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Suburban Eyesore or Marvel of Mass Production? Aluminum Siding Turns 50

August 31, 1995

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) _ Fifty years ago, Reynolds Metals Co. was looking for a way to continue producing the aluminum it supplied for wartime defense needs.

What it came up with was aluminum siding, that ubiquitous, middle-class American household exterior that’s been denigrated as a suburban eyesore and hailed as a marvel of mass production.

Now celebrating its half-century mark, aluminum siding launched the exterior products industry into the world of big business, with sales now topping $6 billion a year, according to the research division of National Association of Home Builders.

Some siding manufacturers, however, estimate sales as high as $20 billion a year.

Since its creation, aluminum siding has been heralded as a rustproof, rot-proof, termite-proof ultra-convenience. It has served as a low-maintenance, relatively inexpensive alternative to painting one’s house regularly.

The first siding went up on a cement home and garage in Louisville, Ky. in 1945 by the Richmond, Va.-based Reynolds, at a time when many homeowners used to paint their wooden houses every few years.

The development of aluminum siding paralleled the post-World War II rise in discretionary income, two-career couples and the spread of suburbia. People no longer had the time or desire to paint their homes every few years.

``It was a product that came at a time when Americans were changing,″ said Reynolds’ spokesman Terry Olbrysh. ``People wanted more leisure time.″

It also gained mass-market appeal as American’s fascination with technology increased.

``Anything new that made things easier just caught on,″ said James Kornwolf, a professor of modern art and architecture at the College of William and Mary.

Aluminum siding’s success followed the launches of asbestos shingles, which often cracked and broke off, and asphalt siding, which was made to look like brick but never really did, said Will Biddle, market researcher for the NAHB Research Center in Upper Marlboro, Md., a subsidiary of the National Association of Home Builders.

``This is mass production at its best,″ Marshall Fishwick, a Virginia Tech humanities professor who specializes in popular culture, said of aluminum siding. Yet the product lacked ``the warmth and grain of wood″ or the ``continuity of brick,″ he said.

But that hardly stopped homeowners from using the siding, and in fact, many thought that it improved the look of their homes.

The 1987 film ``Tin Men″ depicted a real-life scam in which salesmen posing as Life magazine photographers duped homeowners into believing that if they replaced their fading wood exteriors with aluminum siding, their homes would appear in an attractive magazine picture spread.

The popularity of aluminum siding spurred the exterior products market to expand into a multi-billion dollar business. Today, aluminum siding only accounts for 3 percent of all sales, with other varieties now accounting for the bulk of the business, said Gerry Maibach, residential marketing manager for Reynolds’ Construction Products Division.

Vinyl siding, which became available in the early 1970s, has taken over as the leader with a 44 percent share of the market, while wood holds 39 percent and masonry 14 percent, Maibach said.

He said vinyl siding surpassed aluminum because it costs less and is dent-proof.

Many builders used to think aluminum and vinyl siding was cheap and inferior, but that attitude is changing, said Ron Tignor Sr., owner of Richmond Aluminum and Remodeling Corp.

``Now you’ll find homes worth half a million dollars that have vinyl on them,″ he said. ``Everyone wants a maintenance-free home ... it’s going to take over the whole country eventually.″

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