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Society in Postwar Suburbia

Little Houses All In A Row

In the 1950s, an aerial view of a suburban development was quite a sight to see. Rows upon rows of carefully spaced, identically designed homes lined the borders of neatly paved streets. The design of the suburban neighborhood and its individual homes was entirely different from that of the city, the countryside, and, really, of all traditional American towns.

Large-scale housing developments were a fairly new phenomenon in the United States, and architects grappling with such an immense undertaking chose the best compromise between space-saving efficiency and lavishness. As a result, traditional social centers of the home were transformed. In postwar housing design, architects often lopped off the front porch, a classic feature on older American houses, and planned instead a more space-efficient backyard patio. Inside the home, central heating nixed the need for a wood-burning fireplace. The television—one of the most coveted consumer items after World War II—took the place of the hearth, and provided a new focal point for families gathering together in the evenings, after school and work. The parlor, which once served as a buffer zone between places of public entertainment (such as the living room) and private rooms (like the bedroom) or servant quarters (such as the kitchen), was eliminated altogether. From the front door of these new homes, a resident could see the living room, , the dining room, and perhaps even a bedroom or two.

Keeping Up With The Joneses

In addition, unlike the towering apartment buildings and tenements in America's cities, suburban homes were usually one story high and built at street level. Many houses featured long stretching picture windows through which, at night, families could view their neighborhood (or be viewed by their neighbors!). And so, suburban living was in some ways both performative and observational; one's social interactions in the suburbs often included an investigation into the neighbors' achievements and possessions, and the effort to catch up—that is, the race to "keep up with the Joneses."

Television—or more specifically, television advertisements—helped facilitate this new suburban consumer culture. In the postwar era, more Americans than ever before had disposable incomes, and most of these citizens were those living in suburban neighborhoods where residents sought contentment through material possessions. Thus, advertising campaigns, particularly for appliances and automobiles, were aimed at these middle-class families who tended to gather around the television in the evenings.

A Car In Every Driveway

To adequately "keep up with the Joneses," suburban Americans needed to purchase products, and lots of them. In addition to luxury items, families needed essentials—groceries, medicine, and clothing. But early suburban tract housing developers did not include small businesses in their plans. Unlike urban neighborhoods, whole suburban regions had few if any produce markets, pharmacies, butchers, or clothiers. What's more, the average working adult living in the suburbs needed to travel many, many miles to reach his place of employment. A car, then, was an essential and crucial part of life in the suburbs. (Eventually, business entrepreneurs and large corporations scooped up land in these developments in order to provide residents with job opportunities and services and to profit from their desire for convenience. But cars remained vital as these places of business were often situated outside neighborhoods and beyond the distance that most residents were willing to walk.)

A Road Through Every Town

In 1939 at the New York World's Fair, the most popularly visited exhibit, entitled "Futurama," depicted the future as a world shaped by the automobile. In this version of the future, fourteen-lane superhighways intersected cities, citizens walked along sidewalks built above roads and parking lots, and parks rested atop skyscrapers, far from the bustle and the noise of the streets below. Many city planners saw this integration of the automobile with everyday life as an essential mark of progress.

By the end of the 1950s, that fantasy of the future had become, in many ways, a reality. Eighty percent of American families owned at least one car, and 14% owned two or more. Plus, the highways that connected the nation's cities to its suburbs crisscrossed every state in the union and transported millions of people and billions of dollars in consumer goods. That web of concrete helped buoy the country's economy. It also provided the foundation for a number of new business innovations that continue to characterize American culture today. The first McDonald's fast food restaurant opened in Illinois in 1954, selling burgers for 15¢ a piece. Within a decade, the small business had become a franchise, and some 700 McDonald's restaurants had been built, many along highways. (This would mark the beginning of a new trend in American business development: the franchise restaurant and the chain supermarket.) Drive-in movie theaters, drive-thru restaurants, even drive-in places of worship were all designed so that Americans could enjoy their lives without leaving the comfort of their automobiles. (In 1955, unable to afford anywhere else to preach, Reverend Schuller set up shop on Sunday mornings at Orange Drive-In Theater in Garden Grove, California. Preaching from the concession stand, Schuller invited his congregation to "Worship as you are, in the family car." Schuller's Sunday morning drive-ins were later replaced in the 1970s by the Crystal Cathedral megachurch, which holds over 3,000 worshippers and cost $17 million to build.)

But perhaps one of the most interesting and wholly "American" byproducts of the highway system was the roadside attraction. Certain that commuting customers would not wander into their town, American entrepreneurs developed gimmicks to lure families, commuters, and road-trippers off of the highway and into their shops, restaurants, and motels. Two of the most iconic of these roadside attractions are Dinny the Dinosaur and Mr. Rex, two enormous man-made dinosaurs alongside the highway in Cabazon, California. Weighing in at 150 and 100 tons respectively, each dinosaur was handcrafted by Claude K. Bell to attract tourists to stop at his roadside restaurant, the Wheel Inn Café, which opened in 1958. The dinosaurs, which cost Bell $300,000, were fittingly made out of spare building material from the creation of Interstate 10. In addition, the "World's Largest Ball of Twine" in Cawker City, Kansas, the row of Cadillacs buried nose-first near Amarillo, Texas, and Wilmington, Illinois's Gemini Giant, fitted in his green suit and domed helmet, are oddly titillating sights that have drawn visitors off the roads and out of their cars for decades.

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