Gabrielle Esperdy. Modernizing Main Street: Architecture and Consumer Culture in the New Deal. Chicago, IL. University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Esperdy looks at FDR’s depression-fighting economic pump-priming programs to upgrade retail business districts through storefront modernization. In the 1930s, retail chains embraced modern architectural styling in storefront design, something which stood in contrast to older design motifs, especially in traditional retail districts increasingly in decline and blighted. These upgrades demonstrated the influence of the International Style of European modernism as storefronts were adorned with flattened planes and poster-like facades often highly colored, asymmetrical compositions, strongly defined horizontals and verticals, curved bulkheads, and signage expressed in bold graphics with contemporary typefaces. These streamlined storefronts were advertisements in themselves, promoting a store’s merchandise as well as a promise of prosperity, progress, and modernity as they relied on the technological innovations of curved glass, Vitrolite, illumination, glass blocks, and lightened signage.


The 1934 National Housing Act and its little-remembered Title I Modernization Credit Plan offered – between 1934 and 1943 – 4-6 billion dollars in low-interest, federally insured loans to repair or improve business properties. Government agencies worked with industry trade organizations and individual corporations, such as Pittsburgh Plate Glass and Libbey-Owens-Ford, strove to upgrade the nation’s “Main Streets” by relying on advertising innovations of the era, including the tie-in, competitions, product exhibitions, door-to-door canvassers, parades, and before-and-after models to convince independent retailers that their storefronts were in need of updating if they were ever to recapture their customers’ dwindling purchasing power. The Federal housing Administration’s Public Relations Division deployed bulletins, brochures, buttons, billboards, newspaper editorials, magazine features, newsreels, radio spots, and local kickoff events so that by 1936 over 8,000 local campaigns were underway to modernize storefronts.


The fervent capitalism of the Modernization Credit Plan and the Better Housing Program (a broader government initiative) intervening with New Deal critics who see FDR’s policies as undermining free enterprise.  She also demonstrates that professional and popular audiences realized that buildings themselves were “industrially designed consumer products” in and of themselves that also strove to sell more consumer products.