, and similar much-needed improvements, but at Hampton, Tuskegee, and other schools and colleges for Negroes, more elaborate programs have been devised. The Penn School, on St. Helena Island, has been outstanding in the comprehensiveness of its programs conducted by a committee of Negro teachers and graduates of the school. Home economics cottages have been built and furnished by the students. Furniture and furnishings have been made for the demonstration houses, and contests conducted which are said to have led to improvements in every home on the Island. The activities of this committee are carried on throughout the year and it is reported that practically everything that is done is called a Better Homes project "since the words 'Better Homes' work magic on the Island."
Rural programs generally comprise contests followed by tours to prize-winning homes to witness and discuss the practical changes which have been made in each. In Pulaski County, Arkansas, for example, year after year, a large number of new or remodeled houses are demonstrated, furnished, or redecorated by members of the committee, and in some instances completely reconditioned by local citizens as a community project. In one case an old house, which for many years served as a storage barn, was completely made over by the citizens of. Mablevale at a total cost in money of only $75. The convenient, artistic little home that resulted was still valued at considerably less than $1,000 and thus proved that good housing could be brought within the reach of the farm laborer's family. Several southern rural committees have demonstrated improvements in tenant cottages, and in the mountains of Tennessee remodeled log-cabins have been demonstrated; in Southern California homes of adobe and homes for Mexican laborers; in mining communities and industrial villages the reconditioning of homes of manual laborers.
The central office at Washington has issued a number of publications and educational news releases on house plans, home-ownership, home furnishing, on school cottages for training in home-making, boy-built houses, and memorandums on lawns, beautification of grounds, home-sanitation, and many other subjects. Extensive bibliographies have been prepared on those subjects on which inquiry is most frequently received, such as home improvement, remodeling, care and repair of homes, home-gardening, home music, home play, and in the course of a year tens of thousands of requests for information are handled.
During the past year State Committees have been organized in all the States and Territorial Committees in Hawaii and the Virgin Islands. There are several local committees also in Porto Rico and Alaska which devise programs adapted to the conditions of their own districts. A striking feature of the Hawaiian campaign was the building of a two-room model cabin which was mounted on wheels, taken over the Islands and demonstrated to the nat ve population.
Better Homes in America through its National office and state and local committees is able to reach citizens in virtually any community and let them know of the available sources of help both from Government departments and from private organizations. Through the local committees practical means of improving architecture, construction, landscaping, furnishing, equipment, or any other details of the home are demonstrated and the services of local specialists are rendered available both for arousing interest in specific improvements and for indicating the ways in which such improvements can be made. Not only the individual home but the community as well may be progressively transformed through such aid which discovers and utilizes latent abilities, trains new and effective leadership, imparts a new sense of values, and year by year raises standards of the home and of community civic life. [National headquarters of Better Homes in America are located at 1653 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C.]