Thursday, February 24, 2011

The WWII Housing Shortage: The More The Merrier

The Movie:
I love this movie (directed by George Stevens, 1943) and have watched it more times than I ought to lately. The plot of the movie starts with Jean Arthur's character advertising to take in a lodger in her small Washington, D.C., apartment to help with the war effort.  The lodger, a meddling (and hilarious) old gentleman perfectly played by Charles Coburn, proceeds to rent out half of his half of the apartment to a 'high-type, clean-cut, nice young fellow' (played by Joel McCrea) in order to play matchmaker.  Antics ensue, including a few steeplechases through the apartment that shouldn't be missed.  Coburn won a Best Supporting Actor for his work in this film and the movie was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.  In short, this movie is delightful.  However, I've always assumed that the major premise - housing in certain areas during WWII so scarce that strangers had to bunk in apartment lobbies - was exaggerated...

You Think You're Being Novel, But...
After some quick research, I found that apparently the situation was not much exaggerated, and I am pretty obviously not the first person to have thought the housing crisis (in Washington DC in particular) was of interest!  Journal articles and books have since been written on the topic, and it was a subject that was mined frequently at the time for comedy and conflict.  Take for example this Jack Benny sketch described by Frank Krutnik in his article on the subject for The Journal of American Culture:
"Benny and his sidekick spend several weeks tramping round Washington in a fruitless search for accommodation.  When they do finally find a hotel with a vacancy, the owner tells them:  'For 25 cents, you can sleep all night in the cloakroom.  For 50 cents you can sleep all night in the jukebox... And for one dollar you can ride in the revolving door and sleep like a top.'  The sketch ends with the manager selling Benny a brick for $10; he throws it through the window, and is then carted off by the police for a restful night in the cells."  -Critical Accommodations: Washington, Hollywood, and the World War II Housing Shortage, 19 November, 2007.
The needs of war put the population of the US in flux, with more people needed in certain areas than there was space to accommodate them.  Washington, as the central command, was hardest hit.  Other areas that were centers of munitions and war machinery fabrication, such as Seattle and Portland, also found themselves in the same condition.  New housing was built in many areas to accommodate the influx of people, but until that housing was made available, people had to make do.  Even when new housing was put up, the restrictions on war-related materials were so great that units were often made using less than half the usual amount of materials. Rural areas were also hard hit, with large factories being built in areas with only a small population base.  As would be expected in a situation with many demands and scarce resources, prices rose and the number of people per house rose as well.

Not Just Housing

Not just housing, but a lot of other general things changed for residents of Washington during the war.  Another running joke in The More The Merrier takes its cues from the sex ratio of Washington at the time, estimated as 'eight girls for every fellow'.

'Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!'

The Movie:

Links and Sources:
David Brinkley of TV news fame was a teen in Washington when the war was on, and wrote a book 'Washington Goes to War' that details the changes brought to Washington by an all-consuming war, part of which was the housing shortage.  Again, I wish I could personally recommend it, but haven't read it yet.  This blog is turning in to a list of books I wish I had more time to read!  Amazon link:

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