‘Books That Built America’s Houses’ To Open At Grolier Club

Title page of Palliser’s American Cottage Homes Palliser, Palliser & Company, Bridgeport, Conn.: Palliser, 1878. Collection of Eric Holzenberg.

NEW YORK CITY — The history of the American Dream of home ownership is highlighted in the exhibition “Selling the Dwelling: The Books That Built America’s Houses, 1775–2000,” which will be at the Grolier Club December 11–February 7.

Beginning in 1775 and through the present, dream homes were presented in drawn plans and elevations printed in books, magazines and catalogs. Curator Richard Cheek, architectural photographer and visual history editor, has selected more than 200 rare books, periodicals, drawings and printed ephemera showing how the idea of “A Home for All” was marketed in the United States — first through Eighteenth Century builder’s guides, then by Nineteenth Century pattern books, and finally by Twentieth Century house plan catalogs.

The story begins in 1775 with George Bell’s reproduction of Abraham Swan’s The British Architect, credited as the first architectural book published in America. It was the basic structural and stylistic information within these European treatises that was needed, not the designs for grand classical mansions. Such knowledge was better conveyed by the more modest “builder’s guides,” manuals that directed the craftsmen who were building the country’s houses.

As the Republic grew, novel styles of designs in Italian and Gothic modes appeared in new domestic pattern books such as Alexander Jackson Davis’s Rural Residences, 1837. Filled with alluring perspective views as well as elevations and floor plans, these books were calculated to appeal more to the customer than the builder.

After a hiatus in construction during the Civil War, American house building resumed in large Northern cities, propelled by an explosion in architectural book publishing. Some of this literature adopted a new approach for providing less expensive house designs: selling predrawn plans through the mails. This method proved to be successful in 1876 when George Palliser issued an inexpensive catalog, Palliser’s Model Homes for the People, that won customers “from every state and territory in the Union.”  

By the 1880s, house plan publishing firms such as Robert W. Shoppell’s Co-operative Building Plan Association were producing mail-order catalogs in periodical form. Godey’s Lady’s Book and Ladies’ Home Journal were among the first to carry home plans, and shortly after 1900, a host of new magazines such as House Beautiful and House and Garden started competing for the attention of well-to-do readers who were planning to build.

There was also a growing demand in the early Twentieth Century for small houses, a need that millwork companies and national retailers like Sears, Roebuck & Company and Montgomery Ward decided to serve by producing precut homes that could be shipped by railroad for assembly by local carpenters. The exhibition devotes a special section to the advertising and marketing of this new mode of house building.

An incredible variety of often elaborately designed and printed publications was produced prior to the Depression, usually accompanied by other forms of advertisement such as home planning guides, company journals, flyers, posters, calendars and paper models. Focusing directly on the consumer, this vast panoply of promotional material promised a tasteful, convenient and comfortable dwellings to anyone who purchased the products and services or followed the advice being offered.

The post-World War II home-building boom reinvigorated plan book production, with Modernism gaining a foothold when the undecorated version of the ranch house became part of the vogue for single-level houses in the 1950s and early 1960s.

The exhibition tracks extensive and rapid changes to the literature of house building after 1970, when the level of house catalog publication declined. The supply of plan books was further diminished in the 1990s, as house designs became increasingly available on Internet sites.

There will be curator-led tours on December 11 and 12, 1 to 2 pm; a panel discussion on architectural pattern books on Tuesday, January 21, 2 to 5 pm; and a lecture by curator Richard Cheek on Wednesday, January 22, 2:30 to 3:30 pm. 

The Grolier Club is at 47 East 60th Street. For further information, 212-838-6690 www.grolierclub.org.

Decorative title page from Gothic Architecture Applied to Modern Residences by D.H. Arnot, New York: D. Appleton, 1849, private collection.

1936 Calendar, “Planning for Home and Happiness,” Lehigh Portland Cement, 1935.

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