Part 4: Building, Selling, and Shopping the Lines

Selling Public Schools through Private Homes

After World War II, West Hartford experienced a second suburban boom, the combination of growth in both the residential and commercial sectors. But town leaders continued to question whether the town had kept pace with the quality of education they expected in their rising suburban community. A 1950 Life magazine survey, titled “How Good is Your School?”, inspired Bice Clemow, publisher of the West Hartford News weekly, to launch a series of investigative articles about the quality of local public education.[1] Although West Hartford now had 13 school buildings, Clemow found numerous examples of low standards in school facilities, curriculum, and teacher salaries. “If we lived in a mill town, where the income level was modest, it would not be startling to find that we could not afford the best in public education,” Clemow concluded. “To document that we have grade B- secondary education available in West Hartford is a shock of another order.”[2]

Status anxiety over suburban schools also appeared in the real estate market. As school enrollments continued to grow during the 1950s, and town officials eventually agreed to fund new school buildings to address overcrowding, a heated controversy arose over redistricting. In 1954, several parents objected to proposed changes in school attendance zones, particularly a plan to move sixth grade students from overcrowded elementary schools to the Talcott Junior High School, located on the town’s south side. At a board of education meeting, one of the parents reportedly said, “that whenever real estate men sell property, they tell their clients that they (purchasers) are in the Sedgwick, Webster Hill, or Bugbee areas.” All three of these elementary schools were located on the western side of town, where new home construction was most prevalent. The proposed redistricting would remove children from the schools that real estate agents had promoted as the most highly desirable ones, and parents strongly objected to losing access to the public neighborhood schools that they had “paid” to attend. Superintendent Thorne blamed real estate agents for creating what the press labeled as “social class consciousness” among West Hartford residents. He asked: “Doesn’t it boil down to some people thinking there is more prestige to going to one school than another?”[3] His principled stand was not persuasive to parents who opposed redistricting, and who probably paid more for a home located near what they perceived as a better elementary school.

Suburban real estate agents ignored Superintendent Thorne’s criticism and intensified their marketing tactics during the 1950s and ’60s. They increasingly engaged in “branding” access to selected West Hartford public schools as part of the private real estate transaction. Based on a sample of Sunday newspapers from 1920 to 1990, the number of suburban real estate advertisements increased across the Hartford metropolitan region over time, particularly during the baby boom years. But West Hartford advertisements stood out from the others. During the postwar era, this suburb had the highest proportion of real estate ads that mentioned a specific school by name, peaking at 38 percent in 1965. Real estate agents who placed these advertisements prominently included the name of the public school attendance zone, seeking to increase the value of the private home in the eyes of prospective homebuyers. Simply living in the suburb of West Hartford was not sufficient; one also had to live in the “right” neighborhood, in order to attend the “right” school.[4]


Private real estate advertisement  featuring a specific public school name.

© The Hartford Courant, May 1, 1960, reprinted under fair use of copyright law.

In these postwar suburban advertisements, real estate agents generated a private-public consumerist discourse at an unprecedented scale. During the 1920s housing boom, none of the West Hartford ads in this sample ever mentioned a school. In the city of Hartford during the same decade, only 4 percent of the ads mentioned schools, including both generic references (such as “near school”) and specific schools by name. Therefore, the postwar language of “selling” access to a specific public school as part of the real estate transaction was a fairly new phenomenon in the metropolitan Hartford region, and part of a larger strategy to stimulate suburban growth by associating home ownership, educational investment, and upward mobility.

  1. "How Good is Your School?" Life 16 October 1950, pp. 54-55; Bice Clemow, "A Layman Looks at Schools in West Hartford," reprinted from West Hartford News, 25 January to 15 February, 1951.
  2. "Three Junior Highs Make Modest Showing" [editorial], 9 November 1950, West Hartford News, p. 4.
  3. "New School Lines Offered by Thorne," Hartford Times, April 8, 1954.
  4. This historical analysis of private home and public school advertising draws on methods used in a one-year study by Diana Pearce, "Breaking Down Barriers: New Evidence on the Impact of Metropolitan School Desegregation on Housing Patterns" (Unpublished report, Center for National Policy Review, Law School, Catholic University, Washington, D.C, 1980). We identified all advertisements for homes published in the Hartford Courant newspaper on its first Sunday edition in May, on a five-year interval from 1920 to 1990. Ads mentioned either a generic school (e.g., "near school"), a specific school (e.g., "Bugbee School District"), or no school.