Who first dreamed the American dream of homeownership?

Historian Eric John Abrahamson's “Building Home: Howard F. Ahmanson and the Politics of the American Dream” is a biography of a Nebraskan-turned Californian, an insurance man who grew wealthy making his way through the mixed economy that supports and sustains U.S. housing.
by Richard Mize Modified: June 22, 2013 at 3:29 pm •  Published: June 22, 2013
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Who started the whole “American dream of homeownership,” anyway?

It's not in the Declaration of Independence. Not in the Constitution. Not written into law — although encouraging homeownership has in fact been U.S. policy since the New Deal.

But who first came up with the American dream part?

Historian and author Eric John Abrahamson gives credit for the idea, although not those specific words, to the U.S. League of Local Building and Loan Associations and its first president, Seymour Dexter, back in the 1890s.

No wonder the idea is part of the very fabric of middle-class America — that's 120 years of propaganda.

And it is propaganda, which is only a bad thing if you disagree with the ideas being propagandized. It is not impartial information, this lofty notion, “American dream,” attached to a human need as basic as shelter. It's meant to be persuasive, not merely informative.

Abrahamson's work, in “Building Home: Howard F. Ahmanson and the Politics of the American Dream” (University of California Press) is so interesting that it's worth more than one mention. My review of the book is coming. It's a biography of a Nebraskan-turned-Californian, an insurance man who grew wealthy making his way through the mixed economy that supports and sustains U.S. housing.

In the 1890s, personal credit history was still by word-of-mouth for local building and loan associations (later called savings and loan associations) — think Bailey Bros. Building & Loan in “It's a Wonderful Life.” (Pause to ponder that and, if you're old enough, to remember: credit by word-of-mouth).

A few national building and loan outfits moved into local markets, but the Panic of 1896 and recession caused the nationals to fail while the locals survived. Locals nonetheless responded to competition from the nationals, Abrahamson wrote, by organizing the U.S. League of Local Building and Loan Associations.


by Richard Mize
Real Estate Editor
Real estate editor Richard Mize has edited The Oklahoman's weekly residential real estate section and covered housing, commercial real estate, construction, development, finance and related business since 1999. From 1989 to 1999, he worked...
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