“Keeping the man a man”: Modeling domestic failure and domestic success in the Delineator
Amidst the usual fashion spreads and cooking advice that filled the pages of the March 1923 Delineator, a women’s magazine published by the Butterick Co., was a personal essay, a confessional piece, the Editor’s Note promising the story of “one wife whose success has left her empty, written out of the very depths of experience, written with the keen and poignant simplicity which makes literature.” “Despoiled: The confession of a wife who failed,” was written in the first person by an anonymous author described as“one of the conspicuous figures of the professional world.” Bylined only as “Herself,” this any-and-every-woman’s experience was expected to resonate with the Delineator’s broad audience—but none more than those women who foolishly called themselves feminists. These women, the author said, “rage against the dependence of wifehood . . . protesting out of a vast unknowledge of life,” she wrote. “The dependence of the wife is the fact that keeps the man a man. It’s the fact that writes the great books, builds the bridges, subdues the wilderness, governs the empires.”
She claimed to have come to this knowledge through hard experience. “Despoiled” tells the story of her failed marriage. She attributes its collapse her insistence on having a career as an illustrator, which she “was determined not to allow marriage to take from me.” Her husband, also a professional, became progressively lazier and angrier. But this was no default in his character; she has concluded that her unwillingness to assume a domestic role was what “ruined” her husband. With her very first paycheck,
I began to undermine a man’s working capacity, to rob him of his sense of responsibility to his talent and to his wife. Both of these are essential to a man’s manhood . . . I debauched Arthur’s manhood as surely and as completely as if I had given him drugs instead of money. Even his big brain could not stay this insidious undermining of his character. The greater fault, the greater weakness was mine.
The piece was just one example of a larger response to cultural anxiety about the role of women in the workplace. Between 1870 and 1920, the number of female clerical workers in the United States had grown from 10,000 to over two million. As historian Jennifer Scanlon notes, “any measure of economic independence for married women was viewed by traditionalists as a threat to the traditional family.” One venue in which to mediate this problem—to offer an ideological corrective—was in the pages of women’s magazines.
The narrator of "Despoiled" ultimately divorced her husband in“his one chance to save his brain alive.” This piece, she said, was an effort to caution women against stumbling down the same lonely path, a warning couched in melodramatic self-flagellation and a tone suggesting world-weary exhaustion. In telling the story, she presented and then discarded the “misguided” assumptions of feminists: “I believed—God help me for it, poor little fool—that wives had a right to develop their brains by competitive earning,” she wrote, early in the piece. Near its conclusion, she reiterated her conviction that women must cede their independence, sacrifice it for the sake of their husbands’ endangered masculinity:
And for that keeping of the man a man with all the stupendous facts that follow, the woman must pay with the sacrifice of her best keenness and intellect, with her talents, with all those splendid mental contacts with life which come alone from competitive earning. She can pay her way with the babies.
The message in “Despoiled” was clear: feminists could argue all they wanted about the viability of their talents and their need for independence, but only at the cost of the health and happiness of the men around them—and, invariably, at the cost of the natural and social order. The piece, which ends on the fatalistic note struck by a woman who has chosen her lot—“Only out of pain and passion and hope deferred does nature permit new life to come”—was typical for many women’s magazines of the time, which sought to model for its readers “right” conduct and appropriate social behavior, often by demonstrating the bleak nature of the emerging alternatives.
As such, the Delineator, like its competitor the Ladies’ Home Journal, “encouraged inaction rather than action, conformity rather than individual expression, guided rather than self-generated change.” Often these messages served the interests of a burgeoning consumer culture, linking, as Scanlon says, “pleasure and leisure [to] consumer pursuits . . . and [by] naturaliz[ing] women’s link to the marketplace through consumption.” By suggesting that her insistence on being the family wage earner destroyed her marriage, the author of “Despoiled” offers not just a cautionary tale, but a corrective model, one that points to consumer culture and motherhood as the woman’s appropriate spheres of operation and influence.
