Study Guide

Postwar Suburbia

Postwar Suburbia Introduction

Read a little U.S. history and you'll see the term "postwar era" used to describe the years after 1945. 

World War II was over, and Americans came home from the fighting and went back to work. The interstate highway system as we know it today was originally imagined as a way to assist those men in securing jobs in major city centers, while facilitating the growth of suburbs. They bought homes and started families, and created a new suburban middle class in cookie-cutter housing developments. America's economy grew almost as fast as its population. Boy, the postwar years were great, weren't they?

Well, no. 

The term "postwar era" isn't really accurate. One war was over, yes, but another began immediately on its heels: the Cold War. The U.S. and the Soviet Union, with their different ideas about capitalism and communism, were fighting each other for world dominance. Oh, yeah, and they both had nuclear weapons. 

Americans were paranoid that the U.S. would be destroyed from within by hidden Soviet spies. A "Red Scare" swept the nation and had people worried that their own neighbor, coworker, or even wife could be a "commie." 

To distract ourselves from our fears of nuclear annihilation, we went shopping: for sun hats, vacuum cleaners, glazed hams, and Tupperware. American consumerism ran rampant as a growing economy, disposable income, and anxiety about the nuclear world both rose. 

But you probably won't be surprised when we tell you that was only one side of the story. The real story of postwar America was a tale of two nations: America One and America Two. America One really was rich and thriving; America Two was poor and struggling. America One assumed that every American had equal opportunity to succeed; America Two knew better. 

Most white people had far greater opportunity, education, and protection under the law than Black people, but not all white people did. Poor whites struggled to get electricity and running water in their homes, and white women struggled to get employers to take them seriously as more than "pretty girls" to watch men do the real work. 

Black "girls" had even fewer options than white "girls." For many, the closest they got to white affluence was serving as maids. All Black Americans suffered the effects of racism and institutional discrimination, as did the Latin American immigrants who were starting to come to the U.S. in greater numbers. 

All that said, it's pretty safe to generalize and say that America One was made up of middle class, white-collar, college-educated, suburban white people. America Two was made up of everyone else.

Welcome to America in the postwar world of war, everybody.

What is Postwar Suburbia About and Why Should I Care?

Would you believe that today, far more Americans live in suburbs than in cities? In fact, if you're an American, it's more than likely that you live in a suburb. If you don't, you probably have friends or relatives that do, or you shop, go to school, work, or play there.

You're certainly familiar with the suburban landscape and lifestyle in some way, even if you don't realize it.

That's because for over half a century, Americans—in droves—have been migrating to neighborhoods miles and miles from urban centers. And what helped facilitate this exodus? Highways, and lots of them, crisscrossing all over the nation, through its cities, and across its plains, valleys, and mountains. 

Sure, it's true that cars moved people long before the interstate highway system existed. But since World War II, these new sprawling roadways have promoted the transportation of people to and from the suburbs, so much so that they ultimately widened the social, cultural, and economic gap between those who could afford an automobile and those who couldn't.

In addition, America's interstate highways have contributed to the growth of many of the country's most iconic cultural phenomena: the shopping mall, the motel, the diner, fast food, the drive-in theater, Disneyland, the family car, the muscle car, and even rock and roll culture. 

It's the rise of the suburbs that ties all of these things together, and by learning more about the development of "suburbia," we can learn how.

By exploring the history of suburbia and the interstate highway system, we might realize that not much has changed. In many ways, these developments have laid the foundation for the American present. But it wasn't always a smooth ride, and in many ways, the history of American suburbs and highways is marred by political, social, racial, and environmental controversy. 

As a result, many of us may have negative preconceived notions about "suburbia." These ideas have been reinforced by popular images in film and television. Remember The Stepford Wives, or Edward Scissorhands? How about "Desperate Housewives"?

  • Where exactly do these notions of "suburbia"—as a place of conformity, complacency, conservatism, boredom, and racism—come from?
  • Are these notions largely fact or fiction?
  • And how does "suburbia" fit into our conception of America?
  • Does it contradict the nation's essential values, or is it truly a very "American" sort of thing?

That'll be for you to decide, but we'll offer you some stories to help you sort out these answers.

Postwar Suburbia Resources

Books

Eric Avila, Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles (2004)
Historian Eric Avila focuses on four cultural institutions that emerged in postwar Los Angeles: Disneyland, film noir, Dodger Stadium, and the elaborate freeway system, which by the late 1950s crisscrossed the region. This book is a rich study of the links between postwar suburban development and the creation of race, class, and ethnic identities in Los Angeles.

Lizbeth Cohen, A Consumer's Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (2004)
Lizbeth Cohen argues that postwar transformations can be better understood by viewing 20th-century America as a "consumer's republic"—a national, and largely suburban, community in which members participate by purchasing.

Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (1990)
Davis' book is one of the earliest and most notable works to reveal how the social, political, and racial tensions in modern Los Angeles stem from a history of segregation in housing, controversy over urban development, and the rise of the Southern California suburb.

Dolores Hayden, Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820–2000 (2004)
Hayden writes a cultural critique of the American suburbs, using a contemporary framework to show that the suburbs are much more than the accidental byproduct of a housing demand. Hayden divides the growth of suburbia into distinct categories, and seamlessly blends together historical information with interesting facts and stories.

Kenneth Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (1987)
Jackson's book outlines the development of the American suburban ideal, from its inception at the end of the Industrial Revolution all the way to the 1980s. Jackson uses surprising and interesting stories to draw the reader in, providing a variety of perspectives on suburban growth.

Music

The Cars, Complete Greatest Hits (2002)
What better way to reflect on the history of the interstate highway system than to listen to a band called the Cars? Hop in your car and let the good times roll with an '80s band that epitomized "new wave."

