“Tom Thumb” American Dream House — a 720 s.f. design in a 1940 builder’s model

vintage-engineered-home-modelIn the 1940s, people were so conservative with their money that they wanted to build houses smaller than banks wanted to finance. As a result, the government came up with FHA “minimum standards” for the square footage required to obtain home financing. Yes, you are reading that correctly: The government had to incentive Americans to build bigger houses. Above: This 1940 builders model is one example of the “Tom Thumb” houses that our great grandparents wanted to build. Built full size, it would encompass just 720 s.f. — I need to find my historical records, I am guessing this was the minimum square footage required at that time. Made by Small Homes Demonstration Inc. and used by the West Coast Lumberman’s Association as a model for the use of wood products, this 1940 miniature was for sale from ebay seller mydoghasabighead. A terrific artifact. 

model-house-retroFrom the listing:

Rare find from a private collection. This is a true to scale miniature model home — an advertising display sample from the 1940s. Provenance found with this item states it was made by Small Homes Demonstration Inc. and used by the West Coast Lumberman’s Association as a model for the use of wood products.

vintage-house-modelOriginal label included with it reads:

national-small-homes-demonstrationNational Small Homes Demonstration, Inc. An “Engineered” Small Home, 1940 Model – Lumber Edition No. 40-2, 4 to 6 rooms and bath — 24′ x 30′

Most likely this was used at a tradeshow but it could have been used for display to the public as well.

american-model-makersThe green base of this model is labeled American Model Makers Inc., Chicago Ill., USA, Product and Process Patents Pending.

miniature-house-modelBase measures 23 1/2″ x 23 1/2″.
House measures 15 1/2″ long x 12 1/2″ wide x 10″ tall to the peak of the roof (not including chimney).

vintage-wooden-furinture-dollThe entire diorama, including the base, weighs more than 15 lbs.

vintage-scale-modelThe roof lifts off on one side to reveal the interior architectural floor plan.

vintage-doll-houseA modest home, it is highly reflective of an era gone by, representative of a typical middle class American family home of the 1940s. All miniature furniture, people, rugs and accessories shown inside are included. Some of the furniture is out of scale and and has obviously been added just for fun, but most is original to this demo I believe; the rugs are made of paper, the furniture (except for kitchen table and chairs) is made of wood.

vintage-doll-house-furnitureAll pieces are removable, including the rugs; the doorways and walls are stationary.

vintage-house-miniature-1940There are few bumps and bruises on the roof and to the house here and there, as shown in closeup photos, including some warping/wear to the front door, but no drastic damage and all the fencing is included (this is not secured to the base and can also be moved around).

A fabulous item for any collector, but especially if you collect vintage salesman’s samples, dollhouses, models and dioramas, miniatures or even trains. All the materials used in the construction of this model are actual wood and wood products.

Mega thanks to ebay seller mydoghasabighead for allowing us to feature photos of this amazing vintage model.

I have more examples of Tom Thumb house designs. I will dig them out and also look for more background on the factors that led to the FHA minimum standards requirement for square footage. It’s all so very interesting.

See our other stories on vintage miniature houses here:

Categoriespostwar culture
  1. Stephanie says:

    So excited to see this post. We rent a 648 sq ft home built in 1946, and sold to vets returning home from the war for $7,000. It’s located in the DC suburb of Silver Spring, MD, in an area called Veirs Mill Village. Luckily it has a finished basement (I don’t think we could live in a 648 sq ft home with one kid and another on the way). About 90% of the houses in our subdivision have been added onto and re-muddled, but ours still has some original features (including the kitchen steel cabinets relocated to the laundry room in the basement, hardwood floors, and asbestos siding) and does not have any additions. I would love to have seen this house when it was original (especially the main floor bathroom – too bad it’s been redone).
    Living here has made us downsize quite a bit and get rid of a lot of things (which I don’t mind doing).
    It’s a tight squeez for four, but if you live minimally, it’s a great alternative and cheap to heat and easy to keep clean!

  2. Mary Joan Florence says:

    I have been thinking about 20th century home trends esp. home size recently and I have a theory. Large multi-generational homes seem to be common prior to 1900. With the improvements in transportation particularly the automobile, people became more mobile and transistioned to single-family homes culminating in a post-war boom of modest single-family homes. Single family homes are the dominant structure today. Do you think though that there was also a pre-war 20th century trend to medium-to-large homes with self-contained apartments or duplexes, 2nd kitchens, or even extra bedrooms away from the main living space? Whether these were for adult children or future rental income, I don’t know. I know of several older homes with self-contained apartments upstairs or in the basement. I once lived in a old, large city which seemed to be predominately made up of duplexes in town. My own current home, which is a large 1940 colonial has a small bedroom in the basement behind the boiler room. Because the laundry and small bathroom were there also, I made the assumption it was a maid’s quarters. I have since found out from relatives of the 1st owner that the room was rented out to college students. My theory is that potential rental income for retirement before the advent of Social Security or as a form of life insurance that would provide income for a widow was an important consideration for early 20th-century home buyers. What do you think?