But the production of these messages was not salient and useful only to commercial interests: throughout the interwar period, other cultural actors, including the Coolidge administration, began to see women’s magazines like the Delineator as a crucial locus for disseminating its ideologies of American identity—and, in particular, the emerging ideology of homeownership. Two years before “Despoiled” appeared in 1923, the Delineator had initiated the Better Homes in America campaign, which was becoming a crucial aspect of the Commerce Department’s efforts to expand homeownership. In exploring the history of the campaign from its private-sector inception to its government incorporation, I will trace the rise of a media campaign that promoted a discourse of the home that privileged capitalist production and participation and constructed a normative American identity that valorized the participation of white middle-class Americans.
“Not houses merely, but homes!”: Building the Better Homes campaign
The Better Homes in America campaign was organized in 1922 as a non-profit home reform effort of the Delineator and was incorporated by the U.S. Department of Commerce under Herbert Hoover in 1924. Over its ten years of operation, the program was carried out at its peak by 30,000 members, almost exclusively women, who were organized into 7,200 local and regional committees. Centrally administered by the program’s home office, these local committees distributed literature and materials and held annual “demonstration weeks,” in which model homes were exhibited to the public. The program attempted to encourage uniformity of presentation among the many regional branches by sending guidance and information from the home bureau, which was the Delineator’s New York office.
What is of the greatest interest here is the way in which the campaign engaged the participation of multiple cultural actors. Its tacit support for commodity consumption reflected the interests of market forces. Its rhetoric echoed concerns about the erosion of American identity from a variety of sources. It was also a platform by which Herbert Hoover, first as Commerce Secretary, then as President, could express the more ideological of his goals for housing policy, which early biographers describe, in part:
to create a better public understanding of what constitutes good housing; to create an interest in home ownership by the individual; to create a national interest and a sense of community responsibility for better homes and housing.
It was advantageous for Hoover—perhaps even serendipitous—that just as he was beginning to articulate his position on housing, the issue was taken up by the Delineator. The magazine was founded in 1873 as a pattern catalog by E. Butterick and Company but gradually evolved into a more general topical women’s magazine, featuring lifestyle materials and articles on etiquette, cooking, homemaking, and motherhood. Under the leadership of author and social reformer Theodore Dreiser, who became editor in 1907, the Delineator began to have what historian Frank Luther Mott calls a “distinctly controversial and reformatory trend”—but with an equally distinct middle-class sensibility:
‘Matrimonial unrest,’ divorce, ‘race suicide,’ woman suffrage, the high cost of living . . . were all subjects for articles or symposia . . . The fight against fraudulent merchandise was continued, and there was a more spectacular crusade to rescue children from orphan asylums and promote the welfare of underprivileged children.
But he left the magazine in 1910, and the Delineator only halfheartedly continued its “crusade . . . for the legal rights of women and children,” even though “it had as much interest in reform as in fashions,” until the advent of the First World War.
United States involvement in the war induced an expansion of The Delineator’s crusading platform and set the stage for the Better Homes work that would occupy it in the 1920s. Nationalistic in both style and content, war-years features focused on thrift and offered advice for the mothers, wives, and daughters of soldiers; editorials shrilly reported German atrocities. The end of the war ushered in a moment of intense and divisive conflict with regards to the articulation of a cohesive, unquestionably American, identity. With the advent of female suffrage in 1920, attitudes about the assumed “mental and psychological differences between the sexes were [becoming] less clear-cut and less immutable than had traditionally been thought.” The specter of Communism, invoked by the Russian Revolution in 1917, also produced intense anxiety about the deleterious influence immigrants and political radicals might have on U.S. political culture.
All of these social concerns were reflected in the pages of the Delineator. Many were directly voiced by government officials, who used the magazine to disseminate ideology without violating the prevailing belief, particularly of the Harding administration, that “government should act as a source of information, coordination, and national guidance, but [not] a coercive force.” But there were limits to the rhetoric: what Hoover and Harding et al. intended was not self-government, per se, but directed self-government that served political interests, achieved by “convincing the American people that their own self-interest lay in responsible cooperation with each other” and in acquiescence to social norms.
This model required either eliding differences—of race, class, gender, and politics—or framing them as threatening in order to achieve “cooperation.” As feminist historian Amy Kaplan writes,
The notion of domestic policy makes sense only in opposition to foreign policy . . . The idea of the foreign policy depends on the sense of the nation as a domestic space imbued with a sense of at-homeness, in contrast to an external world perceived as alien and threatening. Reciprocally, a sense of the foreign is necessary to erect the boundaries that enclose the nation as home.
