Better Homes and Gardens

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Better Homes and Gardens

Taking on a snazzy new style, establishing its own website, and accentuating the acronym BH&G can not alter entirely the role that Better Homes and Gardens has played in constructing American ideals of domesticity, home life, and gender roles throughout the twentieth century. In 1913, Edwin T. Meredith introduced the idea of a new magazine within an advertisement contained in his magazine, Successful Farming. The small, discreet ad titled "Cash Prizes for Letters about Gardening" also made a simple request of readers: "Why not send fifty cents for a year's subscription to 'Garden, Fruit and Home' at the same time?" In truth no such magazine yet existed; nor would it be published until 1922. Meredith began publishing Fruit, Garden and Home before altering the name in 1924 to Better Homes and Gardens. By facilitating the dialogue that has constructed the ideal of housing, Better Homes and Garden helped to define exactly where home and life come together in the American experience.

The impermanence of American life, of course, befuddled many observers from the nation's outset. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in the 1830s that "in the United States a man builds a house in which to spend his old age and he sells it before the roof is on…." A great deal of interest and attention was paid by upper and upper-middle-class Americans in the later 1800s to create traditions for civility, taste, and permanence—literally, to construct cultural ideals. One of the earliest "taste makers," Andrew Jackson Downing, introduced many Americans to landscape architecture and gardening through his writings. The periodical that he edited, The Horticulturalist, helped to initiate an American tradition of popular magazines and journals helping to perfect designs of the prototypical American home.

Similarly, an entire genre of magazines would appeal directly to women of privilege, most of whom were not employed. From 1840 through the end of the nineteenth century, Godey's Lady's Book defined the habits, ideals, and aspirations of many Victorian women. Such general interest magazines helped to define the era, but had more to do with constructing femininity than with the American home. Magazines such as Better Homes and Gardens helped to merge the women's magazine with practical publications specifically concerned with home design. This bond, of course, would shape the role of the modern "housewife" into that of the domestic manager. The ideal that emerges from this union is referred to by many scholars as the "Cult of Domesticity," which helps make BH&G one of the most popular magazines in America throughout the twentieth century.

BH&G helped define a national dialogue on home life through a combination of informative articles, basic cooking techniques, and contests that helped to rally the interest of readers. The first home plan design contest was first published in 1923 and, most importantly, the "Cook's Round Table" that began in 1926 would become the longest-running reader-driven contest in publishing history. This would later become part of BH&G's test kitchen and what became known as "Prize Tested Recipes." BH&G experimentation is attributed with introducing the American palate to tossed salad (1938) and barbecue cooking (1941) among many innovations. Published throughout World War II, the magazine even altered its recipes to cope with shortages of eggs, butter, and other foods.

These contests and recipes, however, were only a portion of the new domestic stress that BH&G fostered in the American public. The ideal of home ownership that can be found in the ideas of Thomas Jefferson and others began in the pages of the magazine in 1932 with the introduction of the BH&G building plan service. The marketing of building plans had taken place since the late 1800s; however, BH&G's service grew out of new governmental initiatives. Following data that revealed that only 46 percent of Americans owned homes in the 1920s, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover's "Own Your Home" campaign combined with efforts by the Bureau of Standards to stimulate home building while also modernizing American building practices. Better Homes in America, Inc. fulfilled Hoover's goal of voluntary cooperation between government and private enterprise for the public good. Formed in 1922, the organization soon had branches in over 500 communities.

Such groups worked with BH&G to permanently alter American ideas of domesticity. By 1930 there were 7,279 Better Homes committees across the country. During national Better Homes Week (usually the last week in April), each local committee sponsored home-improvement contests, prizes for the most convenient kitchen, demonstrations of construction and remodeling techniques, and lectures on how good homes build character. The demonstration house was the highlight of the week. Most communities built a single model residence, with donated materials and labor. Obviously, a national institution had been created and the private sector, through Better Homes and Gardens, would be responsible for perpetuating the jump start that the federal government had offered to systematizing and organizing American home design and construction.

BH&G and the Better Homes movement in general provided the essential conduit through which the dynamic changes in building could be channeled. While much of this movement was intended for the homeowner who was building his own house, the organization would also be instrumental in the evolving business organization of home development. Specifically, land developers who were constructing vast housing tracts would work with Better Homes to establish the guidelines that would form the standard suburban home. Each constituency had a stake in establishing "Safe Guards Against Incongruity." At times the Better Homes forum would also be complicit in discussing the social organization of the evolving housing development, which would often restrict race and ethnicity through restrictive covenants and deed restrictions. BH&G would not be complicit in such restrictions, however, it would become active in the sales end of housing. After first considering a line of related restaurants, hotels, and insurance companies in 1965, Meredith launched Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Service in 1975. It has grown to be one of the nation's largest real estate services.

In order to make certain of this continued popularity, the magazine's logo was lent to popular instructional books for many home improvement tasks as well as to cookbooks as early as 1930. This, however, was only the beginning of the better home informational empire: by the late 1990s a television network and many hours of programming and videos would offer techniques and pointers on home design, repair, as well as on cooking and personal relations. The magazine's involvement in homemaking reminds one of aggressive, corporate expansion that attempts to dominate every facet of an endeavor. In this case, homemaking truly has become an industry of such massive scale and scope. BH&G continued to influence American home life from finding a home, redecorating it, maintaining it, and, finally, to selling it at the end of the twentieth century.

—Brian Black

Further Reading:

Hayden, Dolores. Redesigning the American Dream: The Future of Housing, Work, and Family Life. New York, W.W. Norton, 1984.

Schuyler, David. Apostle of Taste: Andrew Jackson Downing, 1815-1852. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Wright, Gwendolyn. Building the Dream: A Social History of Housing in America. Cambridge, MIT Press, 1992.