Little Boxes In 1947, something strange started growing in the potato fields of Long Island, New York. It wasn’t edible, and it was far from organic. From the air, you could tell it was something new: row upon row of houses, each exactly like the next. It was Levittown, the first modern suburb, and towns like it would soon become home to the largest generation of American teens yet. After World War II, 16 million soldiers flooded back home to marry and have babies. They helped produce a record, 76 million children during the “Baby Boom” years of 1946 to 1964. But as the new parents tried to get settled, they faced a severe housing shortage. By 1947, 6 million families were sharing homes, while another 500,000 lived in whatever they could find—barns, garages, tool sheds, even chicken coops. Enter William Levitt We build shelter. We build roofs over people’s heads. They needed it. Half the women were pregnant and half had tots in their arms. --William Levitt, developer In the spring of 1947, Levitt announced plans to construct 2,000 affordable homes for veterans on fields 25 miles east of Manhattan. Using the techniques of mass production, he was able to build houses for next to nothing. When I saw houses for $6,990, with no down payment. I couldn’t believe it. We followed the map we were given and bought the first house we saw without going inside. --John Kilbride, Levittown resident There were 27 steps to building a Levittt house, and each worker had a single task to perform. With great efficiency, Levitt built 36 houses a day. By the time Levittown was completed in 1951, it contained 17,400 homes, housing 82,000 people on 6,000 acres. Companies all around the modern subdivision were born. Critics looked at the “ticky-tacky” Levittown houses s\and their homogeneous residents and panicked. …a multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, enabled by people of the same class, the same age group, witnessing the same TV performances, eating the same tasteless, prefabricated foods from the same freezers. --Lewis Mumford, architecture critic Levitt, like most developers, barred anyone but whites from his subdivision. But most residents of Levittown didn’t care. They loved owning their own places. And they enjoyed the camaraderie they felt with neighbors who had the same backgrounds, hopes and problems. Your Home is a Retreat from the frustrations of life, where you can shut out the world; it’s a haven your children can run to, not run from. --Ethan Allan Furniture ad By 1970, a majority of Americans lived in the suburbs. The generation that reached their teens in the 1960’s was the largest in American history and most of them were molded by the ‘burbs, for better or worse. Parents had escaped the downside of city life—crime, crowds, mediocre schools—and felt they had given their kids an advantage. Unlike previous generations, suburban teens did not have to work in the fields of their family’s farm, or sweep the floors of the corner grocery store. They had a huge group of friends in neighborhoods complete with playgrounds, swimming pools, and baseball diamonds. They dropped out of school less and went to college more. On the other hand, the suburbs were an insular world. In many of the new suburbs, the white child never sees a Negro. In others the Jewish child never plays with any but Jewish children. Some of these suburbs are all Catholic. In others there are no Catholics. --Sidonie Gruenberg, journalist As people moved to the suburbs, extended families broke up into nuclear families—just father, mother, and kids. Only rarely were youth exposed to people of different ages, races, religions, or classes. And intolerance flourished where contact with different people was scarce. The new suburbia had given post-war parents a haven in a dangerous and unpredictable world. But could a cozy house in a cozy neighborhood prepare kids to deal with the world beyond the picket fence? --Sean McCollum Suburban Lifestyle The fifties were a time of prosperity and tranquility during which the country was entranced by materialism. Something new was being invented just about every minute, and the people had the money to buy these new inventions. During these years, television, suburbia, superhighways, and automobiles became dominant factors in American life. Many people felt that the god life had finally arrived; the poverty of the Depression and the disruption of World War II were over. It was a time of new stoves, clothes, houses, and cars, air conditioners, self- service, elevators, direct mail telephones, McDonalds, computers, credit cards transistor radios, diet drinks, filter cigarettes, TV’s and any other appliance you could think of. And on the streets, there were men in hats, vests, and gray flannel suits, women and children everywhere. The young boys had crew cuts and the girls wore skirts and bobby sox. The great prosperity of the fifties was cause by the overall postwar affluence and by the enormous expansion of the economy. Between 1950 and 1958, the economy expanded at a steady rate of 4.7%, heralding remarkable increases in the standard of living for most people. This expansion was caused by a number of factors. For one thing, there was a lingering postwar back-up demand for consumer goods, which was supplemented by the people’s increased purchasing power which was a result of people’s savings. Also, World War II had resulted in the expansion of factories and other technological advancements, which were revised during the Cold war and the Korean conflict. The fifties also heralded the appearance of new and modernize industries ranging form electronics to plastics. The population growth, the expansion of large cities, sprawling suburbias, and highway and