Found  /  Origin Story

The Tiny House Trend Began 100 Years Ago

In 1924, sociologist and social reformer Caroline Bartlett Crane designed an award-winning tiny home in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Trained in both sociology and in the ministry, Crane believed “that housing reform was essential and perhaps key to all other social improvements in an increasingly democratic society,” writes Nancy J. Rosenbloom, and she looked for solutions to problems wherever possible. In 1891, while in Great Britain on a preaching circuit, she visited the Salvation Army and Toynbee Hall, a “foundational settlement house” in a worldwide movement to provide charitable housing in a manner that would put the working classes in contact with the wealthy. With her church’s “Unity Club,” she conducted a study of Kalamazoo and its municipal services in 1896, gathering data on sanitation, air pollution, housing conditions, and the state of the jails and poorhouse, explains sociologist and Crane scholar Linda Rynbrandt.

By 1910, Crane was providing her expertise on municipal services to the City of Rochester, producing A Sanitation Survey of Rochester, New York (1911). As Rosenbloom writes, her observations of, and anger about, “accumulations of garbage, inadequate fire protection, and over-crowded boardinghouses” in tenement districts led her to propose a plan that would allow Rochester’s residents to invest in freestanding houses close to transportation lines.

Crane would eventually provide consulting services to more than sixty American cities, helping reform “municipal housekeeping” practices around the nation and earning the moniker “America’s housekeeper” for herself. In 1924, her efforts came to the attention of Herbert Hoover, who, in addition to serving as US Secretary of Commerce, was the president of the board of directors of the Better Homes in America program. Hoover invited her to contribute a design to the competition, which promoted patriotic (read: white, middle-class) values through ownership of small, standardized houses. Citing Kalamazoo’s housing shortage and the difficulty of financing the construction of new homes, Crane accepted the challenge.

Working with Kalamazoo architect George Gilbert Worden, Crane designed what she described as a “space-saving, step-saving, time-saving, money-saving small house” in Everyman’s House, her 1925 book documenting the project. As she admitted to a (possibly fictitious) trolley car conductor in the book’s opening pages, the house

does look small—our little Colonial cottage in its formal planting—a prim little tailor-made affair; deep cream clapboarded walls with moss-green roof, and blinds whose openings repeat the pattern of the dwarf arbor-vitæ either side of the brick-paved stoop. A neighbouring garden club planted them there, whose guerdon is to be the lighting of these baby trees each Christmas Eve. It certainly does look small.

The house looked small because it was small, with a footprint of just 638 square feet. But as the architectural drawings show, Everyman’s House came with a full basement (a quarter of which was occupied by the furnace and coal bin) and a second floor, which, thanks to generous dormers and knee walls that framed out closets, almost doubled the living space of the main floor.