Garage Tales

Why the horseless carriage required a horse-free home of its own.

A century ago, some people thought the automobile was a passing fancy, a stinky, noisy contraption that would never replace the horse and buggy. They couldn’t have imagined how this invention would change the world, forever shaping our economy, society, industry, landscape and lifestyle. Besides spurring the construction of highways, it transformed the design of cities and even influenced the architecture of homes so that the horseless carriage would not be a houseless carriage.

To create shelter for their new motorized buggies, the first car owners typically annexed space from an existing outbuilding, such as a barn or a carriage house. But city dwellers didn’t have that luxury: Those who kept a horse and carriage (and eventually a horseless carriage) often did not own an outbuilding but instead rented space in a livery stable (the precursor to public parking garages). It soon became apparent that horses and cars were not practical housemates — automobile upholstery would absorb animal odors, and it was unhealthy for horses to inhale gasoline fumes. The natural solution was to create a building just for vehicles: the garage.

As car ownership spread to the middle class in the early 1900s, infrastructure (highways, parking lots and garages) grew in response. Early garages were typically single-car, freestanding sheds relegated to backyards or barnyards. To capitalize on the trend, Sears, Roebuck and Co., which sold “houses in a box” from 1908 to 1940, began offering garage kits. Eventually, people saw the convenience of keeping their vehicles closer to their living spaces, ultimately incorporating garages into their houses and expanding the structures to hold two cars or more.

No longer viewed as purely utilitarian space, the garage’s architecture and detailing evolved to coordinate with the adjacent house. The structures became stylish, particularly in the design of their doors (which have a history of their own — see HANDY FACTS, below). Even detached garages matched their companion houses’ siding, roofing materials and architecture.

Nowadays we expect garages to do much more than complement our homes’ architecture and shelter our vehicles. In fact, cars often take a back seat to other garage occupants such as tools, boats, bikes and sporting goods, lawn mowers, snow throwers, garden equipment, even family, friends and neighbors during large gatherings and garage sales. In many ways the multifaceted, multitasking garage is (second only to the kitchen) the hub of the modern home. But where to park the car? Maybe you can find space in the carriage house where the horse once lived.

Handy Facts:
Original garage sheds featured hinged barn-style doors that were large, heavy and difficult to swing open — especially after a snowfall. The early solution, bi-fold doors, opened to each side of the doorway. Then in 1921 C.G. Johnson introduced the overhead lifting door and formed a business called the Overhead Door Corp. He is also credited with inventing the electric push-button door opener in 1926. Today we often take for granted these household conveniences that offer ready access to our indispensable garage space.

Want more?
Check out Hot Controversy: History of Outdoor Cooking
Holding Fire: History of the Fireplace