Hodgson, Ernest Franklin (20 May 1871-3 Oct. 1948), a pioneer manufacturer of portable prefabricated factory-built housing, was born in Medford, Massachusetts, the son of Thomas Hodgson, a master watchmaker, and Caroline Bentley, both born in Staffordshire, England. In the 1880s the family moved to Dover, Massachusetts, an agricultural community some fifteen miles southwest of Boston. Ernest was educated in the local schools and worked on his father's farm, where he devised a new type of chicken brooder. In 1891 Ernest sold several of his new brooders to A. F. Hunter, of neighboring South Natick. Hunter, the editor of Farm Poultry, encouraged his readers to change to Hodgson's superior product.

In 1892 Hodgson built a small factory on his father's farm and began manufacturing his Peep-O-Day line of modular poultry brooders and brooder houses. At the same time, he devised a system of building small, light buildings in complete sections. These sections could be shipped anywhere and then erected in a few hours using forelock bolts instead of nails. By 1900 the E. F. Hodgson Company was manufacturing prefab tool houses, poultry houses, and doghouses as well as the Hodgson Camp Cottage and Hodgson Summer Cottages, sold under the Wigwarm Portable House trademark.

In 1898 Hodgson married Florence Stowell of Providence, Rhode Island. They had three children.

Prefab Explosion

In 1902 Hodgson perceived that the automobile would have a major impact on American society. As automobile use increased and people spent more time in rural vacation homes, they would demand a separate building to protect their new toy. Hodgson responded by creating a prefabricated garage, the Auto Stable, which increased the demand for the company's other prefabricated products.

Hodgson advertised in popular magazines, such as Popular Mechanics and Life; in gardening magazines, such as Country Life and House Beautiful; and through his popular mail-order catalogs. The catalogs reprinted satisfied customers' letters and pictures of their portables, including many from America's finest estates--Astor, Ames, Belmont, Cabot, DuPont, McAlpin, Morgan, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt. Hodgson annually exhibited complete houses at popular sports and flower shows, which were held in such places as Madison Square Garden, New York, and Mechanics Hall, Boston.

In 1902 Hodgson sold his Peep-O-Day patents to a company in Ithaca, New York, but he remained the New England agent for the patents. He also retained his rights to the Hodgson Portable House System and began offering Hodgson Portable Vacation Cottages. In 1907 the Hodgson Company exhibited at the Jamestown Tercentenary Exposition a collection of Wigwarm Portables, for which the company won a gold medal. In 1908 the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of Boston began using a Hodgson Portable Bungalow to market electricity to the Boston metropolitan area. In 1909 the American Red Cross placed an order for twenty Hodgson Portables to be used as a refugee camp at Messina, Sicily, which was heavily damaged by an earthquake followed by a tsunami, killing some sixty thousand people.

Also in 1902 the company moved its business offices to Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, and to Fifth Avenue, New York, which included an indoor exhibit hall. Popular and unique outdoor exhibits were established in Dover and Sudbury, Massachusetts, and Bradenton, Florida. In 1911 a fire destroyed the Hodgson manufacturing plant, near the Dover railroad station. The plant was replaced by a larger factory located alongside a railroad spur dedicated to the company's use. Year-round, Hodgson Houses, Summer Cottages, Camp Cottages, Clubhouses, Playhouses, Schoolhouses, Kennels, Greenhouses, Poultry Houses, Garages, and Garden Equipment could now be shipped with greater ease.

Buildings for the Common Good

In 1914 the Hodgson family began an association with Brewster Park, on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Here, twenty-five Hodgson vacation cottages were erected; some remained in use nearly a century later. In 1916 Queen Elizabeth of Belgium visited Boston and contracted a one-hundred-bed Hodgson building at De Panne, to be used to house children who had been made orphans by the German invasion. In 1917 a Hodgson Village of six portable prefabs housing various military and governmental units was erected on Boston Common. Hodgson buildings were used extensively in both World War I and II as barracks, mess halls, churches, schools, and motor pools and for other military needs. Screened porch units were very popular during the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic as well as for use as consumptive hospital wards. During the 1920s Hodgson buildings were well received by the popular summer camp movement in New England. The U.S. Department of State also used the buildings in Africa, Palestine, and Jerusalem. In 1919 the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, allowed the faculty to utilize Hodgson buildings as subsidized housing.

