By the time I was 26 and moved to North Carolina I had already bought and sold some homes so I wasn’t a real estate virgin. Still, I was surprised by the use of the phrase Master Bedroom that in the North was then called Owner’s Suite. To me a Master Bedroom clearly indicated this was where the antebellum master (white guy) slept in the big house catered to by slaves that resided in wooded cabins.
Like Confederate statues in every Southern town square honoring terrorists hell-bent on breaking up the country, master bedrooms didn’t seem to bother anyone but me. Over time the phrase became a real estate jargon norm so I stopped thinking about it.
Until today when New York City’s Association of Realtors followed Houston’s lead releasing that henceforth master bedrooms would be called Primary Bedrooms often with a Primary Bath. Frankly, I’d have gone back to using Owners’ Suite if only because a Primary Bath implies you have to do number two somewhere else. Worse yet, that everyone has to walk through the owner’s bedroom to first see if that bathroom is occupied before using another bathroom.
The push to stop using the term “master bedroom” comes in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the resulting Black Lives Matter protests, and as the industry grapples with issues of housing discrimination and diversity within its ranks.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development ruled in 1995 that “master bedroom” was not discriminatory and that it did not violate fair housing laws, which is largely why the National Association of Realtors hasn’t created a policy regarding its usage. The organization’s president, Vince Malta, said in a recent statement that there was no reason that real estate professionals could not use the term since there was zero evidence of its historical connection to slavery.
The first recorded usage of “master bedroom” was in a 1926 pamphlet by Sears offering potential buyers a kit they could use to build their own homes. Sears introduced it as a way to attract suburban home buyers who aimed to be viewed as part of the expanding middle class after World War I.
It appears the phrase master bedroom is going the way of parlour, a story I frequently share around Day of the Dead and on cemetery tours.
Back when the US and Canada were primarily agrarian societies the front room of a farm house was called the funeral parlor as that was what it was used for prior to burials on the farm. Eventually the phrase was shorten to parlour.
Following World War 2 and the creation of Levittown and other suburbs no one having been in the war wanted to live in a house reminiscent of a funeral or death. So real estate agents got together and changed the word parlour to living room and it stuck.
We’ll see how phrase primary bedroom does in the jargon of real estate.
by Joseph Toone
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