Media representations in the Delineator sought to construct external enemies within the borders of the nation as a means of reinscribing the boundaries and consequences of home. The magazine consistently cast political dissent as threatening to social order and presumed to identify as its audience the majority that would oppose such dissent.
In 1921, for example, under Marie Meloney’s new editorship, the Delineator ran a three-part series, published in June, July, and August and written by Vice-President Calvin Coolidge, which focused on the threat of Communism in American institutions, particularly colleges and universities. An Editor’s Introduction preceded the June installment, intoning, “In the preservation of this Republic lies the hope of mankind. Yet the Republic can be destroyed. And all about us active and insidious forces are working toward that destruction with the sheer strength of obsession,” which, Meloney said, Coolidge would detail for the magazine’s readership “with his characteristic calmness, terseness, clarity of expression, and abiding faith in American values.” The piece asked, “Are the ‘Reds’ Stalking Our College Women?” and surveyed student publications from, among other institutions, Columbia University and Vassar College, for signs of Communist propaganda.
In the July 1921 installment, “Trotzky vs. Washington,” Coolidge constructed an image of an unassailable Republic that must steel itself against the onslaught of a Communist attack on values which, again, gathered strength in educational institutions. “The American people,” he wrote, “are conservative. As a people, they probably rank as the most conservative in the world . . . Conservatism does not make much noise, but it is none the less powerful. It is not easily overcome . . . Demonstrably it is the result of the rule of the people themselves.” Given this bulwark of conservative democratic values, Coolidge said, the efforts of college faculty to “pervert the minds of the young with false doctrines and suggestive books . . . cannot prevail against the reasonable efforts of unselfish patriotism.”
Having located the “enemies” of the Republic in educated liberals and their academic institutions, Coolidge was thus prepared, in August 1921, to articulate both the identity (the American woman) and the locus (the American home) of the Republic’s best champions. This rhetoric set the stage for the cultural interventions of the next decade. “This is essentially a problem for the women,” he wrote. “They are the teachers of men. The mothers are not going to be misled . . . To make a home is to be a capitalist. It is likewise to be an altruist. Back of the home, its only support, its only guaranty, is the American government. At the fireside sits the motherhood of the country.”
In selecting as his platform a women’s magazine; in identifying women—and, more specifically, white women—as the nation’s best defense against its insidious ideological enemies; and in naming the home as the crucial site of “American values,” Coolidge signaled the opening of the “private sphere” of the home to the surveillance and interventions of government forces which were, after all, “the ultimate protector of all rights.” Chief among these rights, Coolidge said, was the human inclination toward private property: “Agitation about the distribution and the right of ownership of property is not new . . . [but] they run counter to the nature of mankind. People in general feel and know that they have a right to private ownership of property.” His rhetoric suggested the presence of an internal threat to American values, a sense that those values were natural and superior, and a representation, in the image of the private home, of what the expression of those values looked like.
Of course, it is important to note that many women did resist these ideological pressures to participate in and facilitate the development of these public and private spheres—that this framework presupposes and imposes a historical imaginary of unthinking acquiescence. Feminist historian Linda Kerber argues that the idea of separate spheres was a metaphor that referred “often interchangeably to an ideology imposed on women, a culture created by women, a set of boundaries expected to be observed by women,” and that women’s relationship to this concept was complex in practice and in historical perspective. The imposition, both by figures like Coolidge and by the historians who evaluate his ideologies, of the separate spheres construction radically simplified and consolidated discourse, by eliding differences—particularly racial difference. “Virtually all discussion of the subject until very recently,” Kerber writes, “has focused on the experience of white women, mostly of the middle class.” By extension, Coolidge’s use of the metaphor in the pages of the Delineator was a way of prioritizing white femininity as a crucial—the crucial—structuring force in American political culture. It was also a view shared by white nativists and nationalists, from the KKK to less militant groups.
