From October 9, 1922, through October 14, the White House of then-President Warren G. Harding collaborated with the national Better Homes Campaign, led by the editor of a women’s magazine called The Delineator, Marie Mattingly Meloney, to host the Better Homes in America Demonstration Week. The events of the Demonstration Week – which I discussed in an article describing its official Plan Book and other contemporaneous sources – included the display of model homes and other events promoting home ownership and maintenance. The Plan Book featured sets of remarks delivered by then-Vice President Calvin Coolidge and Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover – the two men who would go on to succeed Harding as President of the United States.
While Coolidge was the honorary chairman of the Demonstration Week, Herbert Hoover served as the president and continued to play a role in the Better Homes Campaign in subsequent years. I wrote about Coolidge’s remarks in great detail in a previous article. In this post, I will reprint and analyze the remarks of then-Secretary of Commerce Hoover – which were titled in the Plan Book The Home as an Investment. Whereas Coolidge examined the meaning of home ownership in the context of the life lived well and American society, Hoover’s remarks focused primarily (but not exclusively) on home ownership in the context of the economy and economic incentives.
Herbert Hoover led efforts to provide relief to Belgium and Americans in World War I as the Chairman of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, before accepting an appointment as Director of the United States Food Administration from then-President Woodrow Wilson, in which capacity he served for the duration of the United States’ involvement in the First World War.
Hoover served as Secretary of Commerce under Presidents Harding and Coolidge – and succeeded Calvin Coolidge as President after winning the 1928 Presidential election. Although Hoover’s historical memory is intertwined with the Great Depression, which commenced during his term in in office, he had a lengthy career both before and after his four years in the White House – later serving as an adviser to, and undertaking assignments for, Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower.
Herbert Hoover’s involvement with the Better Homes Campaign continued long after the 1922 Better Homes in America Demonstration Week.
Hoover went on to serve as President of the Better Homes Campaign while serving as Commerce Secretary in the Harding and Coolidge Administrations – as described by Blanche Halbert in her 1931 The Better Homes Manual. His involvement with the Campaign continued into his own presidency.
There are many articles from the 1920s and 1930s detailing Hoover’s active role in the Better Homes movement. The April 23, 1926 edition of The Routt County Sentinel reported Hoover’s appointment of a woman, by the name of E.A. Strange as a local committee head in his capacity as the national president. A similar story appeared in the April 5, 1928 edition of the Urbana Daily Courier. The December 28, 1925 edition of The Daily Times in Colorado described Hoover as president of Better Homes in America and James Ford as executive director. An article in the March 4, 1932 edition of the Virginia Chronicle noted that then-President Hoover was serving as the honorary chairman of the Better Homes campaign.
Herbert Hoover’s address – The Home as an Investment – was published in the Plan Book for Better Homes for America Demonstration Week. For your convenience, I reproduced the address in PDF form – which you will find here. Below, I will re-print the address – paragraph-by-paragraph and append my notes to each section in the same format that I used for my analysis of Coolidge’s address in the same Plan Book.
One can always safely judge of the character of a nation by its homes. For it is mainly through the hope of enjoying the ownership of a home that the latent energy of any citizenry is called forth. This universal yearning for better homes and the larger security, independence and freedom that they imply, was the aspiration that carried our pioneers westward. Since the preemption acts passed early in the last century, the United States, in its land laws, has recognized and put a premium upon this great incentive. It has stimulated the building of rural homes through the wide distribution of land under the Homestead Acts and by the distribution of credit through the Farm Loan Banks. Indeed, this desire for home ownership has, without question, stimulated more people to purposeful saving than any other factor. Saving, in the abstract, is, of course, a perfunctory process as compared with purposeful saving for a home, the possession of which may change the very physical, mental, and moral fibre of one’s own children.
Hoover ascribed two things to the broad desire for home ownership.
Firstly, he stated that it was the desire for home and property ownership that “carried our pioneers westward.” The Government, recognizing that desire, prioritized home and land ownership in the American West and in rural areas.
Secondly, Hoover argued that the desire for home ownership “stimulated more people to purposeful saving than any other factors.”
The most interesting portion of Hoover’s essay opening is his distinguishing two types of saving. See below:
[The] desire for home ownership has, without question, stimulated more people to purposeful saving than any other factor. Saving, in the abstract, is, of course, a perfunctory process as compared with purposeful saving for a home, the possession of which may change the very physical, mental, and moral fibre of one’s own children.
Hoover’s distinguishing purposeful saving from saving for its own sake is astute and interesting – and an idea that can be applied to saving in all cases. The distinction recalls my post at The New Leaf Journal contrasting purposeful, goal-oriented productivity with productivity for its own sake, detached from a goal.
Now, in the main because of the diversion of our economic strength from permanent construction to manufacturing of consumable commodities during and after the war, we are short about a million homes. In cities such a shortage implies the challenge of congestion. It means that in practically every American city of more than 200,000, from 20 to 30 per centof the population is adversely affected, and that thousands of families are forced into unsanitary and dangerous quarters. This condition, in turn, means a large increase in rents, a throw-back in human efficiency and that unrest which inevitably results from inhibition of the primal instinct in us all for home ownership. It makes for nomads and vagrants. In rural areas it means aggravation and increase of farm tenantry on one hand, an increase of landlordism on the other hand, and general disturbance to the prosperity and contentment of rural life.
