Ellen H. Richards.

The Cost of Shelter online

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Instructor in Sanitary Chemistry,
Massachusetts Institute of Technology.



Two or more persons form an alliance

(a) for protection against the outside world;

(b) for protection against the outside world and for the rearing of

(c) for the greater gain in convenience which the common life can give
over that of single effort;

(d) for companionship;

(e) for the greater independence it gives to the group;

(f) for the greater ease in satisfying one's prejudices or whims.





















"There is no noble life without a noble aim." - CHARLES DOLE.

The word Home to the Anglo-Saxon race calls to mind some definite house as
the family abiding-place. Around it cluster the memories of childhood, the
aspirations of youth, the sorrows of middle life.

The most potent spell the nineteenth century cast on its youth was the
yearning for a home of their own, not a piece of their father's. The
spirit of the age working in the minds of men led them ever westward to
conquer for themselves a homestead, forced them to go, leaving the aged
behind, and the graves of the weak on the way.

There must be a strong race principle behind a movement of such
magnitude, with such momentous consequences. Elbow room, space, and
isolation to give free play to individual preference, characterized
pioneer days. The cord that bound the whole was love of home, - one's own
home, - even if tinged with impatience of the restraints it imposed, for
home and house do imply a certain restraint in individual wishes. And
here, perhaps, is the greatest significance of the family house. It cannot
perfectly suit _all_ members in its details, but in its great office, that
of shelter and privacy - ownership - the house of the nineteenth century
stands supreme. No other age ever provided so many houses for single
families. It stands between the community houses of primitive times and
the hives of the modern city tenements.

As sociologically defined, the family means a common house - common, that
is, to the family, but excluding all else. This exclusiveness is
foreshadowed in the habits of the majority of animals, each pair
preempting a particular log or burrow or tree in which to rear its young,
to which it retreats for safety from enemies. Primitive man first borrowed
the skins of animals and their burrowing habits. The space under fallen
trees covered with moss and twigs grew into the hut covered with bark or
sod. The skins permitted the portable tent.

It is indeed a far cry from these rude defences against wind and weather
to the dwelling-houses of the well-to-do family in any country to-day, but
the need of the race is just the same: protection, safety from danger, a
shield for the young child, a place where it can grow normally in peaceful
quiet. It behooves the community to inquire whether the houses of to-day
are fulfilling the primary purposes of the race in the midst of the
various other uses to which modern man is putting them.

As already shown, shelter in its first derivation, as well as in its
common use, signifies protection from the weather. Bodily warmth saves
food, therefore is an economy in living. From the first it also implied
protection from enemies, a safe retreat from attack and a refuge when
wounded. But above all else it has, through the ages, stood for a safe and
retired place for the bringing up of the young of the species.

The colonial houses of New England with large living-room, dominated by
the huge fireplace with its outfit of cooking utensils, with groups of
buildings for different uses clustered about them, giving protection to
the varied industries of the homestead, illustrate the most perfect type
of family life. Each member had a share in the day's work, therefore to
each it was home. To the old homestead many a successful business man
returns to show his grandchildren the attic with its disused loom and
spinning-wheel; the shop where farm-implements were made, in the days of
long winter storms, to the accompaniment of legend and gossip; the dairy,
no longer redolent of cream. These are reminders of a time past and gone,
before the greed of gain had robbed even these houses of their peace. The
backward glance of this generation is too apt to stop at the transition
period, when the factory had taken the interesting manufactures out of the
hands of the housewife and left the homestead bereft of its best, when the
struggle to make it a modern money-making plant, for which it was never
designed, drove the young people away to less arduous days and more
exciting evenings.

This stage of farm life was altogether unlovely, not wholly of necessity,
but because the adjustment was most painful to the feelings and most
difficult to the muscles of the elders.

Because the family ideal was the ruling motive, the house-building of the
colonial period shows a more perfect adaptation to family life than any
other age has developed.

Where is the boasted adaptability of the American? He should be ready to
see the effect of the inevitable mechanical changes and modify his ideas
to suit. For it cannot be too often reiterated that it is a case of
_ideas_, not of wood and stone and law.

This homestead has passed into history as completely as has the Southern
colonial type, differing only in arrangement. Climate, as well as domestic
conditions, demanded a more complete separation of the manufacturing
processes, including cooking, laundry, etc., otherwise the ideal was the
same. "The house" meant a family life, a gracious hospitality, a busy hive
of industry, a refuge indeed from social as well as physical storms. Work
and play, sorrow and pleasure, all were connected with its outward
presentment as with the thought. For its preservation men fought and women
toiled, but, alas! machinery has swept away the last vestige of this life
and, try as the philanthropist may to bring it back, it will never return.
The very essence of that life was the _making of things_, the preparation
for winter while it was yet summer, the furnishing of the bridal chest
years before marriage. Fancy a bride to-day wearing or using in the house
anything five years old!

