Carl Abbott is Professor Emeritus of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University and author of Imagining Urban Futures: Cities in Science Fiction and What We Might Learn from Them (Wesleyan University Press, 2016)
If Robert McCloskey’s Make Way For Ducklings anticipated Jane Jacobs, Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House lined up firmly with Lewis Mumford.
It’s been 75 years since Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House was first published. In the illustrated story, a simple little house has its happy rural existence threatened by suburbanization and then by the frightening engulfing city. At the last minute, it’s rescued and relocated to the countryside. Millions more encountered the story in an 8-minute animated version that Walt Disney Productions released in 1952.
The book is charming, for Burton had a beguiling visual style that she honed in half a dozen popular books. The cartoon is fast-paced and the house is undeniably cute with windows as soulful eyes and its door as a nose.
Its implicit message is anti-urban.
Burton told the story with fewer than a thousand words scattered over 40 pages of watercolor illustrations. The little house in the early pages loves her flowers and apple trees. Burton lovingly depicted the country setting as islands of meadow and trees that seem to float off the page. In contrast, the scenes of menacing urban growth are drawn with vigor, detail, and darker tones. Apartments and tenements surround the house, complete with rickety back stairways. Pounding traffic pollutes the air, trolleys clank, crowds hurry past, an elevated railway blocks light, and a subway rumbles directly beneath.
The towering city is a grey cloud hovering on the horizon. Down go the tenements and up go skyscrapers.
“Now the Little House only saw the sun at noon, and didn’t see the moon or stars at night at all. . . . The Little House was very sad and lonely.”
Some commentators see the book as a warning against suburban sprawl, but only one page shows a new subdivision in process, while the real peril is the Big City. Burton was not an urban planner, so the actual growth sequence is a bit off, implying that a dense downtown will develop directly on top of recently built tract houses. We don’t learn what might have happened to the preexisting downtown. Perhaps she was anticipating Tyson’s Corner.
Burton claimed that she was simply celebrating the pleasures of the country, not attacking cities. However, her other best known book has a similar bias. Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel follows a construction worker who builds canals, highways, and airports with a steam shovel named Mary Anne. Alas, the arrival of new gas, diesel, and electric equipment render Mike and Mary Anne redundant.
Out of work in the city, they find a new opportunity in the small town of Popperville. They dig the basement for a new colonial-style city hall, and there they remain, refugees from the city who end their days in that same basement, working as the janitor and steam heating plant. Some years later Burton wrote and illustrated Maybelle the Cable Car—a San Francisco story, to be sure, but also a story about an old technology struggling against the onslaught of gasoline bus bullies.
The Little House resonated with midcentury American values. Burton’s nostalgia and her comfort with defining cities as disrupting forces picked up the tropes and images that Lewis Mumford and Pare Lorentz used to portray the problems of the great metropolis in the film The City, which debuted at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. There are the same dark tones, the same indictment of overly fast pace, the same sense of dehumanization.
These were international values. In 1948, the British Ministry of Town and Country Planning issued Charley in New Town, another 8-minute cartoon intended to promote new planned communities. It starts, of course, with the evils of the city—overcrowding, overbuilding, congestion, pollution, social isolation—shown in the darkest tones. The crowds of workers are an undifferentiated flowing black blob, indistinguishable from clouds of coal smoke. The solution for Charley is to move to Harlow or Hemel Hempstead, just as The City proposed places like Greenbelt, Maryland, as the cure for Pittsburgh and New York.
Disney’s 1952 version of The Little House makes the city even more menacing. It arrives full form, with no suburban transition. It moves and looms, engulfing the house in a slum full of bickering buildings that argue with each other in grating big city accents. Garbage cans block the view from the front windows. Construction machinery chews up the earth like a mechanical Allosaurus, leaving the house huddling beneath New York sized skyscrapers. When rescue comes, viewers are reminded in saccharine tones that “the best place to find peace and happiness is in a little house, on a little hill, way out in the country.”
The Little House won the 1943 Caldecott Medal, given for the best illustrated children’s book. The previous Caldecott had gone to Robert McCloskey’s wonderful Make Way for Ducklings, with its celebration of urban community. If McCloskey’s Boston anticipated Jane Jacobs, Burton’s Little House lined up firmly with Lewis Mumford.