A History of Tiny Homes

Updated: Jun 10, 2019



The tiny home movement has grown in recent years, and it's become a pretty well-known trend. But have you ever wondered how it all started? Let's take a look at the history of the tiny house movement.


Large houses are pretty recent inventions in the grand scheme of history. The idea of having a ton of space and a bunch of privacy for each individual is a pretty modern, Western idea. If you wanted to, you could say that tiny homes go back to the beginning of agriculture, when humans first settled down. Homes in the Neolithic were mostly small, one-room features for a whole family.


There are, of course, thousands of years of tiny home examples. Native Americans on the Great Plains had tee-pees. Ancient Mongolians had yurts. If you jump up a couple millennia, pioneers built shanties just to have a roof over their heads.

But the tiny home movement of modern times is about more than just living in a small space. It's about living an intention life. It's about minimalism. It's about shedding our infatuation with things and getting rid of the idea that bigger means better.

The real roots of the tiny home movement can be dated back to 1854. This was the year that famous Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau published his book, Walden. Let's have a quick crash course in Transcendentalism. 


Transcendentalism was a school of thought that arose in New England in the mid-1800s. The followers, people like Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Margaret Fuller, believed that spirituality could be found in experiences with nature. Transcendentalists believed humans and nature were inherently good. They believed in the values of self-reliance, and they believed getting bogged down in things took people further away from God.

Thoreau moved to Walden Pond for two years, two months, and two days. He set out to do what you might call "find himself." He lived in a 150 square foot cabin. And his seminal work, Walden, extolled the virtues of living simply and being close to nature.

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." 


This is perhaps Thoreau's most famous quote. Sound familiar? Ideas like these run through the core of the tiny home movement. Thoreau was one of the first to jump in and go tiny.

Now, let's jump ahead about 120 years. In the 1970s, artists began to explore the ideas of tiny living. The 1970s were a time of collective soul-searching in the United States. We entered the second decade of the most controversial war ever fought. We had just put a man on the moon in 1969, and technology was growing at a massive rate. There were global conflicts and fuel crises and inflation. The values of traditionalism were at constant odds with the youth culture and new ways of life.

Artists like Allan Wexler began exploring alternative ways of living. In 1973, Lloyd Kahn and Bob Easton released their book, Shelter, which looked at construction methods of various types of small homes around the world. These artists' ideas persisted into the 1980s. Lester Walker released Tiny Houses, or How to Get Away From It All in 1987, when our culture was pushing the value of things on us.


But it was two women in the 1990s that really brought the tiny home movement into modernity. Andrea Zittel, an artist in California, explored questions like "How do we live?" and "What gives life meaning?" through tiny living spaces. Then, as Portland, OR became the first tiny living-friendly city in the U.S., Sarah Susanka published The Not So Big House. 

Within four years of Susanka's book, the Small House Society was formed. Since then, people have been discovering the pure joy that comes from living tiny and living deliberately.


When did you discover the tiny home movement? 



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