Our language is full of terms that misleadingly suggest geographic origins for common products. Panama hats weren’t made in Panama, French fries didn’t originate in France, India ink didn’t come from India, and German chocolate cake was named after a person, not the country.
Far rarer is the reverse case, when a product’s name does indeed reflect a geographic origin but over time has mistakenly become associated with a completely different meaning. The subject of today’s article is one of the more prominent examples of this phenomenon: the mobile home.
[Before we begin, let’s define our terms to avoid confusion. In this discussion, the term “mobile home” refers to a prefabricated house that is hauled to a plot of land and (more or less) permanently situated there for use as a residence. We do not use the term “mobile home” to refer to a type of living quarters on wheels which is driven from place to place by vacationers, either as a self-contained unit (e.g., a Winnebago brand motor home) or as a trailer towed behind another vehicle.]
The origins of the mobile home are tied to the end of World War II. The rapid downsizing of the U.S. armed forces after the surrenders of Germany and Japan in 1945 brought back millions of servicemen (and servicewomen) to the United States from overseas in the mid-1940s, many of whom were coming of age and anxious to establish their independence, attend college, get married, and raise children. This demographic bulge, coupled with America’s burgeoning post-war recovery from the Great Depression and a wartime economy, created an unprecedented demand for housing — both for standard residential units and for quarters to accommodate the many servicepeople who were taking advantage of G.I. Bill benefits to complete their educations at colleges, universities, and other types of schools.
The widespread use of military-style prefabricated housing eased the severe housing shortage temporarily, and the eventual creation of suburbs such as Levittown took care of much of the long term need, but neither of these solutions addressed a potentially lucrative marketing niche — people who were dissatisfied with living in barracks-like housing but didn’t want to (or couldn’t) wait years for the construction of affordable suburban housing. It was James and Laura Sweet, a couple from Prichard, Alabama, (a town just outside of Mobile) who came up with the concept that fulfilled that market niche.
James Sweet, a machine shop supervisor by trade, was reportedly finishing off his workday lunch one afternoon in January 1946 when a newspaper article about the post-war housing shortage caught his eye. What if, he thought, someone could manufacture a type of housing that could be put together cheaply and quickly at a central location, but was small and light enough to be transported to wherever the purchaser wished to locate it? Something like the prefabricated structures of the era, but much nicer and more home-like — a prefab housing unit divided into discrete rooms (rather than one large open space) with all the electrical and plumbing fixtures already in place. They could be built as one- or two-piece units, then loaded onto flatbed trucks and delivered wherever the purchaser desired.
Sweet’s wife, Laura, was a commercial artist who did illustrations for magazines, and she drew up a few simple floor plans according to her husband’s directions. James Sweet built a couple of prototype units in his off-work hours to prove his concept viable, and then, satisfied with the results, used the couple’s savings, mortgaged their home, and borrowed against his life insurance to establish Sweet Homes, a company dedicated to the manufacture and sale of prefabricated homes.
Sweet Homes was initially neither a smashing success nor a disappointing failure. Sales were modest to good, enough to keep the company in business and provide the Sweets with a nice living, but their marketing area was primarily limited to the Alabama/Mississippi region due to the difficulties involved in hauling their product across longer distances on the system of roads that existed in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Not until the passage of the Interstate Highway Act in 1956 and the resulting construction of thousands of miles of highways across the U.S. were the Sweets able to expand the reach of their business. Unfortunately for them, by the late 1950s they had plenty of competition, primarily from firms which had set up shop in the nearby Mobile area, where they could take advantage of a readily available, large, cheap (and primarily African-American) labor pool.
National advertising was still something of a rarity in the 1950s, but as the new national highway system enabled the sale of prefabricated homes to spread outwards (mostly to the north and west) from the Alabama/Mississippi area, more and more consumers were exposed to the houses, liked them, and began clamoring for their own “Mobile homes.” Business boomed, more manufacturers entered the fray, and factories were established all over the U.S. to better serve local customers. Eventually whole communities of these types of homes (colloquially known as “trailer parks”) were created all across the country, populated by homeowners who preferred them to more expensive and more closely-quartered suburbs full of site-built housing. (So ubiquitous did these homes become that by the 1970s Congress had enacted federal standards regulating their quality and safety.)
Over the years, however, as the generation who fought World War II aged and prefabricated homes became commonplace throughout the U.S., newer consumers were unaware that the appellation “Mobile home” was a geographic reference, a term coined in acknowledgement of the area in which the industry got its start. The name was more and more frequently rendered as a common compound noun (“mobile home”), leading many to mistakenly conclude that it referred to houses that were “mobile” — that is, movable from place to place. While “mobile homes” can indeed be transported, they are of course far from mobile — in the vast majority of cases they are never moved off the sites to which they are originally trucked. (Most “mobile homes,” once situated, are moved again only if their owners replace them with newer models, or if they have to be removed because the land on which they sit has been converted to other uses.)
So, while we ponder the mysteries of how Panama hats, French fries, India ink, and German chocolate cake came by their misleading names, let us not forget that their poor cousin, the Mobile home, has been unfairly stripped of his home ties.
Trivia: The 1974 Lynyrd Skynyrd hit “Sweet Home Alabama” was a reworking of a 1951 radio jingle advertising “Sweet Homes, Alabama.”