automobile construction also contributed to the expansion of the economy, as well as an increase in the productivity of the work force. In addition to this, there was the commitment to the foreign aid, which made overseas credits and the American exports possible, ad Cold war spending. With the cities expanding, there were many people who wanted to escape the urban crime and congestion. This led to the rise of suburbia. At the close of World War II, suburbia attracted only a small portion of the population, usually rich people. However, there was a massive suburban building boom in the late 1940s which led to a massive middle and lower middle class exodus from the cities to a bulldozed landscape of tiny ranch houses on 50 foot tracts surrounded by shopping centers, recreational facilities, schools, churches, and parking lots. Thousands of suburban communities sprang up all over the country, built for the affordability and the function of raising children with an assembly line. The houses, and the people, in these communities were uniform and unimaginative. Everyone who lived there was about the same age, had about the same income, and the same number of kids; even the problems, habits, conversation, dress, and processions were identical. There were few people in the suburban communities that were poor, wealthy, black, single, old, or childless. There were only couples between 25 and 35 with one or two small kids in most of which the men held middle class jobs (managers, salesman, professionals, and small businessmen) and were rising up the economic or corporate ladder. In additions to city expansion, the trend towards early marriage in the forties and fifties also contributed to the rise in suburbia. The trend was to go steady, marry young, have lots of children, and live the conforming life of togetherness. Overall, people in the forties and fifties believed that family togetherness, focused mainly on children, was the mark of a successful and wholesome personal life. This trend in marriage was an inevitable result of the return to peace and prosperity after World War II. The people wanted to put the hardships of the war behind them and enjoy the abundance at home. The family also provided a fortress against the problems in postwar America, such as the communist and nuclear scares. Thus, in the fifties, 96.4% of the women and 94.1% of the men were married, almost everyone was married by their mid-twenties, and most couples had 2 to 4 kids born soon after marriage and closer together than before. All the families that arose from this trend needed somewhere to live, and thus suburbia was treated, and, along with it, the perfect family. The home of the perfect family was in suburbia, in a model ranch structure house in the price range of the average worker ($8,000 for a house, earn $5,000 - $7,000 a year), filled with all the modern appliances and conveniences to make the life of a housewife easier. All these appliances were not “traditional” throughout history; the fifties represented the first effort to create a home that fulfilled everyone’s personal needs. In suburbia, the American center of family life and togetherness, the neighbors very close and there were many community activities. They were always helping each other out with home repairs or coming to each other’s aid un times of emergency or sorrow. There were also carpools, babysitting pools, backyard barbeques for the whole neighborhood, and block parties. For companionship, there was the PTA, churches, swimming pools, bridge, writing, ceramics, photography, and many other clubs for all interests. The traditional gender roles were a central feature of the fifties “perfect family”. The man was the father and the bread winner of the family, working a 9 to 5 day. Fatherhood was the center of a man’s identity; his job came second to being a dad. Thus he was more likely to settle for a lower paying job if it was more secure and allowed him to spend a lot of time with his kids. The father also felt that they had to spend a lot of time with their sons to make sure that they were not sissies. The role of the woman was that of the mother and professional homemaker. The prosperity of the period made it possible for the entire family to be supported by one income. She took are of the kids and the home, enjoying her independence from control over her work. She devoted most of her time and energy to the home and the family, and many women felt teat they had to be mothers to lead a fulfilling life. It was also easier to be a housewife in the fifties, because of all the new appliances that eased the burden of the work. It was also the women’s job to create the home of their dreams with the money her husband brought home from work. The housewife was the thread between the family and the community. One example of a perfect family can be seen in Sloan Wilson’s novel Man in a Gray Flannel Suit. The main character, Tom Rath, has a wife named Betsy, 3 kids, a 6- room house in Westport, a 1939 Ford, $10,000 in GI life insurance, and a $7,000-a-year job at a charitable foundation where his duties are negligible. He is offered a job paying $9,000 a year and takes it, but finds a hitch. He now has to work overtime and even come in on Saturdays sometimes, and this cuts in on his time with Betsy and the kids. So he tells his boss he doesn’t want the job anymore, because he doesn’t want to curtail his roles as a husband and a father. The tomes of the 1950’s were content to work from 9-5, 5 days a week, while devoting the bulk of their time to leisure activities – church, civic activities, getting to know the kids, golf, Little League, and leading a rewarding life with Betsy.
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