Economy in Postwar Suburbia
After World War II, the American economic landscape changed dramatically. Manufacturing and employment demands created by war mobilization transformed the Depression into an economic boom. With rising birthrates and falling unemployment during the war, the average American family grew along with its coffers. By the 1945, the nation had recovered from the Great Depression and millions of Americans—upper-, middle-, and working-class—were at last in a position to purchase two items that seemed crucial for achieving the "American Dream": a car and a home. While automakers furnished plenty of new vehicles to satisfy the desires of postwar Americans, the demand for housing in the mid-1940s greatly outstripped the supply. With the economic boom created by wartime manufacturing, the federal government and American entrepreneurs were in a position (and under pressure) to meet that tremendous demand. They did so rapidly and efficiently, though not always equitably.
Building the Levitt Empire, One Home at a Time
In the late 1940s, Abraham Levitt and his two sons, William and Alfred Levitt, bought 4,000 acres of farmland in Long Island, built the largest tract of private houses the nation had ever seen, and changed the American landscape forever. Levittown, New York, became a model of suburban building in both form and function. With staggering speed and efficiency, the Levitts produced affordable homes that not only helped grow the nation's housing supply, but also satisfied the American masses who sought both comfort and style, practicality and luxury.
Levitt and Sons streamlined the business of home building, establishing rigid standards for each and every detail of fabrication—from the sort of nails that should be used for the foundation to the model and brand of appliances installed in the kitchen. The plan was fairly simple; bulldozers flattened a chosen plot of land, and workers divided the acreage into 60-foot segments upon which delivery trucks unloaded all materials required for each home. Lumber, tile, and other items were "combat loaded" for easy and ordered access. (Combat loading is a method whereby all those things needed first are packed on top; for instance, materials for the foundation, built first, were placed on top of the delivery pile, while materials for the roof, fabricated last, rested on the bottom. William Levitt had worked with the Seabees, the construction arm of the United States Navy, and likely picked up strategies like these from his experience there.)
To increase both efficiency and profit margins, the Levitts sought to control not only the manner in which their homes were built, but also raw material suppliers. By the early 1950s, the Levitt and Sons made its own concrete, grew its own timber, and cut its own lumber.
"We Are Not Builders, We Are Manufacturers"
"We are not builders. We are manufacturers," William Levitt once declared. "The only difference between Levitt and Sons and General Motors is that we channel labor and materials to a stationary outdoor assembly line instead of bringing them together in a factory on a model line."14 Levitt's quote reflected deep transformations that would ultimately change the face of the American landscape as well as the manner in which laborers became involved in construction. Levittown manufacturing resembled factory assembly in many ways. Since Levitt & Sons offered just two home models, "Ranch" and Cape Cod," fabrication could be simplified and duplicated. Little varied from one home to the next, so each home could be manufactured in less than 30 basic steps. Rather than hiring a team of carpenters, electricians, and plumbers, Levitt & Sons employed unskilled laborers to perform single tasks, which they would repeat again and again for each house on the lot.
Homes were standardized from within, too. The Levitts took advantage of partnerships with appliance manufacturers and stocked its model homes with all of the most coveted modern gadgets, including Bendix washers, General Electric stoves, and Admiral television sets. For American families, these appliances were much, much more than modern conveniences; they offered the promise of a better life.
"Every Man Has A Right To Flowers"
But conformity was not imagined as the final result of all this design and fabrication. Abraham Levitt proposed that builders plant trees and flowers in suburban lots, ensuring that as the growth matured, each house would have a distinctive character, despite similar architectural façades. Abraham, the son of a rabbi who had emigrated from Russia to Brooklyn, had spent most of his years as a real estate lawyer, and was known for his penchant to philosophize. William thought of his father as the unofficial landscape theorist of the group, and recalled that it would not be unusual for his father, with a handful of dahlias and a poker face, to remark to a journalist, "Every man has a right to flowers!"15
William Levitt was happy to declare that his family's firm was "the General Motors of the housing industry," claiming its greatest achievement was providing affordable housing for the American people, just as Henry Ford had provided the nation with cars. Still, the son of Abraham Levitt was not a philanthropist, but a businessman. In 1967, he sold the company for $92 million dollars, and used his earnings to purchase a number of luxury items including a yacht, a 30-room mansion, paintings by Edgar Degas and Claude Monet, and a Rolls Royce.
Setting the Standard for the Future of Suburban Development
In 1950, Time Magazine estimated that Levitt and Sons built one out of every eight houses in the United States. Levittowns existed in Long Island, New York, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and Willingboro, New Jersey, but the model was copied in Boston, Portland, Los Angeles, Houston, Denver, Memphis, San Antonio, Cleveland, Washington, Chicago, Baltimore, and San Francisco. The Levitts had proven that there was money to be made in assembly-line-style housing development. And by the mid-1950s, many other private housing enterprises had mimicked the Levitt model with great success.