    1. tammyCA says:

      I know a lot of large old homes (like Victorian ones) were converted to rent out as boarding houses, especially in the Depression era and during WWII…widows who had big houses but never had careers back then did this for income and to not lose their home.
      It was especially hard to find housing for the WWII military men and their wives who were stationed all over the country and always on the move. It’s when the war was over and the housing boom exploded and suburbia was born.

    2. lisa says:

      I think that is a good theory. I also think many larger houses were subdivided during the Depression. My Grandmother’s house was a triplex, but I don’t think it started life that way. The layout was awkward, I’m sure because it was cut up.

    3. JKM says:

      My dad, born in the late 1930’s, told me that there was a severe housing shortage after WWII and many homeowners rented out rooms to returning GIs as an additional income source. Some would rent out an individual room or subdivide their homes to create a separate apartment. Many in my grandparents’ neighborhood added apartments above their detached garages and rented them out.

  3. Alexia says:

    Anybody but me notice that the sample floor plan includes no closets?

    Also, Pam — in a supreme bit of irony, I keep getting a banner add for granite countertops when I view the site. I guess Google is skimming and seeing that the blog/comments mention granite counters quite often but can’t determine that the references are largely negative.

    1. JKM says:

      Looking at the little wooden house, I see a closet for each bedroom plus what looks like understair storage (I think I’m seeing a couple steps that represent a stair going up to the attic level). They’re tiny (!) for sure but there!

  4. JKM says:

    My great aunt’s house was a 900 sq. ft., two bedroom, one bath frame cottage built during WWII near a huge defense plant. The neighborhood was street after street after street of similar, modest homes (3 or 4 floor plans, flipped one way or another) built for plant workers and their families. It had a living room with a colonial fireplace surround (fake fireplace with a gas jet for the space heater), dining room, and a tiny kitchen with one wall of cabinetry and spaces for a refrigerator and range. The kitchen door opened to a side driveway comprised of two concrete runners leading back to a small, detached one-car garage with hinged doors that swung open. All rooms had hardwood floors except for the kitchen, which had linoleum, and the bathroom, which was small hexagonal ceramic tile. Since it was in Texas, it didn’t have a basement but it was up off the ground with a crawl space underneath.

  5. tammyCA says:

    Sure would love to see photos of anybody who lives in the ’40s small houses. I love looking at my ’40s home magazines that show a lot of these very small houses inside and out.

  6. tammyCA says:

    It’s so cute! Love dollhouses..I have 3 and one to build! The most recent dollhouse I found is a MCM or ’70s Brady Bunch type (Swedish maker).
    I live in a small post WWII house but it isn’t as tiny as the ’40s era…thank goodness they knew 2 bathrooms were needed. The house I grew up in was a one bath and 6 kids!
    Love tiny real houses, ‘tho. I can remember as a kid going to people’s houses that even as a very little kid I thought, “this house is tiny & cute” and little tiny stairs leading to the attic bedroom or bedrooms.

    1. lisa says:

      I hear you on the bathrooms. Our small 1940s house had a half bath added, which was a lifesaver for a family of four let alone 6 kids! In the basement I found what I think was once a DIY extra shower — some garden hose secured up in the rafters over the basement drain, with a shower head on one end of the hose. You would just need a regular hose to run from that unit to a threaded faucet at the laundry sink, and voila, shower! Never tested it, since the laundry sink faucet had been replaced with one that can’t accept a hose. We also had lots of stuff stored in the basement that I didn’t exactly want to get sprayed!

    2. Alexia says:

      Is your 70s era dollhouse a Lundby? I had one for a short time as a little girl, but my mom didn’t like it because it was too modern & replaced it with an English Tudor style house. I still have the latter but wish I had the former, too.

      1. tammyCA says:

        Yes, it is a Lundby house..maybe from the ’70s since it has orange/brown/gold decor but has the mid century modern shape. I think I saw newer ones online with the same retro shape.

        1. lisa says:

          Oh, I always wanted the Lundby house. Some models were wired for lamps! I had some of the furniture. So cool! My mom also found it too modern and preferred to buy me the Victorian style.

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