Women’s relationships to the separate sphere metaphor were complicated. While the concept “clearly served the interests of men with whom women lived . . . women also claimed it for their own, defining their own interests as inextricably linked to the upward mobility of their families, repressing claims for their own autonomy.” Thus the rhetoric of the home as fundamentally American persisted in the pages of the Delineator not just because it was an editorial imposition, but because white women were responsive to it. The “separate sphere” metaphor, coded as concern for the state of the American home, was an editorial refrain that began in the early 1920s and fueled the development of the Better Homes campaign.
For various reasons, Karen Altman writes, Meloney was eager to move the magazine’s editorial policy closer to U.S. federal policy. Meloney had complicated interests at stake. Chief among these is likely that she saw an opportunity to increase circulation of the magazine by running a “public service” campaign. Named the Washington Bureau Chief of the Denver Post at age 18, Meloney was a shrewd politician as well as a journalist. But she was also a lifelong philanthropist and used her position to take up various “public service” causes at many points in her life; in 1930, as editor of the New York Herald Tribune, she founded the Forum on Current Problems, which brought international statesmen together for public conferences on current issues. But whatever motivated her interest in “better homes”—whatever combination of philanthropy and business acumen—the campaign also served the interests of other cultural actors, particularly the Harding and Coolidge administrations.
Shortly after “attend[ing] a 1921 home demonstration at which President Harding gave his endorsement for ‘better homes,’” Meloney wrote in an April 1922 Editor’s Note that “one of the great needs of America to-day is homes, [and thus] the Delineator offers a part of its pages to this cause. If you want a home, we wish to help you.” In that same issue, readers were also told that “There is an instinctive desire in the heart of every real woman to own her own home. . . A home should be an investment. Mr. Hoover has said that what American needs more than anything is to own homes.”
Meloney’s April 1922 mention of the “instinctive desire” to own a home was preparatory to the announcement, in September 1922, of the Better Homes in America campaign. Meloney had actively sought support from state and federal government officials. She announced in her editorial note, “America is short a million homes. No matter where you live, your state needs homes. And especially it needs better homes. . . [but] even the great circulation of a magazine like the Delineator could not reach enough people. For this reason we asked the government of the United States to cooperate with us.”
That cooperation was initially fairly limited and largely cosmetic. Marie Meloney sought from the beginning of the campaign to create the appearance of government support and involvement in the Better Homes effort—and, by extension, the support of those whom she called “public men.” In a September 6, 1922 letter to Secretary of Commerce Hoover, in which she sought a signed campaign endorsement from President Harding, she wrote:
I have made a very earnest effort to credit this campaign to the Administration, to which I realized it would be an asset . . . Women’s publications . . . can and do render uncommercialized services to the public . . .It is, I feel, important for public men to realize that women’s publications are service magazines. That they have a power for usefulness in this country, and that every encouragement should be given to their publishers and Editors in planning constructive campaigns for the good of the nation.
This concern that an effort carried out by a women’s magazine, ostensibly on behalf of “American” women, would only be received successfully if endorsed by “public men,” led Meloney to energetically seek broad governmental support, lobbying, in particular, state governors to sign on as visible (if ceremonial) partners in the campaign.
Initially, government officials seem to have contributed to the campaign only after Meloney aggressively sought their endorsements while promising that there would be no attendant responsibilities. She wrote to Herbert Hoover in January 1923, asking for a written endorsement from President Harding: “It was a terrific job to put over the 1922 [Better Homes] movement, but it was a real success, and I feel that we have merited that much recognition from the President.” Likewise, in April of that year, she wrote again to Hoover:
These next two weeks are critical days in the Better Homes campaign . . . I promise not to bother you again if you will write one more letter for use in the campaign. It need only be two paragraphs long, and I shall have it reproduced and sent to the women all over the States working day and night on this campaign, who feel that they are getting very little official encouragement.
She enclosed a sample letter that Hoover would need only to retype, sign, and return. Hoover, however, recalled the campaign’s inception differently, writing in his memoirs, “Together with Mrs. William Brown Meloney, I created a volunteer organization called Better Homes in America, of which I was the president or chairman for twelve years. I raised from $75 000 to $150 000 per annum from private sources to support the Better Homes movement.” But regardless of the questionable rigor and quality of their support, the visibility of government officials was crucial to the campaign’s early success, and the campaign’s developing ideologies were sufficiently conservative that they would soon become government ideologies as well.
