- Historic Sites
Edward Bok & The Simple Life
At the turn of the century, a crusading magazine editor exhorted women to seek peace of mind and body through simplicity. For a generation, they listened.
December 1984 | Volume 36, Issue 1
To Bok the need for such familial simplicity assumed the proportions of a crusade, and he was determined to make the middle-class household his battleground. “We have drifted away from simple living,” he charged, “and our children are suffering from it.” Hence, Bok led a highly publicized campaign for a simplified domestic architecture. He found most late Victorian homes to be “repellently ornate.” Money was “wasted on useless turrets, filigree work, or machinemade ornamentation. ” As a result, all sense of style and proportion was lost. To remedy the situation, the Journal in 1895 began publishing plans for plain, more functional, and attractive houses, many of which could be built for fifteen hundred to five thousand dollars. Many leading architects submitted designs, including Ralph Adams Cram, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Stanford White. Bok offered complete blueprints for five dollars, and soon thousands of “Journal houses” began going up across the country. White maintained that “Edward Bok has more completely influenced American domestic architecture for the better than any man of this generation.” These “Journal houses” eliminated the Victorian parlor, made the kitchen more compact by using builtin cupboards, and discarded all cupolas, scrollwork, and balconies. Cram explained that his design was an “attempt to restore something of the simplicity characteristic of good colonial work. ”
If she only knew it, the happiest woman is the one of simplest means.
While promoting a plain, functional, affordable architectural style in the Journal, Bok also led a campaign for simplified home interiors. “The curse of the American home to-day,” he wrote in 1900, “is useless bric-a-brac. ” The tasteless overfurnishing in the Queen Anne style then so popular among the urban middle class, he had decided, was contributing directly to the rising nervousness of American women, for they were becoming harried slaves to the “useless rubbish” filling their parlors. Moreover, such homes were not conducive to the development of good moral character in the young. “No child,” he said, “can develop a true simplicity of nature when the home of his parents is stifled by shams.” Useless gimcracks, he insisted with Thoreau-like reasoning, only gather dust and offend the eye: “Simplicity is the only thing that ornaments.” In fact it does more than that, he continued, “it dignifies.” The most aesthetically pleasing rooms were determined not by what they contained but by what they disdained.
To show what he meant, Bok regularly published illustrations of home interiors that included examples, placed side by side, of simple and gaudy furnishings. Underneath each picture he would provide terse evaluations such as “This chair is ugly” or “This table is beautiful.” Yet Bok was convinced that simplicity as a philosophy of living transcended such aesthetic considerations. “More simplicity in our homes,” he argued, “would make our lives simpler.” If women developed a plain, functional domestic taste, they would have more time and more money to spend on things that really mattered. “It is only because we have got away from the simple and the natural that so many of our homes are cluttered up as they are, and our lives full of little things that are not worth the while.”
Bok’s assault on the needless stuffiness of Victorian home decoration and clothing provoked many candid responses from his readers. Most of them revealed a desire for such simpler living, yet some remained hesitant. As one correspondent confided: “We women want simpler lives. There’s no doubt of that. But we are dismayed by the difficulties confronting the woman who essays to ‘come out and be separate.’ ” She went on to describe the problem of finding “simple” clothes at reasonable prices. An even more worrisome issue for her was the fear of social ostracism. If she and her family modeled their domestic life according to the simplicity Bok advocated, she wrote poignantly, they would be “dropped from visiting lists.” In concluding her pained response to the editor’s “admirable” program, the subscriber raised a dilemma that has since become commonplace: “Thousands of women see clearly the force of the needs which you point out, and see them with an intensity born of defeated hopes and thwarted lives. But they find themselves helpless against the ever-increasing tide of complex and artificial standards of living.”