There are no more pioneer and colonial communities on this continent.
Railroads and steamboats and electric power have made this rural life a
thing of the past. Let us not waste tears on its vanishing, but address
ourselves to the future.

There are two directions in which great change in household conditions has
occurred quite outside the volition of the housekeeper. They are the
disappearance of industries, and lack of permanence in the homestead.
Those who are busily occupied in productive work of their own are
contented and usually happy. The results of their efforts, stored for
future use - barns filled with hay or grain, shelves of linen and
preserves - yield satisfaction.

Destructive consumption may be pleasurable for the moment, but does not
satisfy. The child pulls the stuffing from the doll with pleasure, but
asks for another in half an hour. The delicious meal daintily served is a
joy for an hour. A room put in perfect order, clean, tastefully decorated,
is a delight to the eye for three hours and then it must be again cleaned
and rearranged. Is this productive work? Is there any reason why we should
be satisfied with it or happy in it?

In an earlier time, that from which we derive so many of our cherished
ideals, the house built by or for the young people was used as a homestead
by their children and their children's children. Customs grew up slowly,
and for some reason. Furniture, collected as wanted, found its place; all
the routine went as by clockwork. Saturday's baking of bread and pies went
each on to its own shelf, as the cows went each to her own stall. If the
duties were physically hard, the routine saved worrying.

To-day how few of us live in the house we began life with! How few in that
we occupied even ten years ago! And this number is growing smaller and
smaller. The housewife has not time to form habits of her own; she engages
a maid and expects her to fall at once into the family ways, when the
family has no ways.

In the sociological sense, shelter may mean protection from noise, from
too close contact with other human beings, enemies only in the sense of
depriving us of valuable nerve-force. It should mean sheltering the
children from contact with degrading influences.

Charles P. Neill, United States Commissioner of Labor, in his address at
the New York School of Philanthropy, July 16, 1905, said: "In my own
estimation home, above all things, means privacy. It means the possibility
of keeping your family off from other families. There must be a separate
house, and as far as possible separate rooms, so that at an early period
of life the idea of rights to property, the right to things, to privacy,
may be instilled."

There may be such a thing as too much shelter. To cover too closely breeds
decay. Are we in danger of covering ourselves and our children too closely
from sun and wind and rain, making them weak and less resistant than they
should be? The prevalence of tuberculosis and its cure by fresh air seems
to indicate this. The attempt to gain privacy under prevailing conditions
tends this way.

Hitherto students of social economics have usually considered the most
pressing problem in the life of the wage-earner to be that of sufficient
and suitable food. But in any large city and in most smaller communities
there are found those who have refined instincts, aspirations for a life
of physical and moral cleanness, who by force of circumstances are obliged
to come in contact with filth and squalor and careless disorder in order
to find shelter. If they can be kept from degenerating, their rise when
it comes will lift those below them, but it is a Herculean task to lift
them by lifting all below as well. The burden which presses most heavily
on this valuable material for social betterment is that of shelter rather
than of food.

The thought underlying this whole series on Cost is that the place to put
the leaven of progress is in the middle. The class to work for is the
great mass of intelligent, industrious, and ambitious young people turned
out by our public schools with certain ideals for self-betterment, but in
grave danger of losing heart in the crush due to the pressure of society
around them and above them. They fear to incur the responsibility of
marriage when they see the pecuniary requirements it involves.

This growing body makes up so large a proportion of the whole in America
that, once aroused, it may become an all-powerful force for regeneration,
thanks to the pervading influence of public-school education when enlisted
on the side of right. Faith in the uprightness of American youth is so
strong that strenuous effort for their enlightenment is justified. Once
they have their attention drawn to the need of action, they will act.
Self-preservation is one of the strongest instincts, and it may be
dangerous to call upon the self-interest of these inexperienced souls; but
for the sake of the results we must risk the lesser evil, if we can
develop a resolution to secure a personal and race efficiency.

