REMINDERS OF HOME: A survey of the semiotic signs related to human dwelling-places

Abstract Introduction Early Shelter Color Pattern Meaning in Language Archetypes
Parts of Shelters Semiotics and Meaning Modern Usage Conclusions References Webliography Links

M O D E R N - U S A G E:

This is the most beautiful place on earth. There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary. A houseboat in Kashmir, a view down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, a gray gothic farmhouse two stories high at the end of a red dog road in the Allegheny Mountains, a cabin on the shore of a blue lake in spruce and fir country, a greasy alley near the Hoboken waterfront, or even, possibly, for those of a less demanding sensibility, the world to be seen from a comfortable apartment high in the tender, velvety smog of Manhattan, Chicago, Paris, Tokyo, Rio or Rome - there's no limit to the human capacity for the homing sentiment. - Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Modern America: Alternative home of the brave
Residential housing in America has always included the fantasy of an independent, free-standing single-family house (even though this has seldom been the reality for the majority of Americans.) European practices in housing design arrived in the Colonies from diverse origins, allowing adaptation to the availability (or lack) of particular natural resources and environmental features. But wealthy landowners tended to build European-style mansions, while ordinary workmen existed in urban environments within compressed tenement dwellings and farmers and other agricultural pioneers invented rougher forms of shelter during westward expansion , up through and including much of the twentieth century.

But although the attainment of a privately owned and occupied American house is sometimes challenging, compromises are continuously made by ordinary citizens, involving reductions in privacy, efficiency and cost effectiveness in order to obtain livable (and unique) shelter in the United States.

Between 1908 and 1940, the retailer Sears Roebuck operated a "Modern Homes" division that supplied building plans, materials and kit houses shipped by railroad to every state in the country, selling approximately one hundred thousand mail-order houses starting at $765 for a six-room cottage ("Sears Roebuck House"). By 1950, single-family detached houses made up over 78% of the total American housing inventory.

Although the rate of growth among the suburbs over the last fifty years has been steady, 22 million Americans have decided against building a traditional single-family structure and instead live in "manufactured homes" ( movable, modular structures previously called "mobile homes" or "trailers"). By 1990, mobile homes made up a full 7 percent of the total housing stock. (The category of manufactured home or mobile home was not even available in the 1940 census) and traditional single family detached houses made up only 48%percent of the total housing inventory. (U. S. Census Bureau).

A growing number of retired couples opted out of home ownership completely and now live in completely driveable houses called "recreational vehicles" or "motor homes." Additionally, the number of people living on houseboats has increased to over 1 million households in 1990. (U. S. Census Bureau).

All of these residents have created various ways to mark their properties as home. Traditional methods used by land-locked householders such as spray-painted house numbers, seasonal banners, plastic wishing wells, miniature wooden wind mills, flags, and light displays have all been adapted to movable shelter. Additionally, the growing field of "lawn art" has moved from trailer parks into traditional suburban yards, with its extensive use of pink plastic flamingos, welded metal sculpture and kitsch-laden religious figurines. Art critics are divided about the meaning of these signs, alternately describing these residential decorations as "vibrant collections of creative self-expression" as well as "bizarre installations of tchotchkes." (Lynch 3).

Homo sapiens continue to develop their invented signs and languages, endlessly seeking better ways to share their dreams of safety and their fears of mortality. Modern sign producing technologies such as spray paint, inexpensive paper printing processes and digital networks have allowed new adaptations in signs related to human dwelling places.

Archaeologists uncovering writings on ancient buildings in the Roman catacombs first coined the word "graffiti." Based on the Latin graphium, "to write", modern graffiti has acquired new layers of meaning in modern urban settings, incorporating public art, civil disobedience, political activism, environmental awareness, territorial competition and aesthetic invention into what is essentially an act of identification: "This is my mark. I hereby claim this place, even if my claim is only temporary."

Globally, graffiti writers often adopt a set of symbols and colors to identify themselves, evolving a "tag" to embellish as a unique personal identifying sign. Because of the social unacceptability of graffiti writing, most artists work at night or in protected areas which offer some protection. However, "writers" also tend to work within a given home territory, carving out locales where their messages will be seen and appreciated.

Within damaged political systems, graffiti can assume a central role as an official form of underground communication and even a viable news source when official media are centrally controlled. Palestinian guerillas have evolved an intricate system of "writers" and territories to "post" news of attacks, events and even marriages on walls and buildings within contested areas. (Hamad) Modern Chinese dissidents have also become increasingly active in producing a rich graffiti record of dissent and protest. The action of taking paint outside to a public wall in your neighborhood, to make an individual mark and message, is an old urge and one which has left traces of both conscious and unconscious intent everywhere within human cities.

In some cases, "new" signs have evolved within modern communication, specifically within digital and electronic formats, which reinforce the universal character of dwelling-place signs. The archetypal image of a building with four walls and a pitched roof, reduced to the simplest graphic symbol, has gained global recognition as a link to a web page's "home." It should be noted that this shape is not referred to as a house, but by the more emotionally satisfying label of home, implying a great degree of safety and stability. Homo sapiens have now built machines which they have trained to recognize this symbol, using it as one of the basic robotic base clues to use when sorting through online content.

Archetypal patterns continue to reappear upon and within modern houses because somewhere in the distant past, such patterns contributed to the fitness of earlier generations. We continue to experience the power of archetypal impulses, whenever we listen to music or awaken from dreams. A largely unconscious process of ordering occurs within us, prompting responses from our most primitive and powerful levels. Jung's famous archetypal "dream house" apparently occurs in many diverse cultures throughout recorded time. Divided into floors, with an attic and basement, this psychological construct helps define how human dreams (and human dwelling places) stay connected to both earth and heaven, inside and outside, sacred and profane.

"Our literal home is a "sacred," mythic place, even for non-religious people. We all believe in a special space beyond our own doorsills that simply cannot be violated. This is my place, where I can close the door on chaos and find some kind of cosmos, peace, assurance of purpose. "This is mine; here I belong." "(O'Malley).


(C) 2004 Tami Sutcliffe
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements
for the degree of Master of Arts in Art History
in the Graduate School of California State University,
Dominguez Hills, March 2004

"Seaside Souvenirs" by Marney Johnson: 32" x 34" - Oil on Masonite
"An Indian Corn Morning" by Marney Johnson: 32" x 48" - Oil on Masonite
"Japanese Juniper" by Marney Johnson: [central triptych panel] 34" x 36" - Oil on Masonite
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Last updated 07.15.04