Mediating messages: BHA 1922-1924
The early literature of the campaign cast the pursuit of “better homes”—still ambiguously defined—as a long-neglected part of the general program of American industrial progress. “No year passes,” wrote Meloney in the October 1922 Editor’s Note, “without beholding a change for the better in implements, machinery, working conditions, in every division or department of American industry, save one. And that exception is the average American home.” Pages later, Hoover suggested that the home, as part of the machinery of social progress and momentum, needed to be transformed and streamlined in the same way that the factory did: “If . . . the family is the unit of modern civilization, the home, its shelter and gathering-point, should, it would seem, warrant in its design and furnishing as large a share of attention as the power plant or the factory.”
But that need for progress was also cast in a gendered context, wherein the home was regarded as the “the factory in which twenty million women toil every day of the year, Sundays and holidays included,” a site of productivity neglected by society. Moreover, women needed to be reframed not just as wives and mothers, but also as industrial producers. Women, Meloney said, had not previously been allowed the privilege of participating in the nation’s economic progress, their needs overlooked in the forward momentum of industrialized society. “The housewife and her problems,” Meloney wrote, “have been forgotten. It is time that she be remembered. For what matter it if a nation be great in industry, in commerce, in politics, if she be not also great in her homes.” The stakes of the Better Homes campaign were thus explicitly linked to capitalist production, and women were enlisted (perhaps even conscripted) in ensuring the success of a national effort toward efficiency and progress.
This argument of “neglect” was lent gravity and substance by the continuing appearance of the support of public men for the Better Homes campaign. The October 1922 issue of Delineator drew on this base of support, particularly. A two-page spread ringed with photos of the campaign’s supporters—all men—announced, “This is not a one-time program” and articulated the ways in which participating governors would support the campaign, which were chiefly ceremonial:
“[The participating governors] will set aside the week of October ninth to fourteenth as Better Homes Week. Each has agreed to appoint one housewife in every county seat or trading community who shall form a committee to study the advisory council’s primer and to develop a model home which will be kept open to the public for six days.”
In that same issue, commentary from Herbert Hoover reinforced the established rhetoric of the home as democratic bulwark. His piece “The Home as An Investment” referred not to the home as source of equity (as it would later become), but as an ideological investment that propelled the advance of democracy. Not only, he argued, is it “mainly through the hope of enjoying the ownership of a home that the latent energy of any citizenry is called forth,” but he also claimed that homeownership has been a persistent American aspiration. “This universal yearning for better homes and the larger security, independence, and freedom that they imply,” he wrote, “was the aspiration that carried the pioneers westward.”
What is most interesting about Hoover’s commentary is its careful justification for government intrusion into the private sphere, despite his espousal of non-intervention, wherein “business [would] keep out of government [and] government [would] keep out of business.” Perhaps Hoover had begun to think of the Better Homes campaign as an ideal platform for the dissemination of state ideologies when he wrote,
While we are about Better Homes for America and are lending such indirect support to the movement as the Government, States, counties, communities, and patriotic individuals and organizations can rightfully give, let us have in mind not houses merely, but homes! There is a large distinction.
His rhetoric skillfully acknowledged the existing demarcation between the public and the private while tacitly asserting that the need for homes, “not houses merely,” necessitates some intervention and supervision, a more direct and active shaping of the home by its interested sponsors. How, he asked, can the State insure the character of the nation if it lacks access to those essential loci wherein character is formed?
Or at least that was his tacit suggestion. Overtly, Hoover advocated voluntary association and private initiative as the best and most effective method of social improvement, rather than—or perhaps instead of—government intervention. In a September 2, 1922 letter to Marie Meloney, Hoover wrote,
The greatest misery that can be relieved in the world is the misery that arises out of bad government, and if your correspondent and others similarly situated are willing to devote themselves to public service they should go straight to the political side as being the only practical method by which these problems can be solved.
Government itself, then, wasn’t the problem for Hoover, but “bad government” was. This usually involved, to his mind, any kind of intrusive legislation that could be construed as “official” state intervention. Supporting and endorsing the management of the private sphere was appropriate; legislating it was not.