War, Why Can't We Be Friends? (1975)
"Car culture" can mean many things, but for Southern California's original Chicano car clubs, the phrase originally referred to the restoration and modification of classic '50s automobiles: "lowriders." This album by one of California's most renowned funk bands, includes "Low Rider," a famous dedication to these lowered vehicles and the culture of cool that still surrounds them today.

Janis Joplin, Pearl (1971)
Here you'll find many of Joplin's greatest hits, including "Mercedes Benz," a wry, sarcastic hymn about one's futile desire for an expensive symbol of social status. Though it was initially recorded as an attack on material excess, it has—with permission from the Joplin family—since been re-appropriated by Mercedes Benz for the company's advertising campaigns.

Wilson Pickett, Wilson Pickett's Greatest Hits (1966)
One of Wilson Pickett's most famous songs is a grinding soul anthem entitled "Mustang Sally," in which Pickett and his sultry back-up singers croon about a woman who cruises around the town in a Ford Mustang, driving the men crazy. (Pun intended.)

The Beach Boys, Little Deuce Coupe (1963)
This album, one of The Beach Boys' first and most memorable, includes half a dozen classic musical odes to car culture: "Custom Machine," "Our Car Club," "409," "Cherry, Cherry Coupe," "Ballad of Ole' Betsy," and the title track, "Little Deuce Coupe."

Images

The German Autobahn
A car cruises along the curves of the Autobahn in Germany, a highway with four divided lanes and no traffic lights; this type of roadway served as one model for the development of the American interstate highway.

The Father of Levittown
William Levitt, father of the Levittown empire, on the cover of Time magazine, July 13th, 1950.

Floor Plan for a Levittown Home
A floor plan for the "Cape Cod" model home, one of the first types of homes offered by Levitt & Sons, 1947.

"The Kitchen Debate"
U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev engaged in the "kitchen debate" at the American National Exhibition in Moscow, 1959.

Drive-in Theater
One of the few remaining drive-in theaters along Route 66.

The New Starlite
An advertisement for the 1949 Studebaker Champion Starlite coupe.

"White Man's Road"
A poster protesting the building of a freeway through an African-American community in Washington, D.C., c. 1968.

Route 66
A colorful map of Route 66 and some of its key sites.

Ribbons of Road
An aerial view of Southern California's Santa Monica Freeway and its neighboring suburbs, c. 1965.

World's Largest Ball of Twine
World's Largest Ball of Twine, an oddly popular roadside attraction along Highway 24 in Kansas.

The Cadillac Ranch
Sunset at the Cadillac Ranch near Amarillo, Texas.

The Gemini Giant
The Gemini Giant, a roadside oddity in Wilmington, Illinois.

Movies & TV

Grease (1978)
The most popular film version of a Broadway musical ever produced, Grease is about the turbulent 1950s romance between two high school seniors—"bad boy" Danny, a prominent member of the T-Birds gang, and "good girl" Sandy, a preppy, "goodie-two-shoes."

The Stepford Wives (1975)
An aspiring photographer moves with her husband from New York to a quiet suburb in Stepford, Connecticut. There she discovers something strange and too perfect about the other housewives in the neighborhood. The Stepford Wives is not only a creepy horror flick, but also a stinging piece of commentary on the culture of the suburbs.

American Graffiti (1973)
A group of friends spend one fabulously entertaining night cruising "the strip" in their cars, chasing love interests, playing pranks, racing, fighting, and reminiscing about their high school days before heading off to college. Not only is this film a must see for its depiction of '60s era teenage car culture, but it's also chock full of the most popular radio hits from the period.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
This creepy sci-fi thriller has been interpreted by some as an anticommunist propaganda film, with the pods representing communism; others have viewed it as a critique of McCarthyism raids, with the pod people representing far-right radicals. It's unclear whether the director Don Siegel intended to present a political allegory or simply a story of an alien invasion. Either way, Invasion is a classic horror film from the Cold War era.

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
James Dean and Natalie Wood star in this iconic '50s film about teen angst and rebellion in an era marked by conformity and conservatism. The three main characters are plagued by anger, disappointment, and loneliness; so, they frequently drink, act up in school, and challenge their parents, who they blame for their misery.

Websites

The Development of Suburbia
The State Museum of Pennsylvania presents a veritable treasure trove of information about the development of suburbia. The online exhibit honors the 50th anniversary of Levittown, Pennsylvania, with information rich in breadth and depth.

50 Years of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System
The U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration present a website commemorating 50 years of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System. It features heavy-hitting historical content, and some contemporary transportation officials' comments about the highway system's historic impact.

"America on the Move"
The National Museum of American History presents "America on the Move," an interactive website that allows us to virtually travel across America and study photographs, maps, and artifacts from the road in order to explore the various ways that transportation has shaped the way Americans live their lives.

Video & Audio

A City Is Born
Footage from the 1953 documentary of Levittown called A City Is Born.

American Graffiti
The trailer for American Graffiti (1973), a classic film about '60s era teenage car culture.

President Nixon in Moscow
Newsreel footage of Vice President Richard Nixon at the opening of the American National Exhibit in Moscow.

Historical Documents

The Feminine Mystique
The full text of the first chapter of Betty Friedan's influential feminist manifesto, The Feminine Mystique (1963).

Transcript of the "Kitchen Debate"
A partial transcript of the famous 1959 "kitchen debate" in Moscow between Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev is available here.

President Truman on TV
President Harry Truman's statement to the nation in the first ever televised presidential press conference, held on October 9th, 1947.

Budgeting for Highways
Annual budget submitted by President Harry Truman to Congress, January 9th, 1950; Truman's recommendations include significant allotments for "developing an adequate national highway system."