When the young people, with a deep appreciation of the possibilities of
sane and wholesome living, marry and attempt to realize their ideals, the
conditions are all against them. They find little sympathy in their
yearnings for a rational life, and soon give up the effort, deciding that
they are too peculiar. They slip almost insensibly into the routine of
their neighbors. There is great need of a cooperation of like-minded young
married people to form a little community, setting its own standards and
living a fairly independent life. Two or three such groups would do more
than many sermons to awaken attention to the problem before the race
to-day. Shall man yield himself to the tendencies of natural selection and
be modified out of existence by the pressure of his environment, or shall
he turn upon himself some of the knowledge of Nature's forces he has
gained and by "conscious evolution" begin an adaptation of the environment
to the organism? For we no longer hold with Robert Owen and the socialists
that man is necessarily controlled and moulded by his surroundings, that
he is absolutely subject to the laws of animal evolution. A new era will
dawn when man sees his power over his own future. Then, and not till then,
will come again that willingness to sacrifice present ease and pleasure
for the sake of race progress, which alone can make the restrained life a

The environment is, more largely than we think, the house and the manner
of life it forces upon us. Therefore the first point of attack is the
shelter under which the family life of the newly married pair establishes
itself. If it is too large for their income, it leads to extravagance and
debt before the first two years have passed; if it is too small, it cramps
the generous and hospitable impulses. If unsuited to this need, it
irritates and deforms character, as a plaster cast compresses a limb
encased in it.

Imagine the young people beginning life in the average city flat, at a
rent of twenty to thirty dollars a month, with its shams, its makeshifts,
its depressing, unsanitary, morally unsafe quarters for the maid, its
friction with janitor and landlord - the whole sordid round necessitated by
the mere manner of building, and by that only.

A few strong souls flee to the country. Counting the cost and finding that
all the earnings go to mere living, they decide to get that living in
company with nature under free skies - their own employers. Such may live
in Altruria with the happy zest of the authors of that charming sketch.

It is not given to many of earth's children to be so well mated and so
heavenly-wise. The young man has been brought up to consider the house the
young wife's prerogative, and she - well, she has been trained to believe
that housewifely wisdom will come to her as unsought as measles.

Two thirds the friction in the early years of married life is caused by
the house and its defects, resulting in dissatisfaction, disenchantment,
and the flight to a hotel or non-housekeeping apartment.

If some of the problems to be faced and the difficulties in solving them
could be presented to the young people to be studied and discussed before
the actual encounter came, they would be more prepared.

In discussing this part of the subject, as in the consideration of the
Cost of Living in general and the Cost of Food, we shall deal in
particular with incomes of from $1000 to $5000 a year for families of
five, recognizing that under present-day conditions the annual sum of
$1500 to $3000 means the greatest struggle between desires and power of
gratifying them.

On the surface it appears that the things which go to make up delicate
cleanly living cost more and more each year, with no limit in sight. It is
not only the poet who moves from one boarding-house to another; the young
clerk and struggling business man go into smaller and smaller quarters
until the traditional limit of room to swing a cat is reached.

The constantly diminishing space occupied by a family seems to prove that
the 40% increase in the cost of living within a few years is not caused
by an advance in the necessary cost of food; it is certainly not due to
the increased cost of necessary clothes. It is more than probable that the
increasing cost of shelter and all that it implies - increased
water-supply, service, repairs, etc. - is the main factor in the
undoubtedly increased expense. This will be considered in some detail in
Chapter VIII.

While the socialist may take the ground that salaries must be raised to
keep pace with the rise in living expenses, the student of social
ethics - Euthenics, or the science of _better_ living - may well ask a
consideration of the topic from another standpoint. Is this increased cost
resulting in higher efficiency? Are the people growing more healthy,
well-favored, well-proportioned, stronger, happier? If not, then is there
not a fallacy in the common idea that more money spent means a fuller

Recent examination of school children in various cities in England and
America has revealed a state of physical ill-being most deplorable in the
present, and horrifying to contemplate for its future results. One has
only to keep one's eyes open in passing the streets to become aware of the
physical deterioration of thousands of the wage-earners. One has only to
listen to the housewife's complaints of inefficiency, lack of strength
among the housemaids, to realize that the world's work is not being well
done in so far as it depends upon human hands.

This loss of efficiency is usually attributed to insufficient food and
long hours, but it is at least an open question if housing conditions are
not the more potent factor not only in the case of the very poor, but even
in the case of the family having an income of $2000 a year. Life in a
boarding-house adapted from the use by one family to that of five or six
without increase of bathing and ventilating conveniences, with old-style
plumbing, cannot be mentally or bodily invigorating.

The house cannot be said to be a place of safety so long as the "great
white plague" lurks in every dark corner - tuberculosis, colds, influenza,
etc., fasten themselves upon its occupants. Explorers exposed to extremes
of weather do not thus suffer. The dark, damp house incubates the germs.

