By James Ford, Executive Director of Better Homes in America.
The significance of the home is indicated by examination of the effects of environment upon human character and activities. Each individual at birth is gifted with actual or potential qualities which can be traced to heredity. Each is a unique combination of such traits or qualities, and to this unique pattern of traits and tendencies he owes his individuality. From the very beginning of life, however, he is subject to influences from his environment, and these influences to a large extent determine his development.
A simple analogy from the plant kingdom may make this clear. For it is possible to select seeds from the best plants - seeds which embody the type of heredity desired such as large and vigorous growth or flowers and fruits of particular color, size, and quality. If environment played no part in the life of the vegetable kingdom, all such seeds when planted would result in plants of high quality. The careful horticulturist, however, realizes that it is necessary to pay careful attention to the kind of environment in which such seeds shall be placed. If the soil is too dry, the seeds will not germinate or the plant will be stunted. If too continuously moist, the plant may rot. The most vigorous growth is secured through proper combinations of soil, moisture, climate, and fertilization. A whole- . some development of even the best selected seed thus may be prevented by improper or unfortunate conditions of environment.
The same is true of human beings. Children of the best heredity or of the best native endowment may be prevented from the high development which is their due by unfortunate circumstances of their upbringing - that is to say, by undesirable environing conditions. On the other hand, the children of average hereditary stock may do better than those of good stock if the conditions of growth are more fortunate. This book is not concerned with the social control of heredity but deals with the selection, cultivation, and control of the more important environing factors in the lives of children and adults.
The home is the environment in which the life and development of the child are primarily determined. In the early years practically all the life of the child is lived in the home, and even in adult years men or women who work outside of the home spend from one-third to one-half of their time in the home. The homemaker spends the greater part of her time in this environment. From the quantitative point of view, therefore, the home is the most important of human environments, and if its influences are good the prospects for development on the part of each of its members likewise will be good.
So far we have spoken of the home as if it were one environment, but it is probably made up of hundreds or thousands of influences some of which are amenable to elimination, cultivation, or control. Its influences comprise each detail in the actual physical environment - the design of the house, each article of equipment, the pictures on the walls, the books and magazines upon the table, the arrangement of furnishings, as well as the backgrounds, interests, ideals, and attitudes of each member of the family. The influences of the home invariably comprise subtle and intangible factors as well as physical factors. The making-over of home influences, therefore, must involve conscious selection of attitudes and ideals as well as of furnishings, pictures, equipment, or other factors primarily physical.
The improvement of homes is a primary means to the development of individual character. It is, however, of tremendous sociological importance as well, because through the conscious selection of environing factors in homes which are the chief environment of children it becomes possible in the long run to redirect the trends of civilization. Wherever homes can succeed in helping each child to realize its hereditary potential, i.e., to develop physical health, mental stability and alertness, emotional control, and interest in life's higher values in just so far as his native equipment may permit, social institutions will inevitably reflect these qualities and standards. For the boys and girls influenced and trained in their home environment to do their best with the abilities with which they were endowed by heredity will demand standards in business and public life as high as those which have been cultivated in their homes. Herein lies great promise for human development even in the absence of social control of heredity.
The home because of its universality has been taken too much for granted and subjected to relatively little study. Families have drifted into home ownership or tenancy with only the meager knowledge of the subject which they could pick up from their own earlier lives and contacts with friends and business associates. The inevitable result has been that most families are dwelling under conditions ill adapted to their needs and far from ideal. Health is injured by defects in house design, equipment, or maintenance which could be easily remedied. Life and limb are endangered by defects which could be eliminated with slight expenditure of time or money. Precious hours are needlessly wasted at housework which could be saved by intelligent re-routing of activities, better arrangement of equipment, or installation of labor-saving devices. Rest and comfort may be missed through lack of appreciation of the ways through which they can be attained, and the fine values of beauty and privacy so essential to individual growth and development may be missed through a failure to appreciate their importance and the possibility of incorporating them even in the most humble dwelling.
The solution of the urgent problem of home improvement is twofold: It involves reaching the householders of the present with information adapted to their interests and needs, and cultivation of initiative in coping with the problems which they face. It demands also the cultivation of trained leadership through our public schools, normal schools, and colleges, through which each present and future homemaker or householder may be helped to the detailed and specific information needed. With every family the problem is to determine what are the next steps which should be taken in the improvement of existing conditions - but those next steps should be determined with reference to ultimate goals. Advice and help are needed.
