Read CHAPTER I of The Cost of Shelter, free online book, by Ellen H. Richards, on


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 satisfaction.

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 life?

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 shelter.