Study Guide

Postwar Suburbia Analysis

  • Gender

    The Nuclear Family in the Garden of Eden

    In 1921, the National Real Estate Journal told its readers that the Garden of Eden was the first subdivision—a piece of land allotted for the future development of homes and businesses. 

    By the early 1950s, housing developers, architects, and real estate agents were alluding similarly to the heavenly benefits of the single-family suburban home. Amidst ever-increasing tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and the growing threat of nuclear war, suburban entrepreneurs sold the mystique of utopian bliss. 

    And at the center of this modern paradise was the "nuclear family," a unit consisting of a father, a mother, and their—biological—children.

    Eve at the Helm

    Just a few years before, however, world crisis had revolutionized these conventional roles. The widespread demand for civilian labor during World War II drew millions of women into the labor force. Approximately one-fourth of all female workers recruited by government war mobilization campaigns were middle-class homemakers who'd never before been employed outside the home. 

    Wartime demands transformed traditional gender roles and helped deconstruct some long-established notions of femininity—women gained a sense for their own occupational skills, physical strength, and earning potential. Furthermore, they took the reigns at home, making key day-to-day decisions usually reserved for male household heads.

    Counterrevolution in the Suburbs

    But once the fighting abroad ceased, millions of men returned to the home front seeking to reenter the labor force and settle back into their positions as family leaders. 

    Just as vigorously as wartime propaganda urged women to support their nation by working outside of the home, popular postwar doctrine instructed them to return to their work inside the home. Of course, some resented the pressures to relinquish the financial independence they felt they'd earned, but others left willingly, seeking to reclaim their traditional roles in society. They, like most Americans in the early Cold War years, believed that the nation's economic, social, and moral stability depended upon the restoration of patriarchy in the home.

    As a result, the home itself, became a site that reflected the country's desire to update rather than transform its classic institutions. In the 1950s, major suburban builders modified the early Victorian floor plan—which confined the cooking quarters to the back of the home—to include an open space connecting the kitchen to the living and dining rooms. The new design effectively transformed the kitchen from an isolated cove into a virtual command center from which the wife could interact with her family while preparing meals. Whether cooking or cleaning, a woman could be connected to all the affairs of the household and so, could claim a new sense of authority, confidence, and satisfaction in her role as caretaker.

    Or so it seemed. 

    The modern suburban home with all its amenities wasn't, in fact, enough to fulfill most women of this generation. Beneath the illusion of happiness, women wanted more—more power, more choice, more control, and more autonomy. And in the early Cold War years, many looked to the thriving marketplace for all of the above.

    Home as the American Marketplace

    The success of the postwar economy relied largely upon the purchasing power of the suburban family. In 1953, Fortune magazine counted 30 million people as suburban residents. Though they represented only 19% of the total U.S. population, suburban households accounted for nearly one-third of the nation's total income.blank">1960s, and most didn't support their protests or agree with their ultimate goals. Some feared that by encouraging women to pursue careers outside of the home, feminists threatened to dismantle the very foundation of the traditional family structure. By extension, it appeared, these activists endangered the stability of the suburban landscape and the tranquility it seemed to promise.

    By the end of the century, however, both American suburbs and opportunities for American women had expanded, proving that ultimately, working mothers reinforced rather than undermined the middle-class lifestyle.

  • Economy

    Homes Wanted

    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, but 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 & 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. 

    FYI, combat loading's a method where 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 & 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 & 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."

    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 wasn't 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.

    Hey, your American Dream could be flowers in front of your Levitt home. Or it could be a yacht.

    Setting the Standard for the Future of Suburban Development

    In 1950, Time magazine estimated that Levitt & 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.

  • Society

    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 (like the living room) and private rooms (like the bedroom) or servant quarters (like 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 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. So, 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 'em. 

    In addition to luxury items, families needed essentials—groceries, medicine, and clothing. But early suburban tract housing developers didn't 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. Although 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 still 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, 14-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. 80% 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, and 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. His Sunday morning drive-ins were later replaced in the 1970s, though, by the Crystal Cathedral megachurch, which holds over 3,000 worshippers and cost $17 million to build.

    But we like his original slogan. Preaching from the concession stand, Schuller invited his congregation to "Worship as you are, in the family car." 

    But perhaps one of the most interesting and wholly "American" byproducts of the highway system was the roadside attraction. Certain that commuting customers wouldn't 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' 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.

  • Politics

    Flags and Campaign Trails

    Much of this story revolves around the connections between the U.S. government and suburban development. 

    Many recent American presidents have expressed a desire to please suburban voters—the "Forgotten Americans," in the words of President Richard Nixon. And some, like Presidents Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton, have done so by supporting federal policies that favored the country's middle-class homeowners. Contemporary political candidates have also sought to win support from the suburbs—many that have vied for the presidency, including Bob Dole, John Kerry, John McCain, and Hillary Clinton, have campaigned in suburban neighborhoods as well as in cities. 

