- Reviewed by
Between 1945 and 1960, millions of houses were built in the United States, blanketing the farmland surrounding American cities with nearly identical single-family housing developments, and as Dianne Harris argues in a well-researched and thoughtful new book, spawning a new mass culture of bourgeois whiteness. Throughout Little White Houses, Harris offers vignettes of her German-Jewish grandparents whose postwar suburban house became a mark of their assimilation as white Americans. She uses their house, and the [End Page 142] many like it, to argue that postwar houses were “poignant ciphers for whiteness” (p.1).
Much has been written about the ways federal housing programs, developed during the New Deal and expanded in the postwar years, created a highly segregated suburban housing market. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which insured home loans, easily accepted mortgages for new single-family houses on the edges of cities in white (or “racially homogoneous”) communities while rejecting mortgages for urban, multifamily, integrated, or African American neighborhoods. FHA policies meant that white families could purchase new single-family suburban houses with little or no down payments while African Americans were largely cut out of the postwar boom in home ownership, and urban neighborhoods were left starved for investment capital. Urban historians have well documented the consequences of FHA policies on housing markets, the decline of city neighborhoods, and, most tragically, the economic impact on black families who, unlike working-class whites, could not use home ownership to propel themselves into the middle class.
What Harris contributes to this discussion is a sharp analysis of the meanings of suburban houses—and the myriad household goods Americans purchased in the prosperous postwar years. An architectural historian, she is most compelling when reading house plans and landscape designs. Much of the evidence in the book comes from mass-circulation magazines, trade journals, housing advertisements, builders’ plans, and ordinary household objects, as well as the houses themselves. In the journals, editors, writers, and architects instructed homeowners and potential buyers on the proper design and décor of their homes. Nearly every image of suburban homes showed white people only. Articles and advertisements used terms like “clean,” “un-cluttered,” “individuality,” and “casual lifestyle,” which “constituted a lexicon for whiteness and middle-class identity” (p 60). The houses, and the images that promoted them, represented a contrast to the overcrowded, dirty urban neighborhoods so many suburban families were seeking to escape. [End Page 143]
Even more intriguing, Harris argues that architectural renderings and views of house interiors made the suburban house seem the universal form for postwar Americans and suggested that suburban houses marked a new kind of citizenship and national belonging. She notes that architectural renderings can be deceptive, appearing objective while implicitly advocating a political position. Aerial perspectives, for example, provide “supposed realism” while giving the viewer “the perceptual command of space” and a sense of unrestricted movement, privileges claimed primarily by whites in the pre-civil rights era (p. 91). Spaciousness, depicted in nearly empty rooms or expansive lawns, similarly contrasted with the cramped living conditions of old ethnic neighborhoods. Landscape architects suggested moving plantings to the edge of the lot to make the lawn appear larger. In drawings, the aerial perspective could suggest a large lot, again linking the house form and its surroundings to a universal white citizenry.
Harris is an astute reader of whiteness-studies literature, which attempts to track the processes through which various immigrant groups came to see themselves primarily as “white.” Harris’s theorizing about identity formation—she claims identity always is formed against some “other”—is not particularly persuasive. Whiteness, like jelly, is hard to nail down. Scholars have found whiteness forming at almost any moment in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries. The danger of this method is that scholars find whiteness right where they expect to find it.
Harris does not say much that is new about race and suburbanization. Yet she makes a case for the powerful cultural work performed by suburban houses and their interiors...