I noted in my introduction to Better Homes for America and in my assessment of Coolidge’s remarks that the campaign, and the Demonstration Week, arose in the circumstances of post-World War I America. In this passage, Hoover describes, with timely statistics, the effect that the War had on home ownership in the United States and the general economy.
What were the dangers of these circumstances? Hoover presciently feared that thousands of American families were being forced to live in cramped, unsanitary conditions. This, Hoover suggested, would lead to a decrease in efficiency and increase in tenancy in rural areas and “landlordism” in cities. These adverse conditions, however, would not vitiate “the primal instinct in us all for home ownership.”
There is no incentive to thrift like the ownership of property. The man who owns his own home has a happy sense of security. He will invest his hard-earned savings to improve the house he owns. He will develop it and defend it. No man ever worked for, or fought for a boarding-house.
The proverbial crescendo of Hoover’s The Home as an Investment comes in its second shortest paragraph:
No man ever worked for, or fought for a boarding-house.
Recalling the opening of the remarks, Hoover distinguished between purposeful thrift and thrift for its own sake. Here, Hoover stated unequivocally that nothing inspires purposeful thrift as much as the desire to be able to own a home and property. Moreover, the incentive does not wane once one is in possession of property – “He will invest his hard-earned savings to improve the house he owns. He will develop it and defend it.” Thus, from this passage, we glean Hoover’s view that the the incentive to property promotes purposeful and on-going thrift, and the holding and improvement of property promotes industry and character.
But the appalling anomaly of a nation as prosperous as ours thwarted largely in its common yearning for better homes, is now giving way to the gratifying revival of home construction. Accordingly the time is ripe for this revival to afford an opportunity to our people to look to more homes and better ones, to better, more economical and more uniform building codes, and to universal establishment and application of zoning rules that make for the development of better towns and cities. We have the productive capacity wasted annually in the United States sufficient to raise in large measure the housing conditions of our entire people to the level that only fifty per centof them now enjoy. We have wastes in the building industry itself which, if constructively applied, would go a long way toward supplying better homes, so that what is needed imperatively is organized intelligence and direction. For the problem is essentially one of ways and means.
Harding articulated two objectives. Firstly, he wanted to make, through the development of “more economical uniform building codes,” home ownership more accessible to ordinary people. Specifically, he hoped to “raise … the housing conditions of our entire people to the level that only fifty per cent, of them now enjoy.” Secondly, Hoover hoped that these new building codes would make homes “better,” perhaps also making it possible for people who already owned homes to find better and more modern homes. Hoover saw some degree of centralization – both in terms of “uniform building codes” and the reduction of “wastes in the building industry itself” – as necessary to ameliorate shortages of single-family homes and create the conditions for more people to purchase homes.
And, finally, 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. It may have been a typesetter who confounded the two words. For, curiously, with all our American ingenuity and resourcefulness, we have overlooked the laundry and the kitchen, and thrown the bulk of our efforts in directions other than those designed to make better homes by adding to the facilities of our very habitations. If, in other words, 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 quite as large a share of attention as the power plant or the factory.
We believe, therefore, that in every community in which it is possible a “Better Homes in America” Demonstration should be planned and carried through during the week of October 9th to 14th, 1922.
I noted on several occasions in my three articles on the 1922 Better Homes for America event that Hoover’s address was more policy-oriented than that of Calvin Coolidge’s. Most of Coolidge’s address focused on the place of owning a home in the Good life. To the extent that Coolidge discussed home ownership in the context of the United States, he focused more on the character of the nation than economics. However, Hoover’s address was not entirely focused on economics – he took a somewhat Coolidge-turn in the penultimate paragraph.
States, counties, communities, and patriotic individuals and organizations can rightfully give, let us have in mind not houses merely, but homes!
According to Hoover, all homes are houses, but not all houses are homes. “There is a large distinction.” Hoover gently cautioned against neglecting the improvement of dwellings in order to make them suitable homes for families. Houses should be improved such that they can be homes:
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 quite as large a share of attention as the power plant or factory.
On this point, Coolidge and Harding were entirely in accord. Ownership of true homes and not merely houses was, in both their views, essential foundations of the family.
Much of Hoover’s speech focused on the economic aspects of home ownership – primarily in terms of incentives for individuals. Of those sections, Hoover’s most interesting observation was that thrift is in some cases purposeful and in other cases perfunctory. Thrift is virtuous, but saving should be directed toward noble ends. Hoover observed that saving for a place to call home is such a noble end.
Hoover’s most cosmic observation was that there is a difference between a house and a home. While he did not dive into this issue with the same granularity that Coolidge did – he explored the practical implication of the distinction. Having resolved that a home is quite different than a house, Hoover explained that it must follow that the improvement of dwellings in order to make them suitable places for families – “the unit of modern civilization” – should be a top priority of the modern civilization that was (and is) the United States.