The Suburbs

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RAILROADS RECAST SUMMERTIME SUBURBAN living once again. Unlike the horse and the steamboat, the train ran regardless of the elements, and by the 1860s railroad commuting had ensnared thousands of upper-class Americans. Along the corridors built by the railroad companies flowed a new sort of energy, a quickened pace that disturbed many who watched self-sufficient small towns become mere whistle-stops. “The starlings and arrivals of the cars are now the epochs in the village day,” grumbled Thoreau. Concord was once a sleepy country town, fitfully linked to Boston by a half-decent road; by 1854 it was already becoming a suburb, a place occupied by people who earned their living in the city down the line. Of course only the rare inhabitant of Concord and hundreds of other towns could afford to commute to the suddenly nearby cities, and only a few rode the steam cars frequently. Indeed, the railroad companies at first discouraged such short-haul traffic. But gradually, over two decades, Americans came to perceive the wondrous potential of the commuter train. Once railroad companies understood that convenient, inexpensive trains paid high profits, railroad suburbs sprouted all along routes radiating from the nation’s cities.

 

These new towns became home to thousands of middle-income families who believed that the single-family house on perhaps a quarter-acre of land offered the advantages of both rural and urban living. At the heart of their belief lay half-real, half-fictional memories of the American farm, memories that shaped suburban building and planting. Almost any suburban house built after the mid-1870s reflects deeply rooted American attitudes toward family life.

The House Itself

A TYPICAL LATE-NINETEENTH-CENTURY FAMILY moving into a suburban house sought the “three S’s”: space, sanitation, and security. The massive growth of American cities in the decades following the Civil War meant far more than congested streets and elevated railroads. It meant higher rents for ever smaller living quarters, and the middle class found itself pressed for space. Large town houses were exorbitantly expensive, and most of them occupied almost every scrap of the ground they stood on. Simply because land could be purchased far more cheaply in suburbs, families could get more house and more land for their money. At the same time the suburban house calmed fears raised in the era of the “sanitary awakening.” Disease-conscious families sought a house open on all sides to fresh air and sunlight and removed at least slightly from the fly-covered ooal of the street. In the suburbs a housewife might win the war on cockroaches; in the suburbs a new mother might not fear air pollution; in the suburbs a father might escape “consumption.” And the house was safe from other urban woes. It provided security from unpleasant noise, security in its large pantry and cellar from the periodic food and fuel shortages that plagued Americans. And in a time of bank failures, stock market manipulations, financial panics, and money shortages, the suburban house promised investment security as well.

 
 
 

Even the tiniest house on the smallest lot struck many families as the almost perfect provider of the space, sanitation, and security increasingly associated with the farmhouse of the pre-Civil War years. In its design, therefore, the typical suburban house reflected these concerns. Almost always it boasted not only many large closets, but a large cellar, an attic, a pantry, a back hall—even guest rooms. The windows opened on the healthful outdoors, while a sanitary, up-to-date bathroom and kitchen alleviated fears of contagion, and a well-drained, cement-floored cellar defended the occupants against miasmas.

The proximity of neighbors like themselves helped protect the family against unauthorized entry; the basement root cellar protected the family against food shortage. Part farmhouse, part urban residence, the suburban house was and remains an amalgam of many American values.