MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections

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The Suitcase House,
ca. 1945

One of the many legacies bequeathed to American culture by World War II was the transformation of the building industry. The extensive construction necessitated by relocation of civilians engaged in war-related activities led to development of simplified, standardized, and easily assembled housing units. Demobilization of millions of soldiers and sailors, who often married and started families soon after returning home, resulted in an acute need for affordable housing. The housing industry was quick to respond, turning out a variety of inexpensive dwellings, some with intriguing names, like the Acorn House, the Concrete Bubble House, and the Suitcase House.

The purpose of MIT's Albert Farwell Bemis Foundation, established in 1938, was to conduct and disseminate research regarding "more adequate, economical, and abundant shelter for mankind." In furtherance of this goal the foundation undertook a major survey of the prefabricated housing industry in the United States, collecting blueprints and advertisements, as well as questionnaires and correspondence defining construction methods and investigating problems in design, marketing, and materials. Among the many problems were those presented by local building codes, zoning restrictions, and labor unions. (The City of Boston allowed its first prefab steel house to be erected in 1948 as a model home on a lot in West Roxbury. It arrived by truck from the Lustron Corporation in Ohio, complete with electrical equipment, heater, plumbing, kitchen appliances, and steel panels for assembly into exterior and interior walls.)

The Palace Corporation's Suitcase House, illustrated here, may have seemed less than palatial to some prospective homeowners, but, as the advertisement indicates, it could be unfolded and ready for occupancy a mere twenty minutes after delivery and weighed only ten pounds per square foot of living space. The manufacturer's recommended uses included housing for farm labor, prisoners of war, and invasion beachheads. The cartoon at right, however, implies that even newlyweds with a boisterous pet could find comfort and happiness in the Suitcase House, at least in the short term.

Records of the Albert Farwell Bemis Foundation (AC 302), including files on inexpensive housing in the post-war era, are available for use at the MIT Institute Archives and Special Collections,14N-118.

Object of the Month: September 2001; July 2007

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