Linda E. Smeins. Building An American Identity: Pattern Book Homes and Communities, 1870-1900. Walnut Creek, California: Altamira Press, 1999. 335 pp. $52.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7619-8963-9.
Reviewed by Joseph C. Bigott (Department of History and Political Science, Purdue University Calumet)
Published on H-Urban (February, 2001)
A House Is Not A Home
A House Is Not A Home
Linda E. Smeins suggests that the nostalgia for recreating history through architecture has produced confusion about the meaning of a Victorian house. She prefers "modern suburban home" as a term more appropriate for designating the great variety of late-nineteenth-century residential structures. (p. 13) To clarify the problem, Smeins analyzed the significance of pattern books for the period 1870 to 1900. She maintains that pattern books contributed to a public discourse that sought to impose the values of a hegemonic and homogeneous American middle class. These efforts resulted in the "spatializing"of American identity as the purchase of a middle-class house "strengthened particular attributes" of American culture at the expense of others. (pp. 24-25)
The first chapters establish a relationship between nationalism and domestic architecture. They suggest that at the time of the American centennial, authors of pattern books attempted "to codify a vernacular domestic architecture to represent American character." (p. 55) The architects confronted a range of choices, but selected the picturesque suburban house as the basis for defining American identity. While Smeins recognizes that suburbs varied widely, she nevertheless insists that middle-class home ownership served as the dominant model. This assumption is central to her argument that the interests of the middle class "became the unquestioned common sense of American identity." (p. 18)
The position is problematic given the time frame of the book. From 1870 to 1900, Americans contested the dominant characteristics of society. Labor leader Eugene Debs purchased a very middle-class house in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1890. Certainly, Debs did not advocate uniform or hegemonic values of a dominant middle-class culture.  The relationship between housing and class formation is more complex. Recently, Karen Sawislak showed that, following the Great Chicago Fire, immigrant communities and the native middle class debated vigorously the meaning of citizenship and the right to build houses freely as one pleased. In Chicago, elites compromised, demonstrating that the powerful could not easily impose their will upon ordinary citizens, especially concerning the nature of houses.  Given the complex nature of society, it is unlikely that any form of architecture could serve as the repository of national identity. When Smeins develops the theme of nationalism, she overstates the significance of pattern-book architecture. The focus of such books was limited to a particular component of the middle class, those who wished to create a more cosmopolitan identity among the leading citizens of cities and towns scattered throughout the United States.
In the remainder of the book, Smeins develops ideas previously examined by historians such as Clifford Clark, David Handlin, and Gwendolyn Wright, all of whom she acknowledges in the "Introduction." (pp. 20-21) Wright's Moralism and the Model Home specifically addressed the relationship between architects and builders, the subject explored by Smeins in the later chapters of her work. Wright argued that builders created a popular press that actively espoused democratic equality and the right of ordinary citizens to a solid house with good design. To meet the needs of so large an audience, the builders published texts that provided practical advice on construction along with examples of model houses that encouraged individual expression in architecture and a free play of forms. According to Wright, architects chose a more conservative route. They maintained that the individual expression of builders was, in fact, democratic excess. To develop an appropriate national style, architects insisted that builders follow the example of trained architects, who should serve as stewards of a refined taste that could elevate the quality of American housing.  In the footnotes, Smeins acknowledges Wright's discussion as "seminal." (p. 208) But the text does not specifically relate her arguments to so significant a book. How does her interpretation relate to and differ from Wright's interpretation? In Smeins's account, it remained unclear which hegemonic values triumphed, the architectural or the popular.
Building an American Identity concludes with a brief chapter intended to demonstrate how pattern books affected the built environment of Bellingham, Washington. To do so, the author provides photographs of a number of the town's "Victorian" houses. She suggests that when historians look for pattern book houses they find many examples, demonstrating that "communities and individuals played their parts in producing the hegemonic meanings of national, community, and personal identity." (p. 294) This statement is also very problematic. Despite recognizing that no written or oral history suggests that any house in Bellingham derived from a pattern book, Smeins found that "a cursory look immediately revealed the popular use of architectural fashions that may be associated with the spread of pattern book designs." (p. 294) Certainly, they may, or they may not. Even though a house may look like one illustrated in a pattern book, historians cannot infer that the house derived from or was inspired by the illustration. The opposite may be true. Attribution requires more careful research. Despite numerous illustrations, Smeins never analyzed the floor plans of the various structures she attributes to pattern books. What looks the same on the outside may be different on the inside, as Dell Upton expertly demonstrated for popular housing fashions in an earlier era. 
The relationship between ideas and objects will always be complex. In the text, Smeins employs the words "house" and "home" interchangeably, as if they were synonyms. Historians who study houses should be more careful. Language may be used to justify a peculiar universe, as in her statement "I include as objects those ideas that have been made concrete through discourse, such as the concept of a professional owning the cultural distinction and title of 'architect.'" (p. 24) But an idea is not an object. A house may provide a home; however, the notion of a home is an idea, not an artifact. To establish the meaning of hegemony, Smeins needed to examine closely the relationship between the ideas presented in books and the houses built by and for actual persons.
. Nick Salvatore details the transformation of Eugene Debs from middle-class to radical in Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982); see chapters one through six.
. See Karen Sawislak, Smoldering City: Chicagoans and the Great Fire, 1871-1874, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995); see chapters three through five.
. Gwendolyn Wright, Moralism and the Model Home: Domestic Architecture and Cultural Conflict in Chicago, 1873-1913, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980), 9-78, 199-294.
. Dell Upton, "Pattern Books and Professionalism: Aspects of the Transformation of Domestic Architecture in America, 1800-1860," Winterthur Portfolio, Volume 19, Number 2/3 Summer/Autumn 1984: 107-150.
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Joseph C. Bigott. Review of Smeins, Linda E., Building An American Identity: Pattern Book Homes and Communities, 1870-1900.
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