Planning in the 1920s
Fred A. Bjornstad
In 1923, President Warren Harding dedicated a model home built by an organization called “Better Homes in America.” The modest dwelling demonstrated to visitors how they might afford a pleasant domicile equipped with modern comforts and gadgetry. But this little dwelling was more than a house, according to the president; it represented the entire construction industry. He went on to say that “there is no activity or industry comparable to the number employed, the amount of effort of the importance of its production—nor the spiritual forces that envelope it.”250
Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover authored Harding’s comments on the material and spiritual importance of homes and housing. During the 1920s, Hoover organized the first concerted attempt to improve the rates and quality of home ownership, an attempt that was also the first federal effort to manage employment levels. The size of the housing industry and its ubiquity made it an object of fascination to planners like Hoover. He and his followers believed that they could improve its quality, reform practices in public and private construction, and manipulate the volume of construction without abandoning American traditions of free enterprise. If successful, the benefits would be enormous: a stable economy, pleasant communities, and many more homeowners. Also, as President Harding suggested, the nation’s moral order would also improve.
Hoover’s economic ideas were drawn largely from the work of Wesley Clair Mitchell. A student of Thorstein Veblen, Mitchell’s landmark book was Business Cycles (1913). This work argued statistically that prosperity and depressions were cyclical and that corporate and cultural institutions— not individuals—were the most important determinants of economic behavior. The relationships between different institutions were logical and obvious, Mitchell held, to those who properly analyzed economic data.251 If the hidden structures of the construction industry could be uncovered,