Baths reflect big change in U.S. homes since '40
By Genaro C. Armas
Feb. 9, 2003
WASHINGTON - To understand how much the typical American home has changed in 60 years, just look in the bathroom. It's hard to find one that doesn't have hot water, a toilet and a bathtub.
In 1940, barely half of U.S. homes had all three features.
Likewise, a telephone was a luxury item for many Americans when World War II began. Now they're ubiquitous, with some families placing them in every room, including the bathroom.
And it is not just what's in the home that's changed.
The size of new houses increased by more than 50 percent between 1970 and 2000. Formal living rooms have been replaced by more livable family rooms and dens, kitchens have expanded to include eating areas, and bathrooms have proliferated.
"Americans put homeownership on a pedestal," said Howard Decker, chief curator of the National Building Museum in Washington. "When you understand how central the single-family home is to the American dream and American mythology, you can understand why a bigger version of the home is better."
The Census Bureau has since 1940 collected detailed data on how Americans live. Some results from the 2000 census still are being tabulated, but what already has been released shows dramatic changes in the evolution of the American home.
In 1940, only 55 percent of homes with plumbing had what the government considers a "complete system" - hot and cold running water, a flush toilet and a tub or shower. Sixty years later, 99 percent of all houses had all those features.
James "Ding" Brannan, 69, grew up in a home that used a coal-burning stove for heat. He shared an outhouse with his three siblings and had no regular access to indoor plumbing until he was 17 and joined the Navy. His parents added a bathroom while he was away.
"My first reaction when I heard was, 'Good, finally, it's about time.' " said Brannan, a retired government worker whose home in Bowie, Md., has two bathrooms. "I didn't want to have to go back there with an outhouse after getting used to a bathroom in the Navy."
The Census Bureau has altered questions to reflect changes in how people live. For instance, the government once asked if a family had access to a phone, either inside the house or outside, such as one shared with neighbors. As recently as 1960, just over one in five homes did not have access.
The 2000 census asked only whether a family had a phone in the home. Only one in 50 did not.
In the future, more houses will come with a built-in Internet connections and multi- media systems, said Ross Heitzmann, director of business development for the National Association of Home Builders Research Center.
"Each generation's luxury is the next generation's standard," said Robert Lang, a demographer with the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech in Alexandria, Va.
American homes also are spreading out. More than half of new homes in 2000 had two or more floors, compared with fewer than one-fifth in 1971. The percentage of new homes built with four or more bedrooms grew from 24 percent to 34 percent over roughly the same period, even though Americans generally are having fewer children.
Lang said homeowners often convert extra bedrooms to offices or entertainment centers, examples of what he calls "the genius Americans have in finding new uses for a room."
The emergence of suburbs during the mid-20th century helped spur the proliferation of larger homes. People who left cramped quarters in cities desired space, both inside and outside the home.
The average size of a new single-family home soared from 1,500 square feet to more than 2,200 square feet between 1970 and 2000. The percentage of new homes built with at least 2 1/2 bathrooms rose from 15 percent to 54 percent during the same time.
"I don't see how homes can get any bigger," said Ray Hine, 74, a retired builder. "I'm just glad I got out of the business because I would be scared getting on the roof of these new houses."