In August 1941, John Vachon, a photographer with the Farm Security Administration, toured the outskirts of Detroit investigating the housing conditions of industrial workers. Many of the photographs from his trip became part of the official record when the House Select Committee Investigating Defense Migration turned to Detroit on September 23-25, 1941.
With his photographs, Vachon raised an early warning of the inadequate housing conditions that would cause trouble for the Willow Run Bomber Plant and other wartime plants on the outskirts of Detroit.
But he also captured a long-standing tradition of self-build suburban housing. Seeking suburban living, industrial workers and their families built their homes in stages. They often used their own labor or the labor of family and friends. Instead of “buying on time,” they built over time.
In advance of my presentation, Housing on the Home Front, January 27, 2014 at the National Building Museum, I’ve pulled together a selection of Vachon’s photographs from the Library of Congress.
The Willow Run Bomber Plant was still under construction and did not yet have a name. Vachon referred to it as “Ford’s bomber plant near Ypsilanti.” The workers living in tents and trailers nearby were most likely construction workers. Federal officials would not have placed a high priority on finding more permanent housing for temporary construction workers. No alarms sounded (although many plans were made and unmade) until over a year later, when the tents and trailer parks filled with industrial workers and their families.
“Ford bomber plant under construction near Ypsilanti, Michigan, August 1941.” Photography by John Vachon. Library of Congress, LC-USF34-063725-D (b&w film neg.).
“Tents which rent for five dollars a week to defense workers at Edgewater Park near the Ford bomber plant at Ypsilanti, Michigan, August 1941.” Photograph by John Vachon. Library of Congress, LC-USF34-063723-D (b&w film neg.)
“Real estate office near Detroit, Michigan, August 1941.” Photograph by John Vachon. Library of Congress, LC-USF34-063715-D (b&w film neg.).
Vachon’s photos also featured families taking advantage of the work and wages that defense contracts brought to build suburban homes. Signs advertising lots, lumber, labor, and even “move right in” options dotted the landscape.
Summer in Michigan proved a perfect time to get started. A family could live in a tent while beginning construction. By winter, though, they would need to at least have the house “roughed in” or the basement finished with a temporary roof to avoid renting a place in the city or bunking with family until spring. Some even became inventive, re-purposing old rail cars as houses.
“Mother and family living in tent beside foundation of house which her husband, a defense worker, is building for himself, August 1941.” Photography by John Vachon. Library of Congress, LC-USF34-063666-D (b&w film neg.).
African American also sought suburban locations. Starting in the 1920s, a community of several thousand had grown around Inkster, with easy access to Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge Plant.
Living in a roughed-in house, August 1941. Photograph by John Vachon. Library of Congress, LC-USF34-063688-D (b&w film neg.).
“Old railroad car typical of much improvised housing on outskirts of Detroit, Michigan, August 1941.” Photography by John Vachon. Library of Congress, LC-USF34-063662-D (b&w film neg.).
The construction process continued as a family grew or simply because a family could afford more space. If everything went right, eventually a family would have built themselves a substantial home.
“Defense worker who is on the night shift spends his day working on a new home he is building on outskirts of Detroit, Michigan, August 1941.” Photograph by John Vachon. Library of Congress, LC-USF34-063681-D (b&w film neg.).
But self-build home construction was a process of years, not months, and depended on access to construction skills. Do-it-yourself building in one’s free time would not be enough to house the tens of thousands of workers about to descend on Willow Run.
In Planning the Home Front, see pp. 44-51.
Andersen, Kurt. The Photographs of John Vachon. Fields of Vision. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 2010.
United States House of Representatives, 77th Congress. Hearings before the Select Committee Investigating National Defense Migration Pursuant to H. Res. 113, Part 18 Detroit Hearings (Industrial Section), September 23-25, 1941.