The largest contract for Hodgson buildings (forty-eight thousand dollars) was signed with the New Deal division of Subsistence Homesteads, for fifty portables at Reedville, West Virginia. The Reedville Project marked the first in a series of new homestead communities, a favorite interest of Eleanor Roosevelt's. The Reedville Project was restored as Arthurdale Heritage, Inc., with forty-eight Hodgson houses being used.

The display village and factory at Dover are gone, but, above that site, on Meeting House Hill, most of the sixteen Hodgson houses that had been erected were still being used as of the early twenty-first century.

Helping Achieve the American Dream

In the late 1930s, Ernest Hodgson was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. In 1943 Richard Hodgson, his eldest child and only son, who was active in the family business and much concerned as to how the company would meet the competition expected at the end of World War II, died unexpectedly. Both events led to the sale of the company in 1944 to Henry P. Palmer of Philadelphia. Subsequently, Hodgson, who needed constant medical help, and his wife were moved to an apartment on Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, where he died. The original E. F. Hodgson Company changed market direction when it was absorbed into a national housing corporation. Buildings were no longer light and portable but were built in a modified modular system. This company dissolved in 1995.

Ernest Franklin Hodgson built and offered the first mail-order catalog of prefab portable factory-built housing--before Sears, Aladdin, Gordon-Van Tine, or Montgomery Ward. The Hodgson Unit System, with its simplified bolting system, used quality materials. Highly touted for their weatherproofing and insulation, Hodgson Houses were still in use, as of the early twenty-first century, in areas where they have withstood extremes of weather. Hodgson's magazine ads stated it clearly: "Hodgson has modernized the sturdy workmanship and simple design of old New England homes" (House Beautiful). Today a renewed interest in Hodgson is a result of greater acceptance of modular housing, which, like Hodgson's unit system, offers a superior factory-built structure at a reasonable price to the many Americans who want to own their own home--the ultimate symbol of the American dream.



No collection of Hodgson family papers or records of the E. F. Hodgson Company of Dover exist today. An incomplete collection of Hodgson House catalogs, circa 1892 to 1944, is housed in the Dover Historical Society Collection. The N. W. Ayers Advertising Archives at the National Museum of American History contains the E. F. Hodgson Campaign, 1909-1945. The most current materials are Colin Davies, The Prefabricated Home (2005); Evie T. Joselow, "The Ideal Catalogue House: Mail-Order Architecture and Consumer Culture, 1914-1930" (Ph.D. diss., 2 vols., City University of New York, 1998); Robert Schweitzer and Michael W. R. Davis, America's Favorite Homes: Mail-Order Catalogues as a Guide to Popular Early 20th-Century Houses (1990); and Paul H. Tedesco and James B. Tedesco, Portable and Prefabricated Houses of the Thirties: The E. F. Hodgson Company 1935 and 1939 Catalogs--An Unabridged Reprint (2007). Judith G. Stetson, "Mail Order Houses," Spritsail18, no. 2 (summer 2004): 2-25, covers the use of Hodgson and other prefabs at the Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Cape Cod. Stephen E. Haid, "Arthurdale: An Experiment in Community Planning, 1933-1947" (Ph.D. diss., West Virginia University, 1975); Wesley Stout, "The New Homesteaders," the Saturday Evening Post, 4 August 1934; and Paul Keith Conkin, Tomorrow a New World: The New Deal Community Program (1959) are critical of the use of the Hodgson Houses at the Arthurdale New Deal housing project. The quotation from one of Hodgson's advertisements appears in House Beautiful, Nov. 1936. An obituary is in the New York Times, 4 October 1948.

James B. Tedesco
Paul H. Tedesco

Online Resources

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James B. Tedesco
Paul H. Tedesco. "Hodgson, Ernest Franklin";
American National Biography Online October 2008 Update.
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