Whereas the playhouse was compared in 1950 to "magic carpets on which children are transplanted to the land of make-believe," Parents' described the playhouse in 1962 as "a house full of play, a room full of imagination for any child." The playhouse offered the same attractions that the playpen, playroom, and bedroom play space did: keeping children occupied with minimal supervision, and space to develop autonomy and encourage creativity. The expectation of creative behavior therefore governed the postwar child's playhouse.
Parents assumed children would create their own world in the playhouse, but because they chose or erected the playhouse, its architectural cues often reflected the tastes of adults. One of the most common and inexpensive playhouse designs was a draped card table that was easy to set up inside or out. A plastic structure by Doughboy Industries came in the form of large and small "ranch" houses, allowing the child to inhabit his or her own suburban dream .
Another model, a simple cotton cover produced by Bemis Brothers, a maker of grain sacks, and sold through FAO Schwarz and other shops, gave girls a chance to live in a colonial while boys played in a firehouse. A similar pattern available from Ladies' Home Journal transformed a card table into a sew-it-yourself circus tent. Larger free-standing structures also mimicked the architecture of the past. A complex gingerbread house portrayed in Parents' Magazine required "above average craftsmanship," custom-cut pine siding, and leaded windows. FAO Schwarz sold a deluxe Log Cabin, which it promised was "without an equal for active, creative and social play."
Combining climbing equipment with space for domestic play, a model published by the Ladies' Home Journal in 1964 made reference to Alice in Wonderland, with oversized keyholes and giant cards. Sunset showed parents how to build structures with shingled roofs and Dutch doors, as well as designs with sloping corrugated roofs and redwood siding. With input from nursery school teachers, Sunset argued that play equipment must "appeal to the unpredictable imagination of the child" and suggested that children preferred big things that were "non-representational," which they could adapt and transform.
Dr. Spock's advice to a parent who "can't buy a shiny automobile to pedal or a playhouse" was to provide the child with "a packing box. By turns it's a bed, a house, a truck, a tank, a fort, a doll's house, a garage." A cardboard appliance box that the child could make into a castle or fort was the reigning ideal. The architect Fred Bassetti developed his Flexagons toy in the mid-1950s while experimenting with designs for a cardboard playhouse he hoped to sell nationally, and by the early 1970s Creative Playthings developed a ready-made cardboard house with a pitched roof and movable doors and windows . Even Sunset concurred that a cardboard box, or other inexpensive materials, often "scores the greatest success."
For older children, building a play- or clubhouse was itself a creative activity. Like Beverly Cleary's character Henry Huggins in Henry and the Clubhouse (1962), the process of imagining and building a structure, and inhabiting the space, was a practical learning experience in self-sufficiency and problem solving. From the late nineteenth century onward, the process of having children build a small structure was believed to impart valuable practical knowledge and character building. Campers, for example, in the 1920s, erected tents and then their own cabins. But the child-made clubhouse was also associated with imagination.
In J. M. Barrie's play Peter Pan, the Lost Boys build Wendy a small house on their island of Neverland to pretend she is their mother. In Walt Disney's 1953 animated version, the Lost Boys already have a fanciful dwelling, a playgroundlike hideout they have carved from a tree.This belief that children might construct their own playhouses informed both construction toys and experimental kits for inside or backyard building.
Like Charles and Ray Eames's the Toy, which came with directions for making a playhouse, many building toys were sold with the promise of small-scale construction. One developed by Yale architecture professor Gilbert Switzer, and retailed through Creative Playthings around 1957, required children to assemble rods and Masonite panels. A project for notched planks cut from standard-sized lumber was another do-it-yourself project that the parent could initiate and the children could complete. The large size of these sets demanded cooperation among children and suggested that creativity could be a group activity, rather than just a solitary one.
Rooted in The American Dream
Aside from the cardboard box and covered card table, many of these projects required substantial building and expense. Thus, even more than the playroom, the backyard miniature dwelling reflected the dreams of adults.
In a 1957 book, Robert Paul Smith drily described a playhouse visible from the road: "I passed a house that had a yard, and in the yard there was a tree, and in the tree there was a tree house. And that tree house was built by a carpenter. It had a floor, made of tongue-and-groove boarding, it had sides built of siding, it had a roof made of a new tent. It was probably built from a plan by a carpenter. It probably has wrought-iron furniture in it, and a Rouault print on the wall. There were not kids in it." A 1962 Parents' Magazine article began, "Remember, dad, your Fort Apache from which you and the neighborhood children fought the Injuns to a standstill? Or your clubhouse, mom, in which your private tea parties were held? Not really a fight. Not really tea — but how you could imagine!"
In addition to evoking nostalgia for middle-class parents' own childhoods, their firm belief that special goods and spaces could enhance their children's childhoods motivated them to invest their time and energy. In a 1958 article, "Playhouse for the Kids," published in Parents' Magazine, Suzanne Hart Strait described her and her husband's summertime project to build and outfit a playhouse for their children, who were away visiting grandparents. At the end of the laborious, twelve-day construction effort, she recounts, "I honestly felt that Tom and I had achieved a major goal for our children: a gift to them of privacy, beauty and space of their own."
When the children return home and she asks with anticipation whether they would like a playhouse, the children respond that they already have them — one apiece, in fact, carved out of a forsythia bush, an apple tree, and a pine grove. Realizing that "those houses are better than the one we built," Strait and her husband recognize that the playhouse was actually their own dream, born of childhoods spent in small city apartments. Instead of a specially designed miniature house, three acres (1.2 hectares) of land had achieved the same goal.
This story underscores the paradox of affluent postwar parenting, which made a child's imagination both an innate quality and one that could seemingly be enhanced with consumer goods. Magazines and guides repeatedly emphasized the "play value" of playhouses, whether they were made from leftover cardboard boxes or permanent additions to the family house. The story also suggests that although children's desires may have directed some spending and parental effort, adults also consumed children's goods to please themselves.
The psychological and educational rhetoric that encouraged parents to give children unstructured playtime and educational toys in order to cultivate imagination and fantasy was extended to the design of the single-family house. Playrooms, bedrooms, and toy playhouses were some of the special areas designated for children both inside and outside of the family dwelling. In these carefully designed spaces, outfitted with surfaces to draw and paint upon, toylike furniture to encourage active play, and a decor that would stimulate imagination, postwar children were offered the material embodiment of their parents' values.
Yet "creative living" was not only an ideal for young children; it became an ongoing project for postwar middle-class families who aimed to meet the social expectations of a popular culture obsessed with family life. For middle-class families, buying and decorating a house after World War II was both a personal exercise of consumer or aesthetic gratification and part of a broader national project.
In addition to ranch houses, toasters, and craft kits, families invested in children's spaces and amusements because they believed their children — and, by extension, the future of the country — could better compete in a chilly, uncertain world if they prepared at home. Once these children reached school age, the ideal of creativity became an ever more public discourse in the newly erected schoolhouses designed to educate a growing generation of American citizens.
The Victorian Playouse (1890), originally built in downtown Atlanta, Georgia, is a full-size children's play house now located on the grounds of the Atlanta History Center. Photo: James EmeryExtra Large Image
Peabody and Sterns designed the Victorian Childrens Cottage on the grounds of The Breakers, the Cornelius Vanderbilt II estate, in Newport, Rhode Island. Photo: HABS/HAER Photo/ Courtesy Library of CongressExtra Large Image