Much waste of time, energy, and family resources has been caused by ignorance of the best ways of going about the purchase and planning, the repair, or the management of a house. From the point of view of the individual householder, building or purchase of a home may be the most important investment of a lifetime. Viewed from the standpoint of public welfare, conditions of housing are a matter of public concern, because unfortunate mistakes in the design or construction of a single house, in its placement, or mistakes in the selection of the site, may mar the entire neighborhood, and affect the property values, tax rates, and the general well-being of many citizens.
The home, however, should not be an end in itself but a means to the fulfilment of high ideals, of happiness, of family life. Each member of every family should have opportunity at all times to maintain sound health, develop his personal capacities, and grow in character. The home may be made a means, also, of providing opportunity for creative self-expression in each of the arts in, which the individual is interested or gifted, and may thus become a medium through which the deepest of human interests are elicited and trained. Too narrow a conception of the possibilities of the home may lead to moral lethargy; but the development of an understanding of human potentials and of what homes may furnish as a developmental center may provide opportunity for each member of a household to discover himself and organize his life under the most favorable conditions for mental and moral growth, for creative activity, and for service to his community.
The conditions of housing and of home life have been shown to be a matter of public concern. National progress is limited by present conditions of housing which injure health or thwart individual development. Hence, our state and municipal governments have recognized their responsibility by enacting laws governing health, building, and housing, in order to establish certain minimum standards below which no house should be permitted to fall. Civic progress requires a continuous upward pressure upon these standards and frequent revision of the laws already in operation. Within the past few years building laws have been supplemented by zoning legislation in our cities and towns and provision for the careful planning of the city as a unit, both to prevent conditions which may hamper commerce and industry and to provide for the wholesome development of residential districts in their relation to civic, cultural, commercial, and industrial centers. The aim of city planning is to provide a maximum of the amenities of life for all citizens. The home is no longer construed to be an isolated unit, but is recognized as an important factor in the social process. Through the study of housing legislation and city planning the householder and the homemaker become increasingly aware of their civic opportunities and responsibilities as home owners, neighbors, and citizens. Through organizing local civic groups to represent their neighborhood and community at hearings where local or state housing legislation is under consideration they may provide for the protection of their districts, for orderly growth, and for increasing access to the values of home and community life.
Many organizations are engaged in work of one sort or another for the improvement of housing. These include departments of our municipal and federal governments, extension departments of public and private colleges and universities, and civic organizations on a local, state, or national basis concerned with a wide range of problems in the field of architecture, home and community beautification, home economics, slum elimination, city planning, and the development of cultural opportunities and other related subjects. Training for civic leadership involves an understanding of all such community and national resources, so that they may be properly co-ordinated for effective achievement and with a minimum waste of community resources and effort. Through perfecting the service rendered by these various agencies and through well-conceived researches to discover the best available means to the fulfilment of home and community ideals it is possible to speed up the process of home and community improvement for rural districts and for cities. Bit by bit the difficult and serious problems of slum elimination, of the protection of homes from deleterious influences, and of promoting orderly development of residential districts with individuality and quality in the architecture of houses and in the community as a whole may be mastered. These problems will not be solved, however, until every American citizen is able to dwell in a home that is sanitary, convenient, and comfortable, attractive, wholesome, free from influences that thwart development, and conducive in every way to the fulfilment of high ideals.
In a nation with vast economic resources, relative prosperity, and high ideals of popular representation in government, such an ideal is not visionary. Even though a century or two may be necessary for its accomplishment, the beginnings may be made at once in framing a comprehensive program and existing agencies may be used in a practical way to fulfil this ideal step by step. Such a program involves the same kind of research, judicious planning, and continuous painstaking activity that is involved in our great industrial and engineering projects. Too generally sentimen-talism and shortsightedness have dominated activities for social welfare. The constructive genius displayed in business enterprises and the professional skill displayed in private, professional activity must be coordinated with a high conception of civic responsibility, with patient and well-devised planning, and with a growing vision of the ultimate aim. It is the privilege of every business and professional group and of every citizen and householder to participate in this program for home improvement.