Selling the Sun: Promoting Solar Housing in American Culture

Saturday, January 7, 2012
Sheraton Ballroom II (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Sara Denise Shreve, University of Iowa
While renewable energies are the current trend, their history remains largely unexamined. The promise of solar architecture seems to seduce the American imagination at regular intervals. Enthusiasm for solar just as regularly fades, leaving the next, seemingly inevitable, generation with a limited sense of heritage. When it is told, the history of solar technologies is an interrupted narrative where, just after WWII, numerous and varied sources claimed solar architecture was the wave of the future. But as fuel prices fell in the mid-1950s, the American public rejected solar technologies until the 1970s. This paper attempts to recover the history of excitement and experimentation surrounding solar homes from 1933 to 1968. 

The most common claim about the history of solar architecture is that cost killed the beast—solar is always just too expensive. The limitations of this argument stem from the very simplicity that makes it attractive. The question is never whether something costs too much; it is whether something is worth its cost. Even though Americans return to it every other decade, the rhetoric surrounding solar never becomes persuasive enough to convince the American public solar is “worth it.” This kind of realization does not jettison economic arguments, but seeks to make them more nuanced and culturally situated. The single-minded cost argument does not fully take up the issue that consumption does not happen in a monetary vacuum. History tells us that Americans decided solar architecture was not worth the cost, but the continual reemergence of solar technologies belies this easy conclusion.

Because it is not simply that solar was too expensive, but consumers were never effectively sold on the expense, this paper utilizes popular coverage of solar homes, analyzing the ways in which the solar home was sold to the public. It examines popular magazines, newspapers, newsreels, and contemporary books on solar homes, evaluating the type of approach a text employs and how it might have resonated with consumers. 

My paper demonstrates that a number of factors contributed to the failure of the solar home and that focusing solely on cost as the reason obscures possible lessons about societal adoption or rejection of technologies. According to Rick Altman’s concept of “crisis historiography,” society develops ways of understanding new technologies through negotiating their meanings and definitions. Through this process a dominant practice and definition emerges. The failure of solar architecture results from the failure of very process. Publications of the era make evident the lack of any clear, dominant definition of “solar house.” They are similarly unable to cultivate a coherent narrative for the solar house though might help Americans understand the new technology.

This examination of how primary sources constructed arguments about the solar home expands our understanding of Americans’ relationship to solar technologies in this period and beyond. Restoring this history helps complicate our understanding of mid-century building and sustainability. It also illuminates the process by which technologies with great momentum can fade and be forgotten, perhaps offering an instructive corollary to the present interest in solar design.

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