Title Reviewed:
America's Favorite Homes: Mail–Order Catalogues As a Guide to Popular Early 20th–Century Houses

Author Reviewed:
Robert Schweitzer; Michael W. R. Davis

Sally McMurry


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 87, Issue 3, pp 298-299

Article Type:
Book Review

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America's Favorite Homes: Mail-Order Catalogues As a Guide to Popular Early 20th-Century Houses. By Robert Schweitzer and Michael W. R. Davis. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990. Pp. 261. Illustrations, figures, charts, table, notes, glossary, bibliography, index. Clothbound, $49.95; paperbound, $24.95.)

This book represents an attempt to develop a stylistic taxonomy of American popular housing in the first four decades of the twentieth century by focusing on mail-order catalogue houses. The book is organized into three sections. In the first, nine short chapters contain overviews of such subjects as styles at the turn of the twentieth century and the history of prefabricated housing. The second section, "The National Period, 1900-1920," outlines ten styles the authors associate with this time period, ranging from "transitional colonial revival" to the "box house or foursquare." The third, "Academic Period, 1920-1941," does the same for the pre-World War II era, identifying, for example, "Five Types of Modern Tudor," and the "Modern Georgian Revival." For unclear reasons a chapter on "Vernacular Homes" is also included in this section.

The most useful part of the book is the section on the history of the Aladdin company, based on archival material and local history; here the authors rightfully establish the importance of that firm. As the partial list of the book's contents perhaps suggests, however, the authors otherwise achieve only limited success in accomplishing their goal. The style labels that the authors have chosen will probably not stick, any more than terms for nineteenth-century styles have been standardized. And while style is undeniably important, the primary significance of catalogue homes is in their relevance to social history, which the authors do not explore in any depth. For the subjects they do tackle, they attempt too much and compound the problems by writing for an audience that consists both of professionals and lay people. Thus, in order to put style labels on catalogue homes, they are compelled also to discuss the history and characteristics of architectural styles more generally; the result is sometimes impossibly superficial. The focus continually shifts between catalogue homes and more general topics, for example in the discussion of construction techniques and of precursors to catalogues. Moreover, these discussions are not coherently related. The result is that the book itself all too nearly approaches the catalogue format. The volume's usefulness for its projected audience, then, would seem to be limited.

SALLY MCMURRY is assistant professor of history, Penn State University, State College. She is the author of Families and Farmhouses in Nineteenth-Century America: Vernacular Design and Social Change (1988).

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.