New suburbs gave thousands of New Zealand families their first opportunity to own their own house on their own land. Their new house represented their most valuable possession and a source of future wealth. A privately owned house on its section – the classic ‘quarter-acre’ of just over 1,000 square metres – became established as the ideal way of life for almost all New Zealanders.
The California bungalow
Many houses built in the suburbs that sprouted after the First World War were based on the ‘California bungalow’ design. This single-storeyed, low-roofed style of house was sunnier, warmer and cheaper to build than the villa style that it replaced. It was designed with an indoor toilet, hot running water, a sunny kitchen and electricity, so the housewife could maintain it comfortably without the help of servants.
A woman’s world
During the day the suburban house was a woman’s world. The husband left for work in the city each morning and returned at night, leaving his wife in charge of everything connected with housekeeping and child-raising. It became a matter of pride and prestige to women to run a sparkling clean house, with tidy and well-mannered children. The biscuit tin was always full for people who dropped by for a cup of tea. With a kitchen at the back of her new bungalow, a mother could keep an eye on her children in the backyard.
One man went to mow
The lawn is an important aspect of suburban life and keeping it neat and trimmed has become a measure of respectability for householders. The world’s first lawnmower was patented in 1830 in England. Its inventor, Edwin Budding, said: ‘Country gentlemen will find in using my machine an amusing, useful and healthful exercise.’1 Soon afterwards Budding’s mower, featuring the revolving spiral blades still used today, was manufactured by the firm of Ransomes. Ransomes lawnmowers were imported to New Zealand from the 1850s.
On the weekends her husband took on responsibility for the garden, household repairs and some family activities. Most older suburbs were based on quarter-acre sections, allowing plenty of room for large vegetable patches and backyard games. Home vegetable gardens and even hen houses provided food for many families until the 1970s, when cheap produce became widely available through supermarkets.
Suburban life was focused on the family and the home. Relatives came to visit but rarely lived close by. If people wanted to be part of a crowd, their cars could take them to the beach, the zoo or the park. Community activities and team sports were important to many people but their home remained the focus of their lives.