An American will build a house in which to pass his old age and sell it before the roof is on.- Alexis de Tocqueville, 1840
George Babbitt’s virtues as a real estate broker—as the servant of society in the department of finding homes for families and shops for distributors of food—were steadiness and diligence. He was conventionally honest, he kept his records of buyers and sellers complete, he had experience with leases and titles and an excellent memory for prices.
His shoulders were broad enough, his voice deep enough, his relish of hearty humor strong enough, to establish him as one of the ruling caste of Good Fellows. Yet his eventual importance to mankind was perhaps lessened by his large and complacent ignorance of all architecture save the types of houses turned out by speculative builders; all landscape gardening save the use of curving roads, grass, and six ordinary shrubs; and all the commonest axioms of economics. He serenely believed that the one purpose of the real estate business was to make money for George F. Babbitt. True, it was a good advertisement at Boosters’ Club lunches, and all the varieties of Annual Banquets to which Good Fellows were invited, to speak sonorously of Unselfish Public Service, the Broker’s Obligation to Keep Inviolate the Trust of His Clients, and a thing called Ethics, whose nature was confusing but if you had it you were a High-Class Realtor, and if you hadn’t you were a shyster, a piker, and a fly-by-night. These virtues awakened Confidence and enabled you to handle Bigger Propositions. But they didn’t imply that you were to be impractical and refuse to take twice the value of a house if a buyer was such an idiot that he didn’t jew you down on the asking price.
Babbitt spoke well—and often—at these orgies of commercial righteousness about the “realtor’s function as a seer of the future development of the community and as a prophetic engineer clearing the pathway for inevitable changes”—which meant that a real estate broker could make money by guessing which way the town would grow. This guessing he called Vision.
In an address at the Boosters’ Club he had admitted, “It is at once the duty and the privilege of the realtor to know everything about his own city and its environs. Where a surgeon is a specialist on every vein and mysterious cell of the human body, and the engineer upon electricity in all its phases, or every bolt of some great bridge majestically arching o’er a mighty flood, the realtor must know his city, inch by inch, and all its faults and virtues.”
Though he did know the market price, inch by inch, of certain districts of Zenith, he did not know whether the police force was too large or too small, or whether it was in alliance with gambling and prostitution. He knew the means of fireproofing buildings and the relation of insurance rates to fireproofing, but he did not know how many firemen there were in the city, how they were trained and paid, or how complete their apparatus. He sang eloquently the advantages of proximity of school buildings to rentable homes, but he did not know—he did not know that it was worthwhile to know—whether the city schoolrooms were properly heated, lighted, ventilated, furnished; he did not know how the teachers were chosen; and though he chanted, “One of the boasts of Zenith is that we pay our teachers adequately,” that was because he had read the statement in the Advocate-Times. Himself, he could not have given the average salary of teachers in Zenith or anywhere else.
He had heard it said that “conditions” in the county jail and the Zenith city prison were not very “scientific”; he had, with indignation at the criticism of Zenith, skimmed through a report in which the notorious pessimist Seneca Doane, the radical lawyer, asserted that to throw boys and young girls into a bull pen crammed with men suffering from syphilis, delirium tremens, and insanity was not the perfect way of educating them. He had controverted the report by growling, “Folks that think a jail ought to be a bloomin’ Hotel Thornleigh make me sick. If people don’t like a jail, let ’em behave ’emselves and keep out of it. Besides, these reform cranks always exaggerate.” That was the beginning and quite completely the end of his investigations into Zenith’s charities and corrections; and as to the “vice districts,” he brightly expressed it, “Those are things that no decent man monkeys with. Besides, smatter fact, I’ll tell you confidentially: it’s a protection to our daughters and to decent women to have a district where tough nuts can raise Cain. Keeps ’em away from our own homes.”
As to industrial conditions, however, Babbitt had thought a great deal, and his opinions may be coordinated as follows:
“A good labor union is of value because it keeps out radical unions, which would destroy property. No one ought to be forced to belong to a union, however. All labor agitators who try to force men to join a union should be hanged. In fact, just between ourselves, there oughtn’t to be any unions allowed at all; and as it’s the best way of fighting the unions, every businessman ought to belong to an employers’ association and to the chamber of commerce. In union there is strength. So any selfish hog who doesn’t join the chamber of commerce ought to be forced to.”
In nothing—as the expert on whose advice families moved to new neighborhoods to live there for a generation—was Babbitt more splendidly innocent than in the science of sanitation. He did not know a malaria-bearing mosquito from a bat; he knew nothing about tests of drinking water; and in the matters of plumbing and sewage he was as unlearned as he was voluble. He often referred to the excellence of the bathrooms in the houses he sold. He was fond of explaining why it was that no European ever bathed. Someone had told him, when he was twenty-two, that all cesspools were unhealthy, and he still denounced them. If a client impertinently wanted him to sell a house that had a cesspool, Babbitt always spoke about it—before accepting the house and selling it.
Nichiren in Exile at Sado, by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1882. © The Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
When he laid out the Glen Oriole acreage development, when he ironed woodland and dipping meadow into a glenless, orioleless, sunburned flat prickly with small boards displaying the names of imaginary streets, he righteously put in a complete sewage system. It made him feel superior; it enabled him to sneer privily at the Martin Lumsen development, Avonlea, which had a cesspool; and it provided a chorus for the full-page advertisements in which he announced the beauty, convenience, cheapness, and supererogatory healthfulness of Glen Oriole. The only flaw was that the Glen Oriole sewers had insufficient outlet, so that waste remained in them, not very agreeably, while the Avonlea cesspool was a Waring septic tank.
The whole of the Glen Oriole project was a suggestion that Babbitt, though he really did hate men recognized as swindlers, was not too unreasonably honest. Operators and buyers prefer that brokers should not be in competition with them as operators and buyers themselves, but attend to their clients’ interests only. It was supposed that the Babbitt-Thompson Company were merely agents for Glen Oriole, serving the real owner, Jake Offutt, but the fact was that Babbitt and Thompson owned 62 percent of the Glen, the president and purchasing agent of the Zenith Street Traction Company owned 28 percent, and Jake Offutt (a gang-politician, a small manufacturer, a tobacco-chewing old farceur who enjoyed dirty politics, business diplomacy, and cheating at poker) had only 10 percent, which Babbitt and the Traction officials had given to him for “fixing” health inspectors and fire inspectors and a member of the State Transportation Commission.
But Babbitt was virtuous. He advocated, though he did not practice, the prohibition of alcohol; he praised, though he did not obey, the laws against motor speeding; he paid his debts; he contributed to the church, the Red Cross, and the YMCA; he followed the custom of his clan and cheated only as it was sanctified by precedent.
From Babbitt. Born in Minnesota, Lewis was the author of twenty-three novels and became in 1930 the first American to win a Nobel Prize for Literature. Elsewhere in this novel, he savages the Babbitts’ own house, referring to its type as Cheerful Modern Houses for Medium Incomes. “It had the best of taste, the best of inexpensive rugs, a simple and laudable architecture, and the latest conveniences,” he writes. “In fact, there was but one thing wrong with the Babbitt house: it was not a home.”