The October campaign was followed up immediately with a November 1922 report of the campaign’s “success,” which, wrote Meloney, “was only the beginning of a new fort for the defense of the nation.” The report on the October “Demonstration Week” drew heavily on the campaign’s political associations, despite the fact that Meloney had been unable to secure a letter of support from President Harding, or much institutional, rather than individual, enthusiasm. A summary article appeared under the seal of the Better Homes Campaign (a hearth enclosed in an oval) with the names of the 16 members of its Advisory Council—13 of whom were men, 11 with ties to the Executive branch. “It is our ambition, also,” the text read, “to help America become a nation of home owners--not of renters. . . There is a new force in America. It is a pride in better homes.”
Over the next year and a half, the Delineator continued to give the Better Homes campaign ample attention in its pages, offering increasingly didactic advice to its readers. The May 1923 magazine again reviewed the 1922 campaign, saying,
In any survey of social progress in the United States the year 1922 will stand out as marking among its foremost accomplishments the nation-wide Better Homes in America campaign. It was a concerted, intelligent, unselfish drive to awaken throughout the land a consciousness of the need of better living conditions, of the deep meaning and economic importance of better homes.
But the campaign was hardly so universal as this rhetoric suggests, and as was revealed in the same issue. A two-page spread highlighted the campaign’s prizewinners, communities awarded cash prizes for “successful” demonstration homes. Most notably, the third place prize went to St. Helena Island, one of the Gullah communities off the coast of South Carolina whose population was predominantly African American and had been for decades. “Census records for the 1930s,” writes historian Janet Hutchinson, “tallied a total population of 4,626 people on the island, of whom 4,458 were African American” and had come to St. Helena as slaves on cotton plantations operated by absentee landowners. It was one of the only communities in which the participation of people of color in the Better Homes campaign was publicly noted or advertised.
St. Helena’s award for “one of the most interesting and constructive local campaigns” was described as a “special” award by the magazine. The campaign chair, Mrs. Grace Bigelow House, who was the assistant principal of the island’s school, applied her campaign to the needs of the colored folk of that section of South Carolina. She remodeled, furnished, and equipped a plantation cabin and put the program in the hands of a group of colored men and women, who carried it out splendidly.
Karen Altman notes that the following year, St. Helena again received “special” recognition. With a home that cost $643 to build, the community took second prize to Port Huron, Michigan, whose model home cost $5,500 to complete. Though its language masked difference, the campaign valued certain contributions over others—particularly those that came from white women. St. Helena’s award was framed as a “special” award, argues Janet Hutchinson, because “the national leaders of the movement may have feared racist opposition on the part of white committees if they awarded prizes to black demonstrations over those of whites.”
The rhetoric of difference in describing St. Helena Island, which drew attention to and made an exception of the participation of people of color, was typical for the campaign, which “by 1924 . . . had divided the program into racially segregated competitions.” Even as the Delineator enthused that successful campaigns were “inspiring instances of civic pride [wherein] men and women . . . gladly submerged their own personalities and opinions for the cause,” there existed a hierarchy of racial difference. Its universalizing language insisted that “every city in the United States should enroll in this movement,” even while the Delineator’s coverage of St. Helena “revealed economic and racial prejudice.” Often the magazine “printed the islanders’ speech in sentences such as . . . ‘I’s gwine make improvements yet fo’ Better Homes Week!’” Some of this may have had more to do with the anticipation of racist reactions from other communities than with the editors’ inclinations. But whatever the reason, it is clear from these disparities in rhetoric that the campaign masked difference while prioritizing conformity. Thus we can see that the campaign’s apparently cohesive purpose—“better homes” for all Americans—was actually constructed from tenuous compromise and submerged conflict.
The “consciousness of the need of better living conditions” was likewise presented as a neutral and universal standard. But better living conditions were highly politicized, and the campaign’s directives tacitly mandated conformist compliance with imposed standards. The May 1923 issue also announced “four new features” of the 1923 campaign, which was to include “a standard for the home library, a music library with a list of the best music [and] pictures for the home.” Trading on a lack of an identifiable commercial supporter, the magazine claimed the following month that the campaign was intended to “make it possible for all citizens to learn from an authoritative and non-commercial source the essentials of a better home.” Yet right conduct also required right consumer behavior, which would become even clearer when two of these proposed features—for the home library and music library—appeared in the pages of the magazine in August and November 1923.
