The American Dream House Only Worked in Dreams and Commercials

Leisure and domestic bliss never seemed to materialize as promised. But over the years people have found ways to break down the standard designs and craft spaces of their own.

An aerial view of a suburban neighborhood
Mike Blake / Reuters

In the Northern California neighborhood where I live, on the border between Oakland and Berkeley, many of the homes were built in the first decade of the 20th century. They are predominantly craftsman style, with wide living rooms, formal dining rooms, and wood-paneled walls. The area is a real-estate hot spot right now, and while I’m a renter with no immediate plans to buy, I’m also a design-curious voyeur, so I often tour the open houses. And there’s something going on in the homes that are being prepped for the current buyer: While the exteriors look like craftsman homes, the interiors often look like what I think of as suburban generic. The walls separating the living, dining, and kitchen spaces have been eliminated, creating the “open plan” layout that has been the aspiration of millions of American home buyers since shortly after World War II.

The decompartmentalization of domestic space was a core tenet of the American dream house—the idealized residence that was replicated and marketed so vigorously in the years following World War II, and that, in spite of massive changes in our cultural attitudes, social structures, and demographic makeup, remains the prototypical model of a “home.” In the housing boom that followed the war, the campaign to turn young adults into homeowners wasn’t just about promoting a residence itself; it was about defining a norm for family and domesticity, and glorifying the pursuit of that norm.

The brand-new modern homes of the mid-century were built for the standard nuclear family: one breadwinning father, one stay-at-home mother, and two children (one of each sex, of course). In their dream house, they would enjoy the boundaryless open plan, where Mom could prepare dinner with a clear view to her children in the family room. Everyone would then share their meal in the eat-in kitchen—a feature that purported to be the answer to the modern mother’s challenges. The whole kitchen, in fact, was designed to be as labor-saving as a factory, with the housewife positioned as the professional forewoman. High-tech machinery was built in—dishwashers and, later, microwaves sped up operations, and imbued the kitchens with a semi-industrial gleam. It was all part of the new aesthetic. Surveys of home buyers from that time, including one published in 1954 under the title “What People Want When They Buy a House,” reflected people’s reverence for efficiency:

The busy mother who has to serve, administer, and police three meals a day for a family of children needs to be able to prepare and serve with least lost motion and to be able … to clean up with minimum effort, hence she wants a practical informal eating place in or off the kitchen.

It all sounded very good—her work could be completed more quickly, she’d gain leisure time—but it was complicated. While there were benefits to having domestic work perceived more like a professional occupation, with its attendant needs for tools of efficiency and worker satisfaction, the housewife was not exactly a corner-suite executive. “There were some serious problems with trying to uphold the analogy between the housewife and the factory worker,” says Victoria Rosner, an English professor at Columbia University and the author of the book Modernism and the Architecture of Private Life.

“First, factory work is productive (you make widgets) while domestic work is repetitive and periodic (you clean the floor and there is no work product … and the floor has to be cleaned again tomorrow). So what is efficiency in the home? Not baking more cakes in the same period of time if the family can only eat one. Another problem was the continual raising of standards. If labor-saving devices like the mechanical washer made it possible to do some jobs more quickly, the standards for what it meant to be ‘clean’ were continually raised so that working smarter did not mean working less.” And of course, the biggest problem with this new frame: “The professionalized housewife is stuck living in her workplace.”

And while the mother may have been the chief officer in the kitchen, she was not, ultimately, head of household, and her work was often critiqued by her husband, her children, and especially consumer culture. The solution to keeping up with the work and keeping family members satisfied, said every advertisement, was to buy more stuff. In Redesigning the American Dream: Gender, Housing, and Family Life, the urban historian Dolores Hayden notes, “The classic ‘ring around the collar’ commercials of the ’60s dramatized the issue. A husband and his five-year-old son jeered at a woman for using a detergent that could not remove the stains on their shirt collars. Her response—to buy a new product—exemplified the ways that conflict within a family was exploited.”

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, the 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.

By today’s standards, these glorified mid-century energy hogs now seem modest in both size and consumption levels compared to the truly massive suburban homes that went up in later decades, still in the mold of the American dream, with their nuclear-family focus and car-centric promise of independence. Even as their contributions to environmental collapse became obvious, and even as family compositions diversified, it was as if America couldn’t shake the ’50s version of “what people want when they buy a house.”

But at the same time, it turns out that the perfect homogeneity that developers once imposed is no match for the range of families there are today and their particular needs. My own street in North Oakland is an archetypical example of the shifting format of residential blocks, from rows of single-family houses to multi-unit clusters and mini compounds on single lots. While many interiors are being revised to match an age-old ideal of the “family layout,” the buildings themselves typify today’s wide range of domestic and economic circumstances. My home, once a single-family residence of more than 3,000 square feet, is now a duplex with a third accessory unit out back. Across the street, two twin houses are now an eight-plex. Up and down the block there are young and elderly residents living alone, single-parent families, childless boomers, multigenerational households, married gay couples with kids. Almost every evening we find ourselves sitting on a stoop or front lawn with some assortment of these people and our own toddler, and each time I marvel at what he’s growing up knowing as “normal.” Because this, to me, is a far dreamier iteration of American residential life than the separated, ultra-private, homogenous ’50s version. The people are not all the same, but there’s a sense of unity anchored by the mutual commitment to knowing one’s neighbors and paying attention to life on the street.

There have been detractors in recent decades who claim the redistribution and densification of residential space represents a dismantling of the American dream. They lament that occupants of newly divided multifamily buildings lack the commitment to community and place that the archetypical ’50s family upheld. But as Stewart Brand suggested in his book How Buildings Learn, published in the mid-’90s, architecture must adapt to changing conditions—not only to remain sturdy with age but to remain appropriate to its users as they themselves evolve. To reconfigure homes to suit more types of living situations is to give that many more people the chance to take part in knitting together a local community. As Hayden puts it in her book, “One could observe, more optimistically, that renovations create commitment to house and neighborhood, to staying with the American dream and updating it.”