But homes there must be: places of safety for children, of refuge for
elders. Men will marry and women may keep house. How shall it be managed
so as to be in harmony with present-day demands? Certainly not by ignoring
the difficulties. Progress in any direction does not come through wringing
of hands and deploring the decadence of the present generation. President
Roosevelt's advice is to bring up boys and girls to overcome obstacles,
not to ignore them. Let the educated, intelligent young people join in
devising a way to surmount this obstacle as the engineers of 1890 invented
new ways of crossing impassable gorges and "impossible" mountain ranges.

The writer has no ready-prepared panacea to offer. Patent medicine is not
the remedy. This kind cometh out only by fasting and prayer. A long course
of diet is needed to cure a chronic disease.

This little volume is intended merely as a spur to the imagination of the
indolent student, to arouse him to the mental effort required to deal with
the readjustment of ideas to conditions before it is too late.

It is no exaggeration to say that the social well-being of the community
is threatened. The habits of years are broken up; sad to say, the
middle-aged will suffer unrelieved, but the young can be incited to
grapple with the situation and hew out for themselves a way through.

Certain elements in the problem will be touched upon in the following
pages as a result of much going to and fro in the "most favored land on
earth." Certain questions will be raised as to what constitutes a home and
a shelter for the family in the twentieth-century sense of both family and



It is not what we lack, but what we see others have,
that makes us discontented.

There has been noted in every age a tendency to measure social pre√Ђminence
by the size and magnificence of the family abode. Mediaeval castles,
Venetian palaces, colonial mansions, all represented a form of social
importance, what Veblen has called conspicuous waste. This was largely
shown in maintaining a large retinue and in giving lavish entertainments.
The so-called patronage of the arts - furnishings, fabrics, pictures,
statues, valued to this day - came under the same head of rivalry in

In America a similar aspiration results in immense establishments far
beyond the needs of the immediate family. But, unlike society in the
middle ages, social aspiration does not stop short at a well-defined line.
In the modern state each level reaches up toward the next higher and,
failing to balance itself, drops into the abyss which never fills.

There is no contented layer of humanity to equalize the pressure; heads
and hands are thrust up through from below at every point. Democracy has
taken possession of the age and must be reckoned with on all sides.

At first sight sumptuous housing might seem to be the least objectionable
form of conspicuous waste. Safer than rich food, less wasteful than
gorgeous clothing, but, as Veblen truly says, "through discrimination in
favor of visible consumption it has come about that the domestic life of
most classes is relatively shabby. As a consequence people habitually
screen their private life from observation." This is from a different
motive than the instinct of privacy, of personal withdrawal for rest and
quiet. This shabby private life is why true hospitality is disappearing.
The chance guest is no longer welcome to the family table; we are ashamed
of our daily routine, or we have an idea that our fare is not worthy of
being shared. Whatever it is, unconscious as it often is, it is a canker
in the family life of to-day. It leads to selfishness, to a laxness in
home manners very demoralizing. It is doubtless one of the great factors
in the distinct deterioration of children's public manners.

Because the house is held to be the visible evidence of social standing,
because its location, style of architecture, fittings and furniture may be
made to proclaim the pretensions of its inhabitants, it is often dishonest
and one of the sources of the prevalent untruth in other things, since
dishonesty in housing has been not infrequently one of the first signs of
dishonesty in business. To move to a less fashionable quarter is to
confess financial stress at once.

It is because the concomitant expenses of an establishment may be
curtailed without attracting public notice that a moral danger exists. The
outside shell is not the whole nor even the chief outlay. The operating
expenses run away with more money than the house itself, and it is in
these that the family, conscious of impending ruin, curtail, and thus
become dishonest in their own souls.

The moral of it all is to live just a little below the probable limit,
whatever that may be, rather than to assume a greater income than is quite
certain. Granted that in the quickly changing conditions of to-day this is
difficult, it is not often impossible.

It is only needed to set some other standard of social position than
shelter and to use the house for its legitimate purposes only, that of an
abode of the family in health and joyful cooperation. The class for which
this series is written should seek a shelter sufficient for these normal
uses, and make it so home-like that friends will gladly share it when

Let good manners, keen intelligence, bright and entertaining conversation
take the place of the showy but frequently uncomfortable houses and
wholesale entertainments of to-day.

It is time that a beginning was made of that form of social pleasure and
mental recreation which the century must develop, or fail of its promise.

What is the value, of present-day knowledge if not to stimulate the
conscious group, through the individual perhaps, but the group finally, to
better use of its powers and opportunities toward a higher form of social

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Online LibraryEllen H. RichardsThe Cost of Shelter → online text (page 1 of 7)