In August 1923 (the same month that he assumed the presidency after Warren G. Harding’s sudden death) Calvin Coolidge’s byline appeared with the piece “Books for Better Homes.” Because “all great and fine things have their beginnings in thought . . . [and] the mind and the soul are the forces behind every forward step civilization takes,” the campaign offered materials that would cultivate the “right” frame of mind for the better home. The article promised readers that they might attain, through literature, “a mind that is keen, straight-thinking, and well-balanced,” a mind “prepare[ed] for the life of American citizenship.”
But to merely read appropriate books was not enough for a campaign that “promoted commercialism and commodification” and “supported the general interests of capital,” as Karen Altman notes. Readers were told that “you must do more than read [the books suggested]. You must own them. You must make them part of you. And you must choose the right books.” There was satisfaction in consumption, in ownership—a satisfaction that was framed as both desirable and essential: “In the right to personal possession that comes from ownership of a book there is a wealth of satisfaction . . . a borrowed book is as unsatisfactory as a borrowed friend.” Coolidge then listed twenty essential volumes for a Better Homes library, which included a range of fiction and non-fiction, including cookbooks and parenting books. At the top of the list was, of course, the Bible.
Likewise, in November 1923, the magazine published a list, collected from reader surveys, the “ten songs most frequently mentioned by American home people.” The list suggests, in subtext, that a good deal of anxiety persisted about the acceleration of modern life and changing social roles, with particular regard to racial identity. The prescriptions of the Better Homes campaign would ameliorate anxieties and stabilize social roles. Marie Meloney noted in her Editor’s Note,
The program was a reply to the cynics of the world. Among the ten songs most frequently mentioned . . . there is not a single piece of jazz. They are still simple melodies and hymns. If this list be an index, we are still a religious people, thank God. . . These songs . . . reveal a little of the soul of America. Close to our hearts are God and country and clean love.”
The perceived “threat” of jazz music operates here at two registers, both of them racialized. On one level, of course, it is an explicitly Black American musical form. That “American home people” expressed no interest in jazz—and that that came as such as a relief to Meloney—reveals the assumption and expectation that her audience was white. Furthermore, she constructed whiteness as the normative and preferential identity of homeowners the campaign sought to develop. On another level, jazz also represented disorder and chaos, the social disruption of the so-called Jazz Age, which for some white American women represented liberation from constraining social roles.
The messages projected by the Better Homes in America campaign in its first few years were complicated, then, by questions of identity. Despite their structuring presence and influence, race, class, and gender were unaddressed—or poorly addressed—by the campaign; yet its rhetoric, and probably many of its sentiments, expressed the hope that efforts toward social improvement would ameliorate the pressures of difference. As government authorities became more and more involved in the movement over the next several years, these questions of identity and their bearing on civic participation and citizenship would only grow more complex.
Better Homes in America, Incorporated
As the 1923 campaign went on, Marie Meloney found it increasingly difficult to secure funding for the campaign, which grossly exceeded the magazine’s budget, largely because she was reluctant to seek commercial sponsors. She feared that direct commercial associations would taint the movement’s reputation and undermine its generalized advocacy of consumer behavior via the appearance of specific endorsements. The 1922 campaign had cost the magazine $25,000. The 1923 campaign, which called for the construction of a permanent demonstration home in Washington, D.C., was expected to cost at least $5,000-$10,000 more. Moreover, correspondence suggests that “various agencies not responsible for this work are claiming credit,” and Meloney’s time was increasingly engaged in attempting to protect her work from commercial exploitation. At one point she even sought a copyright for the phrase “Better Homes.”
Meanwhile, Herbert Hoover was increasingly eager to absorb the campaign as a “publicity and ‘education’ apparatus” of the Division of Building and Housing, an arm of the Commerce Department created in 1921. As early as June 1922, historian Karen Altman notes, public relations experts in the Commerce Department had “latched onto the Delineator’s Better Homes campaign . . . [and] determined that BHA was ‘exactly the thing needed to shove the whole housing and better homes ideas of the Department over [sic],’” and that “‘the best place in the world for such propaganda is the women’s magazines.’”
