June is National Homeownership Month. It was initially National Homeownership week, established by President Bill Clinton in 1995. President George W. Bush first proclaimed National Homeownership month in 2002. While a whole month to recognize owning a home is less than twenty years old, the roots of celebrating home ownership with a day, a week, or a whole month has its roots in the 1920s.
In March 1921, Herbert Hoover became Secretary of Commerce. Among his goals as secretary was to improve the lives of Americans in both rural and urban settings. One of the vehicles for this improvement focused on the family home. Better housing, Hoover thought, would generate more family time, leisure, spirituality, and volunteerism. U.S. involvement in World War I, stymied construction of new homes had created a housing shortage.
Within a month of becoming secretary, Hoover set to work on solving the housing shortage through the creation of the Division of Construction and Housing. The new office would promote to voluntary cooperation of the building industry, support the creation of standardized building and zoning codes, promote the standardization of construction materials, such as the size of bricks, and improve access to funding. It was hoped that such improvements would, by the summer of 1922, significantly reduce the housing shortage.
In 1922, as the Division of Construction and Housing was rolling, a private effort encouraging communities to demonstrate home improvement took root. This movement, Better Homes in America, was started by Marie M. Meloney, the editor of The Delineator, a magazine of fashion that featured Butterick sewing patterns. She was inspired by a remark that President Warren G. Harding made after visiting a model home in Dayton, Ohio. Harding hoped that more cities would show off a model home. Meloney set up the Better Homes in America program to help towns, both big and small, develop a week, called “Demonstration Week,” to show off the latest advances in home technology and design.
To get things started, she invited Vice President Calvin Coolidge and several cabinet members, including Herbert Hoover and John Gries, head of the Commerce Department’s Division of Construction and Housing, to meet, discuss her ideas, and create an Advisory Council for the new organization. Hoover was named chairman/president of the organization. In October 1922, the Better Homes in America organization sponsored a “Demonstration Week” in over one thousand towns across the country. The 1923 Demonstration Week had the support of 30 governors plus the territories of Alaska and Hawaii.
The Better Homes in America organization became an outreach tool for the Commerce Department’s Division of Construction and Housing. The two entities helped spur the construction of new homes. In 1923, home construction jumped from 44 percent of total construction up from only 22 percent in 1920. Demonstration Weeks and various promotional pamphlets published by the Commerce Department, such as “How to Own Your Own Home,” supported the continued growth of home construction. In the summer of 1923, the Better Homes in America organization separated its connection with the Butterick Company, who published The Delineator magazine. After securing funding from a grant by the Rockefeller Foundation to operate independently, the Better Homes in America organization filed incorporation papers in Delaware in December 1923.
Each year, Better Homes in America issued a guidebook to cities sponsoring a Demonstration Week. The book described how to publicize, suggested home furnishings, and types of programs to put on during the week. Here are some excerpts from the “Guidebook of Better Homes in America: How to Organize the 1926 Campaign: Better Homes Week: April 25 to May 1, 1926”
The American home is the foundation of our national and individual well-being. Its steady improvement is, at the same time, a test of our civilization and of our ideal. The Better Homes in America movement provides a channel through which men and women in each community can encourage the building, ornamenting and owning of private homes by the people at large. We need attractive, worthy, permanent homes that lighten the burden of housekeeping. We need homes in which home life can reach its finest levels, and in which can be reared happy children and upright citizens.
The Better Homes movement stands on the belief that our people, by well-planned measures, can obtain for themselves a finer type of home and family life. . . . The work of Better Homes committees has promoted character training in the home, and reading, music, and other forms of wholesome home recreation. It has encouraged saving and wise expenditure for the building and equipping of homes, and thereby helped to raise living standards, reduce drudgery, and make the conditions of life more attractive.
Behind the scenes, the Commerce Department and the Division of Construction and Housing continued its work to streamline various aspects of construction codes and the like. The public facing Better Homes’ demonstration homes featured modern indoor plumbing and all the latest electric appliances that would reduce the amount time spent on housework. In addition, Demonstration Weeks offered booklets suggesting elements to include in a family home such as artwork and books for a family library. One organization with a partnership with Better Homes in America was the Girl Scouts.
In 1924, the Girl Scouts in Washington, D.C. obtained a house, built as a Better Homes in America demonstration house by the General Federation of Women’s Clubs the year prior. At the time, the Girl Scouts, headed by Lou Henry Hoover, moved the house to a permanent location at 1750 New York Avenue (between the White House and Constitution Hall) and dubbed it “Little House.” The house served as a home making lab for training Girl Scouts and an outreach center for Girl Scouts to grow membership. The Girl Scouts “Little House,” participated in the Better Homes in America Demonstration Weeks into the early 1930s. In addition to showing the work of Girl Scouts, the “Little House” included art and books that were listed in booklets handed out to visitors. Both the papers of Mr. and Mrs. Hoover include many files on the Better Homes in America organization including pages from Demonstration Week booklets as seen below.
The Better Homes in America program continued through the Hoover presidency. In fact, the 1935 Demonstration Week included 10,000 towns. That was the final hurrah for the Better Homes in America program. Funding dried up later in 1935 and the organization dissolved. Despite the lack of a formal organization, various municipalities conducted their own Demonstration Weeks for the next two years.