Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Erma Bombeck and the House in Which She Wrote

The housewife-turned-columnist wrote her way to fame out of a suburban house in Ohio.
by Rich Watson 

For a generation of housewives, the syndicated columns of Erma Bombeck captured their daily triumphs and struggles with humor. Her work inspired future comedy writers and continues to do so today.

The house in which she grew her literary reputation is now a landmark.

Erma Bombeck’s early publication history 

Born in Bellbrook, Ohio, Erma Fiste was raised in nearby Dayton. A love of the written word at an early age led to her own writing: in her junior high and high school newspapers, and then to work in the Dayton Herald as a copygirl. They published her interview with young actress Shirley Temple in 1944.

While in college at the University of Dayton, she wrote for the newsletter of the department store in which she worked. A professor encouraged her writing, which led to work for the student paper, The Exponent

She graduated in 1949. Five years later she wrote a humor column for the Dayton Shopping News.

Family and life in suburbia

Also in 1949, she married fellow student Bill Bombeck. He became a high school teacher. They had two sons, Andrew and Matthew, plus an adopted daughter, Betsy.

By 1958, the family moved to Centerville, a Dayton suburb.

One of their neighbors was future talk show host Phil Donahue. In a 2018 Dayton Daily News article, he remembered them well:
Bill was [Erma’s] cheerleader…. Her success would not have been possible without Bill’s standing there, applauding her work. Erma’s success only made their marriage stronger. What a wonderful team they made, and they were wonderful, wonderful parents.

The Bombeck home: a tract house

In that same article, Donahue described the house the Bombecks built, on 162 Cushwa Drive:
We all had the same house. It was a plat house—$15,500–three bedrooms, two bathrooms and the fireplace was $700 extra. Everybody had Early American d├ęcor.
A tract, or plat, is a plot of land. Tract houses are connected to each other via the land. Each house is identical and comes with its own lot. 

Inspired by the postwar planned development of Levittown, New York, tract houses grew nationwide throughout the forties and fifties. They’re built at a lower cost, with standard appliances, in safe neighborhoods. Their resale value, however, tends to be low.

Bill described their 1392-square-foot house in an earlier Daily News piece:
We were part of a movement of young families buying affordable houses. All our neighbors were in the same boat, with three or four kids, and Erma was no longer able to work full-time as a reporter. So that house on Cushwa Drive was the start of her career as a columnist.

Bombeck’s writing takes off within her house

Erma Bombeck resumed full-time writing in 1964. She wrote on an IBM Selectric on a plank between cinder blocks. At her funeral, Donahue noted how Bill installed seven beams in the ceiling. This made their tract home unique from others in the area. 

In 1965 Bombeck had a nationally syndicated column, “At Wit’s End.” Some sample quotes:
When my kids become wild and unruly, I use a nice, safe playpen. When they’re finished, I climb out.

My theory on housework is, if the item doesn’t multiply, smell, catch fire, or block the refrigerator door, let it be. No one else cares. Why should you?

People are always asking couples whose marriage has endured at least a quarter of a century for their secret for success. Actually, it is no secret at all. I am a forgiving woman. Long ago, I forgave my husband for not being Paul Newman.

One meal a day is enough for a lion and would be for all of us if all we did all day was swat flies.

Most mothers entering the labor market outside the home are naive. They stagger home each evening, holding mail in their teeth, the cleaning over their arm, a lamb chop defrosting under each armpit, balancing two gallons of frozen milk between their knees, and expect one of the kids to get the door.
By 1969, five hundred papers in the US ran her column. By 1979, it was nine hundred. 

Bombeck and her home remembered

Bombeck died in 1996. Her writing has been collected into books. There is a play based on her writing. A writer’s workshop devoted to her runs out of the University of Dayton (this year’s session begins April 4).

The Bombeck family lived in the Centerville house until 1968, when they moved to Phoenix. It remains a private home, but in 2015, it joined the National Register of Historic Places.



Another Behind the Blind next week, and then April 10: instrumental pop songs.

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