In the spring of 1923, just before Demonstration Week, Hoover wrote to Meloney on “the question of a more definite organization of the Better Homes movement . . . My own mind runs to creating a definite organization with a general committee and an executive committee.” He was careful to emphasize, however, the fact that he wanted the Delineator to continue to receive credit for its efforts, regardless of what shape the campaign might take. This assurance was ostensibly intended to placate Marie Meloney. In a letter to the president of the Butterick Publishing Company, however, Hoover admitted that the connection to the magazine was essential to the campaign’s ongoing success. “To carry on such a movement without strong and devoted journalistic support is . . . extremely unlikely of success,” he wrote, recognizing that media were a crucial platform from which to naturalize ideas about homeownership and the ideologies of citizenship that supported it.
By late December 1923, an administration for the “new” organization was in place, with Herbert Hoover as president and economist James Ford, its executive director. As Marie Meloney suggested, “the director ought to be a man, [while] . . . the field workers should be women.” In addition, Hoover and Meloney secured three years of funding from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Foundation and a certificate of incorporation for the newly-named Better Homes in America, Inc.
The April 1924 Delineator announced the transition, assuring readers that “the campaign henceforth will be carried on with a broader scope, but will still be based upon the standards and ideals set up and followed by the Delineator.” Though the magazine continued to run content related to the campaign until Meloney’s departure in 1926, the campaign was now wholly absorbed by the federal government. The announcement praised Marie Meloney, but her contributions—to which government officials were initially fairly indifferent—were elided. Former Better Homes president Ray Lyman Wilbur, for example, remembered the campaign’s genesis this way: “Hoover, with the aid of Mrs. William Brown Meloney, organized a voluntary association of ‘Better Homes in America’ of which he was chairman.”
Though the corporation was technically an independent nonprofit organization, it claimed heavy “cooperation,” Karen Altman says, with the Department of Commerce, which recognized that “‘better homes’ articulated a standard, commonsense way of life and it constituted a political, economic, and social order conducive to the interests of both capital and the state in the 1920s.” What’s more, the Better Homes in America organization was a crucial platform for continuing the project of consolidating American identity and supporting what Hoover called, in 1930, “this unparalleled rise of the American man and woman . . . [which] sprang from ideas and ideals, which liberated the mind and stimulated the exertion of a people.”
But by the time Hoover even hailed this “unparalleled rise,” the campaign he hoped would foster their continued growth was beginning to decline in strength. Its peak year, Karen Altman reports, was 1930. By 1933, the campaign “appeared to have no financial stability” and James Ford’s leadership was generally regarded as incompetent. Two years later, BHA, Inc., liquidated its assets, by which point “none of the original institutions of BHA oversaw the close of [the] campaign.”
Yet the story of the campaign, from the pages of the Delineator to the pages of the Better Homes Manual, is the story of changing interwar attitudes about the American home. In advocating for zoning laws, the manual began to do work that ten years prior would have been impossible. It likewise began laying the groundwork for greater government activism in the Depression era. Hoover was unwilling to either commit significant funding to housing or support legislative efforts that would facilitate the private housing market. But the New Deal programs of the Roosevelt administration sought to more directly influence models of and for the American home.
This increased private-sphere activism would not have been possible without the preparatory work, the staging efforts, of the Better Homes in America campaign. The rhetoric of the campaign conditioned and manipulated popular expectations and attitudes about government responsibility to and involvement in the housing market. Of course, this wasn’t the campaign’s original intention. That would imply cohesive leadership and consolidated ideology, uncomplicated by the mediating impact of varied influences and complex interactions. Instead, work begun by one set of actors (Marie Meloney, the Harding administration) allowed for the programs and practices of another set of actors (specifically the Roosevelt administration). The arbiters of later government efforts, Roosevelt among them, had no direct contact with the Better Homes in America campaign. Yet the ideologies they espoused, both new and divergent (government ownership of property) as well as preexisting and convergent (reinscribing racial difference) were made possible by this project that sought to change American homes. In retrospect, it did—though certainly not in the ways it had intended.
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