In the old brown house on the corner, a mile from the middle of the city, we ate bacon for breakfast every morning of our lives. There were never enough chairs for us all to sit up at the meal table; one or two of us always sat on the floor or on the kitchen step, plate on knee. It never occurred to us to teach the children to eat with a knife and fork. It was hunger and all sheer function: the noise, and clashing of plates, and people chewing with their mouths open, and talking, and laughing. Oh, I was happy then. At night our back yard smelt like the country.
Helen Garner, Monkey Grip (1977).
Helen Garner’s nostalgic evocation of communal living (and loving) in inner city Melbourne reminds us of the many densely laden and powerfully conflicted meanings that attach to a simple term like ‘home’. The imaginative site of individual and collective memory, the idea of home – with its links to the familiar and the familial – has a special pull upon us all. As Ien Ang and Michael Symonds suggest, it ‘occupies a place in the heart of modern cultural experience — as an apparently inescapable centre of return and a rare site of idealised mutual love and belonging’.1 Forever linked to concepts of identity and security, the shifting meanings of ‘home’ shape histories of migration, dislocation, and globalization, just as surely as they do histories of material culture.
This exhibition examines the home in the context of both architectural and social history, with a particular (though not exclusive) focus upon the twentieth century Australian experience. It highlights the ways in which the practices of home owning, home-building and home-making occupy a central part of our cultural consciousness, the significance of which far exceeds our basic need of shelter. As Fiske, Hodge and Turner once observed, ‘at least half of the monthly mortgage payments paid by the average Australia home owner goes towards sustaining meanings, rather than keeping out the rain’.2 While the booming property markets of recent years have heightened concerns over home affordability, and environmental debates have forced us to question the size, density and energy efficiency of our housing stock, nothing seems to have dented the national pursuit of home ownership. As the Australian Financial Gazette remarked in 1890, ‘not to own your own home is unpardonable in a country like Australia’.3
As we know, despite attachments to the idea of the bush as a defining feature of the Australian experience, by the 1890s Australia was already one the most highly urbanized settlements in the world and most of its cities and towns grew with little regard to planning, with the result that many of the inner city areas that Garner’s characters flocked to in the 1970s in fact had little to recommend them in the latter years of the nineteenth century. Writing of Melbourne in the 1880s, David Harris notes that by then ‘the inner suburbs held few attractions for working-class people in search of home ownership and respectability’, particularly when larger blocks and cheaper land could be had further out. ‘The factory fumes, crime and disease of the inner suburbs’, he adds, ‘also helped persuade middle class people to leave’.4 A typical Melbourne inner city dwelling at the turn of the century might have boasted a fourteen foot frontage, two bedrooms, a kitchen with an earth floor, no sanitary or laundry facilities and a backyard no more than three feet deep. It was not uncommon for homes in Collingwood to sprout tents and other makeshift structures in the backyard to provide more sleeping accommodation. Evidently those responsible for erecting such buildings had not had the benefit of Charles Bruce’s Rudimentary Treatise on Cottage Building, or, Hints for Improving the Dwellings of the Labouring Classes from 1862 (item 3). While the squalid condition of these houses drew the attention of the social reformers of the day, they nevertheless persisted well into the twentieth century. Item 37, the First (Progress) Report of the Housing Investigation and Slum Abolition Board, demonstrates that as late as 1937 these same problems of overcrowding, poverty and disease in inner Melbourne remained unresolved and formed the object of sustained investigation under a state sponsored program of ‘slum clearance’.
Fleeing the inner city, however, generally meant embracing the suburbs, that ‘shrunken version of the free selector’s dream’.5 And while Australians generally express a love-hate relationship with the sprawling suburbs that make up their cities and towns and persist in satirizing life as it is lived there, the unavoidable truth is that most Australians choose to make their home there. What we perhaps forget is that this was once a very literal concept, with large numbers of people taking up the challenge of building their own houses. In the postwar years, for example, bank loans to purchase land on which to build came with far more favourable terms than those to purchase existing housing. In 1952 owner-builders were responsible for the majority of houses then under construction around the country, with many families living in tents and caravans (or hastily completed garages) while building their own homes over months or even years. The Australian Women’s Weekly around this time carried an account by a young bride of taking up residence in the bathroom after their honeymoon as this was the only room with walls in their far-from-complete dream home.6 Those building their own home generally did not employ the services of an architect. They were far more likely to avail themselves of the house design services provided through popular magazines and department stores (such as the Myer Emporium in Melbourne) who could supply ready-made plans for a modest abode. Or they could have consulted The Homemaker's Book of Plans (item 86) or Guy Church and R. Drysdale Smith’s 1947 book, What About a House Again? (item 39), both of which offered designs and general information about houses which could be built relatively cheaply and within the restrictions of the immediate post-war period. It is reasonable to assume that the spare lines of many such dwellings dating from this period probably owe less to the influence of architectural modernism than to the problem of limited funds and shortages of materials.
But if building the home was characterized as men’s work, decisions regarding the interior décor clearly required a woman’s touch. As item 79 (Interior Decoration: A Guide to Furnishing the Australian Home by Margaret Lord) and item 90 (Modern Furnishing and Decoration by Derek Patmore) show so well, the process of decorating offered an opportunity to give ‘personality’ to the home. As the familiar paint charts and colour guides (item 77, 81-84) show us, an infinite number of decorating choices (or ‘expressions of self’) existed within the general conformity of a prevailing period style. And while the home itself may have been a commodity, it was also an excellent place to showcase other commodities. The array of advertisements in the popular magazines on display (e.g. Australian Home Beautiful and Australian House and Garden) reminds us of the extent to which the practice of home-making across the twentieth century became increasingly intertwined with the practices of consumption. So while item 110 (Makeshifts and Other Home-made Furniture and Utensils) suggests that many serviceable items of furniture could be made quite cheaply from recycled kerosene tins, item 93 (Furnishing with Color) assures readers that purchasing ready-made items is a simpler and superior way to achieve the desired ‘look’ for their homes, a look that was always more international than recognizably Australian. The stylish magazine layouts for home interiors, however, minimise the effort involved in home decorating and home-making by suggesting that the house is less a site of domestic labour, than a work of art. In the same way, the illustrations accompanying promotional booklets for home appliances such as the Sunbeam Mixmaster (item 88) or the Semak Vitamizer (item 89) are more suggestive of a still life than of a domestic life. The ‘finished’ quality of these types of images tends to hide the reality of women’s routine domestic work which is, as we know, ‘never done’. Instead, the homes we are invited peruse are empty of the people, dirt and domestic chaos that characterize daily life as we know it. That quality of empty perfection, however, is precisely why such images are so appealing to us. They provide a space in which to dream. (Which is, after all, one definition of ‘home’.)