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The Home Garage and Garage Door: A Cultural History

The modern residential garage (from the French word garer, “shelter”) evolved out of the traditional carriage house, which from the invention of the first automobile in 1886 onward was increasingly used by members of the upper class to store both their carriages and their cars. To this very day, many garage door designs evoke the carriage house doors of old. The introduction of the Ford Model T, “the first affordable automobile”, in 1908 brought this new form of transportation to middle-class homes. The carriage house gave way to the home garage during the Roaring Twenties when automobiles proliferated among the general public with the passage of the Canadian Highway Act of 1919 and U.S Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921, two large-scale government programs to develop a system of highways across North America.

By the mid-20s, an attached garage that matches the design of the home became a standard feature sought by the average homebuyer. The year 1921 also saw the invention of the overhead sectional garage door, a perfect fit for smaller urban and suburban residential garages–as opposed to the side-swinging doors of the large carriage house. The overhead sectional remains the most commonly used design one hundred years later. 

Avco garage door opener ad, 1947

The post-war prosperity of the 1940s and 50s increased the number and size of vehicles as well as garages, which began to be connected to the home through an internal door as more people used this space as a workshop and storage room. Functionally, the garage door became “the main entrance” to many homes.

But the 1960s saw this post-war prosperity fade into a period of slower growth and rising inflation, a prelude to the stagflation of the 1970s. The carport became more prevalent, a cheaper, open alternative to the standard garage. As families grew, but family incomes did not necessarily grow commensurably, both carports and garages began to be used as a living space, a kind of family room, or for recreational activities such as playing loud music. Notably, several famous bands began their careers practicing in a garage, including The Beatles, The Ramones, The Who, and Nirvana.

The traditional “rummage sale”, which in the past would feature mostly relics and antiques, became the “garage sale” as middle and working-class people sought to sell off their furniture, kitchenware, and other household items, as well as curiosity items such as Americana artifacts, which were widely popular during the patriotic 50s and 60s. The garage sale was an easy way for Americans and Canadians to make room for new consumer items or to supplement their income as the economy took a downturn. 

On the other hand, the 1970s also brought about two notable changes in design across the garage door industry. Wood gave way to steel, which requires less maintenance, as global steel prices fell with the entrance of developing countries like Korea and Brazil into the steel market. Another significant innovation was the automatic garage door opener. Invented in 1926 and patented in 1937, this motorized device, which today can be found in almost every commercial or residential garage, did not become widely popular until the 70s, when an accelerating decline in the prices of consumer electronics driven by exponential technological advancement (see: “Moore’s law”) made it affordable for the general public. 

Garages grew to two and three-car sizes and became more ostentatious in the 80s era of conspicuous consumption, but by the mid-1990s an interesting shift had taken place in the United States: garages were becoming smaller and less conspicuous. This was caused in part by a rise in property prices as well as a change in taste, with homeowners and some municipalities looking to move away from the “repetitious look” of garage doors lining the street in favor of a more harmonious aesthetic. But security was also a contributing factor; to some extent, moving the garage door away from the street may have been a belated response to the 1980s crime wave as middle and upper-class families sought to protect their increasingly pricier homes and vehicles from burglars in an era when law and order became a central political issue.

The economic boom at the turn of the century saw the trend reverse once again. The term “garage mahal” entered common usage. A 1999 headline from The Wall Street Journal read “Garages Begin To Outnumber Bedrooms In Many Homes: Keeping Up With [Jay] Leno”. The late-night host’s car collection and the facilities holding it became legendary, but in many ways, the concept of the residential garage itself underwent a kind of apotheosis in the form of Silicon Valley’s founding myth. Although Hewlett and Packard began developing their first products at a garage workshop in suburban Palo Alto in 1938, it was only after the popularization of Apple’s origin story–itself “highly romanticized” according to co-founder Steve Wozniak–that HP made its humble beginnings a central part of its image.

Although companies like Google, Apple, and Microsoft emerged mostly out of prestigious university labs, corporate offices, and venture capital investments, building on the work of earlier companies such as IBM and government agencies such as DARPA, the “startup garage” evokes the spirit of invention and entrepreneurship. Like the similar trope of the garage band, it holds the promise that from this private space within our home, even with limited means, through a combination of hard work and imagination we too can become great inventors, artists, or the founders of our own company, be it a small business or a Big Tech corporation. 

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