Take, for example, the mid-’50s marketing campaign “Live Better Electrically,” from General Electric and a few other utilities, which promised that a fully electrified Dream House would lead to an even dreamier life. (The campaign featured a pre-presidential Ronald Reagan as its chief spokesperson.) Most of the ads were directed at women, making the case that once she owned all 24 of the appliances they prescribed for her kitchen, she’d spend her day lounging and/or enjoying more intimacy with her husband. A series of quizzes enabled women to see how they ranked on the electric scale. At the top, to the woman with all two dozen appliances, they proclaimed, “You’ve arrived! Your kitchen works instead of you!”
But, somehow, this leisure time never seemed to materialize. It became an ongoing condition of domesticity to pursue mass-manufactured newness (and of course this condition persists today), and the time spent on that pursuit pushed out time that might have been spent, some decades earlier, making domestic wares that reflected more individual and meaningful aesthetics. “American women and men have to assemble their interior home décor from a range of machine-made products,” Hayden writes, “What is most disconcerting is that these are all advertised as luxury goods but designed for rapid obsolescence. In earlier times American women made handsome quilts and painted stencil decorations on their walls and floors, but today’s American housewife faces synthetic materials, all simulating something more expensive: wallpaper resembling bamboo, linoleum resembling ceramic tile...”
What was the appeal in this? Certainly, there was the instant gratification of ready-made interior fixtures. And simultaneously, there was an increasing sense that homogeneity within one’s social class was desirable (everyone had their Joneses next door). As Hayden puts it, “More than ever, the way to assure public virtue through the family was to consider the setting where the family would live….Homogeneity of dwellings, representing a shared set of values, would be the evidence of…America’s ‘pleasing uniformity of decent competence.’”
Of course, with styles changing constantly, nothing was built to last very long, and there are environmental consequences of so much consumption and disposability. With few warnings about the potential harms of overconsumption, some architects actually encouraged it as a sign of class status. In his 1953 book The House and the Art of Its Design, architect Robert Wood Kennedy dubbed the practice “honorific waste.”
The homes themselves became consumers of manufactured amenities, too. Central heat and air conditioning made site orientation much less vital to the comfort of the house, so a building didn’t need to take advantage of the sun’s trajectory; it could be rotated to prioritize instead how the family interacted with their house and its lot, positioning windows onto the backyard no matter its relationship to the cardinal directions, and trusting energy-intensive systems to compensate.