The Suburbs


Its details also reflect the more minor concerns of the years in which it was built. Houses of the 1870s and 1880s, for example, frequently feature a blue stained-glass window, often in a stairwell or front entranceway. In his 1876 book, The Influence of the Blue Ray of the Sunlight and of the Blue Colour of the Sky in Developing Animal and Vegetable Life, in Arresting Disease, and in Restoring Health , A. J. Pleasonton ascribed profound curative powers to blue light, and believers quickly installed tinted windows, which still can be seen in older suburbs. The mansard roof, imported from Europe in the late 1860s, remained popular in American suburbs until the end of the century; it not only advertised its owner’s willingness to be absolutely up-to-date but also provided an additional story for little more than the cost of a pitched roof. The asymmetrical house sheathed with many different sorts of shingles and clapboards attracted turn-of-the-century suburbanites disturbed by the ubiquity of standardized, factory-produced items; a growing love of sunlight and tanned skin produced the sun porch in the 1930s; and an increasing fear of strangers and exhaust fumes caused the abandonment of front porches and the building of backyard decks in the 1960s. The abolished front porch, the new breezeway, the insulated attic, the rebuilt fireplace all bespeak one of the greatest attractions of the suburban house from 1870 onward: its adaptability. Changes in architectural details may hint at shifts in the national mood, in notions of status or beauty, but above all they prove the great capacity of the suburban house to adapt to change.


In the Backyard

THE LARGE HOUSE LOT ALSO OFFERED ADAPTABILITY in an era of rapid change. Many suburbanites retained a respect for rural life, for agriculture, and particularly for small-scale vegetable gardening, and by the early 1890s this respect had begun to change national notions of planting and harvest. In its 1888 Farm Annual , for example, the Burpee Company addressed its new market; only 8 of the 129 pages advertised field crops like oats and buckwheat. The catalog emphasized seeds for the suburban vegetable and flower garden and complemented a popular booklet, How and What to Grow in a Kitchen Garden of One Acre . Burpee and its competitors glorified the national agricultural past, the time of rural virtue lauded in Currier and Ives lithographs, in sermons, and in political speeches. In the suburbs children could have a taste of the rural chores that were supposed to toughen character.

Along with moral uplift suburbanites sought fresh vegetables and fruits, positively fresh eggs, and chicken and rabbit meat free of the chemicals rumored to taint every product of the increasingly suspect Chicago meat-packing industry. Between 1875 and 1935 this desire for wholesome, home-grown produce shaped backyards in railroad suburbs from New Jersey to California.

Emory O. Hersey sold houses in the new suburbs along the Old Colony Railroad south of Boston, and his advertisements published in Boston newspapers at the turn of the century show his understanding of rural nostalgia. One described in great detail a “cosey house,” of seven rooms, but emphasized its lot: “now a garden; can raise vegetables enough to last year round; room for hen yard, shrubs, cherry trees, fine strawberry bed.” Another stressed the acquisition of “9 pear trees, 2 cherry, 1 quince, 1 apple, grape arbor, 6 vines, jacque-minot roses, shrubs and flowers,” and another described a “large garden, all planted, apples, pears, grapes, currants, strawberries, blackberries, shrubs and flowers in plenty.” Apartment residents who read such advertisements in the Boston Transcript wondered about the financial potential of such miniature farms. Could backyard agriculture help offset mortgage costs or at least cover commuting expenses?


SUBURBAN POULTRY RAISING OFFERS A reasonably clear answer. As early as 1850 one of the first proponents of suburban living argued that “to children, especially, fowls are objects of exceeding interest.” In The Architecture of Country Houses Andrew Jackson Downing insisted that “he who will educate a boy in the country without a ‘chicken’ is already a semi-barbarian.” As rural nostalgia—an increasingly stronger theme in mass-circulation publications—gathered force, poultry raising came to represent all livestock husbandry; no suburbanite could expect to keep a herd of cows on his lot, but he could maintain a small flock of hens. Indeed he almost had to, if he wanted the true rural experience. “A country place is not a country place without chickens,” remarked one Suburban Life essayist in 1905. But it was rising food prices, not nostalgia, that created a great suburban poultryraising fad in the 1880s.