‘Designs by a Woman for Women’: The House that Jean Built in 1932, by Morag Cross

Advertisement in the Scotsman - 1st October 1932

Advertisement in the Scotsman - 1st October 1932

Where are all the female architects? Scotland’s first professional woman architect was Edith Burnet Hughes, who established her practice in 1920. But eighty-seven years ago, another such, albeit amateur, designer was being promoted as an attraction at the second annual Scottish Ideal Home Exhibition. This was a publicity showcase for builders and home-furnishers, staged at the cavernous Kelvin Hall in Glasgow. The event, sponsored by the Daily Mail in October 1932, featured ‘The House that Jean Built’, so-called to emphasise its feminine contrast to the usual male-designed ‘houses that Jack built’.

Jean’s residence was a ‘a £1,000 house built from the prize-winning ideas submitted in a £350 competition exclusively for women of Scottish birth’. The advance promotion simultaneously tantalising and patronising: ‘There never was a woman who did not delight in seeing other people’s new houses … The most notable and most provocative new house of this autumn in Scotland will be … what a woman’s mind conceives when she is asked to picture the house she wants’.

The first prize in the contest, which required descriptions and ‘rough sketch plans’ for an ideal £1,500 home (also listed as a ‘£1,000 cost’!) was awarded to Mrs Elizabeth M Reid, of Crosbie Street, Maryhill Park, Glasgow. She was described as a domestic science teacher, who would act as ‘hostess’ in the display house, ‘ready to explain and defend her unconventional ideas to all her exploring guests’.

She won the considerable sum of £250, the average wage was £146 pa, and a house cost £509 (www.hillarys.co.uk/back-in-my-day/). Today, the prize would be worth £16,500-£45,000, depending on the comparisons used (www.measuringworth.com/calculators/ukcompare/relativevalue.php). However, Elizabeth’s own personal background was directly relevant. Her parents were an American engineering contractor and Georgina Robertson, a Scotswoman, whose own father was a builder. Her parents separated early, and Elizabeth was raised in Glasgow. Georgina became self-employed, running a servants’ registry (a job agency for domestic staff), and her second husband was another professional engineer. This was an aspirational, upwardly-mobile household who valued education. 

Unfortunately, before 1945, women had to retire from teaching on marriage (equal pay with male teachers was not instituted until 1962). Her family was living in Maryhill, when Elizabeth, a home economics teacher, married a young architect, Charles E Reid, in 1926. Thus she was almost-certainly equipped with the latest ideas about kitchen appliances and labour-saving room planning, when she entered the Daily Mail contest. 

In covering the exhibition, the newspapers’ emphasis on Scottish workmanship and national industry was part of the ‘encouragement of renewed activity in all the homeland industries associated with the art of home-making’, reinforced by exhibits demonstrating Scottish handicrafts, weaving of tweed, making golf-clubs and bagpipes, and Edinburgh crystal. Although growing political self-awareness saw the foundation of the SNP in 1934, the revival of a distinctly Scottish craft and artisanal identity was already underway with the Scottish Home Industries Association, and similar longstanding organisations.

The Ideal Home press coverage was an amalgam of such contemporary notions, in dated language, but the concerns still resonate today. Jean’s house was headlined ‘Designs by a Woman for Women’, and that the entire show was ‘essentially an exhibition for women … considered first, last and all the time … a real step forward in household progress’. Other reports were more typically titled ‘History of Homecraft’, ‘Housecraft up to date’, and ‘At the Feet of Dame Fashion’, as would be expected from 1932. The Lord Provost’s opening speech even congratulated Mrs Reid for the ‘ingenuity and common sense’, of her ‘beautiful house … a dream come true’, he selected as the most outstanding exhibit to boost Glasgow’s pride and ‘self-congratulation’.

Through the hyperbole, the idea was probably self-evident – when housewifery was considered an ideal and fulfilling ambition for every working-class woman, they should at least be consulted on their domestic setting. ‘Mrs E M Reid, this amateur architect, has given consideration to the small details … overlooked in modern man-designed houses … there are no mouldings to dust … the lack of cupboards in modern houses [is] an everyday problem’, but Mrs Reid had included ‘6ft long built-in wardrobes …. And built- in bookshelves in the lounge’. It had a downstairs toilet, serving hatch to the dining room, sliding doors between the reception rooms, and was fully-electric.

Advertisement in the Dundee Courier - 25th October 1932

Advertisement in the Dundee Courier - 25th October 1932

Elizabeth Reid’s teacher-training obviously provided sufficient self-confidence to justify her planning decisions to curious visitors. Its unconventional style was ‘favoured by modern house designers … in America. It has a flat roof and roof garden’, for sunbathing, a great middle-class 1930s fashion, although impractical for rainy Scotland, and not a priority for most Glasgow tenement dwellers. The bay-windowed lounge was furnished ‘in light walnut, with rose and cream walls … and horizontal stripe curtains in blue, green and gold’ by upmarket store Wylie and Lochead, at a cost of £75. Outfitting the principal bedroom came to £125 (ensuite shower-bath in pale green), and the ‘wholly delightful’ bathroom boasted a primrose-yellow sunken bath, black vitrolite tiles and ‘crimson porcelain’ soap-holders.

In many ways it was a classic Art Deco streamlined structure, with a wrap-around veranda – and the builders, John McDonald Ltd, of Burnside, Glasgow, were themselves enthusiasts of flat roofs and prefabricated units. McDonalds had already erected the mass-produced council estates of Cardonald, Knightswood and Hillington, but offered to replicate Mrs Reid’s design at the ‘bargain’ price of £1,000. It’s not known if they had any takers for this offer. The Motherwell Times, writing from a more Socialist perspective, mockingly commented that ‘Yes, … such houses are being built … to suit our higher paid fellow-workers. So there’s something to be said for this d[amned] rotten capitalist system after all’.

During the 1930s, Elizabeth Reid’s husband was assistant to architect W B Inglis, who specialised in cinema and hotel design. Their firm financed and built the typically-Art Deco ‘Beresford Hotel’ in Sauchiehall St, to house visitors to the Empire Exhibition of 1938. The Reids later moved to Wishaw, where Charles Reid died in 1962, although Elizabeth herself lived until 1985.

There were several other female designers listed in the 1932 publicity materials, such as Mrs Darcy Braddell, ‘who has made a study of house designing’, and produced five ‘Ideal Kitchens for All Incomes’. One such setting was the ‘kitchen-scullery of a working-man’s house’ (where his un-mentioned wife would have worked!). This was undoubtedly more achievable than ‘Jean’s House’, and Mrs Braddell’s ‘attractive one room flats’ were a very popular attraction at the first Ideal Home Exhibition of 1931. However, being female, she had a lower-status, and was thus more easily forgotten, than her male design-colleagues. The romantic, rather bohemian ‘Glasgow Girls’ such as the MacDonald sisters, are already famous, but their later, more commercially-driven female industrial exhibitors and successors like Mrs Reid and Mrs Braddell, probably merit a re-discovery.

Morag Cross is an archive researcher for archaeology, land use and buildings history. She likes finding forgotten women's stories, and is a member of Voices of Experience.