    In addition, since the 1970s, the United States Army and Navy have set up informational booths—and, in recent years, flight-simulators—in suburban malls, parking lots, and outside high schools in an attempt to attract young, patriotic men and women willing to fight for their country in exchange for a decent salary and college funding. And in many suburban neighborhoods across the country, residents proudly display the American flag atop their front porch.

    But beyond these somewhat superficial links between "suburbia" and the federal government is a history of connections that reveal how the suburbs have been shaped and influenced by the U.S. government—and vice versa.

    Government and Early-20th-Century Housing Development

    The United States government has long been invested in housing standards and neighborhood design. Since the early-20th century, it has contributed to the planning and construction of residential dwellings and has facilitated the growth of towns as well as local transportation networks. 

    The government's earliest contributions to housing and transportation development served wartime industries during the First World War. New industrial workers needed decent and affordable housing near factories and manufacturing plants for at least the duration of the war. The U.S. Housing Corporation was created as a solution to this seemingly temporary problem.

    After the war, some sought to improve on the Corporation's work. Herbert Hoover, serving as Secretary of Commerce in the early 1920s, created the Division of Building and Housing within the Department of Commerce in order to establish home construction standards for electrical wiring, plumbing, flooring, roofing, and appliance installation. These federal codes helped American businesses by compelling homebuilders, landlords, and homeowners to purchase new materials, strengthening the economy and improving the nation's homes. 

    Later as president, Hoover signed the Federal Home Loan Bank Act, which established a credit reserve for mortgage lenders that increased available funds for aspiring homeowners. The legislation was largely ineffective, however, since only those people wealthy enough to make mortgage payments qualified for home loans. In other words, those Americans most in need of loans couldn't obtain them.

    The Rise of "Hoovervilles"

    Then in 1929, the Great Depression hit the nation. And it hit hard, crippling the American economy and forcing millions out of work and out of their homes. 

    For the first time since the emancipation of slaves, millions of Americans were unable to secure decent housing for themselves and their families. Entire communities of homeless citizens were compelled to make do with whatever materials they could find—cardboard, tar-paper, tin. Some made homes of old trolley cars, grain silos, and chicken-coops. One entrepreneur from Omaha even sent out a newspaper advertisement about his "Big Ice Box," which he proposed, at 7 by 17 feet, could be "fixed up to live in."blank">New Deal programs were aimed at accomplishing much more than reducing the nation's unemployment rate.

    With the stock market crash in 1929, banks and private lenders, anxious to protect themselves from certain financial ruin, scrambled to collect on all sorts of loans and debts, including mortgages—large loans issued to homebuyers and property holders. Hundreds of thousands of people, unable to pull themselves out of debt, lost their houses, farms, and small businesses. It was a disaster years in the making. 

    Before the 1930s, most mortgages were short-term—that is, borrowers had just a few years to repay loans. Often, however, interest rates on loans were extremely high and so, each month, borrowers could only afford to chip away at accumulated debt on the loan's interest, rather than the loan debt itself. So, even those who somehow managed to diligently pay on the interest owed could make no dent in the actual amount of money borrowed. Once the term of the loan had expired, the borrower usually owed the full sum of the original mortgage loan—or more. Few were able to make the payments, families were forced to move, and lenders repossessed or resold the property.

    Through the creation of the Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC), President Roosevelt hoped to buffer Americans from this fate and to assist prospective homebuyers in protecting themselves from mortgage foreclosure. Created in June 1933, during the first months of his presidency, Roosevelt managed to reform old bank policies that left Americans in a bind. The HOLC refinanced restrictive home loans, and instituted long-term mortgage payment plans with more manageable monthly payments to be spread out over a much longer period of time—in many instances, for 20 more years than the usual short-term loan. By the late 1930s, the HOLC had provided nearly one million low-interest, long-term loans, making it one of the most successful of all President Roosevelt's New Deal programs.

    The Sordid Legacy of the HOLC

    For the HOLC to guarantee a safety net to American homebuyers, it had to create a new national standard for appraising the monetary value of real estate. It was up to the Corporation to decide how different sorts of properties—a single-family home, a small farm, a large ranch estate, an empty lot—in various regions of the country should be valued. 

    In deciding what variables to include in that evaluation, the HOLC took its cues from contemporary divisions in society. Property values were often linked to the race, religion, and ethnicity of a community's inhabitants. So as a result, the HOLC didn't offer loan assistance to most African Americans, Jews, and immigrants, depriving many of the opportunity to own property—the essence of the "American Dream."

    The creation of the HOLC, then, was a significant first step in protecting American property holders, but it also set a dangerous precedent for the future of mortgage lending and community development. It would ultimately lay the groundwork for explicit discrimination in the real estate industry, and the growing ethnic, racial, and class divisions between old urban communities and new suburban housing developments.

  • Diplomacy

    Defrosting Soviet-American Relations

    On January 27th, 1958, the Soviet Union and the United States signed a pact designed to promote an international cultural exchange. Both nations, committed to thawing Cold War tensions (and, in doing so, preventing nuclear war), agreed to encourage contact between Soviet and American citizens. 

    By exposing each society to the scientific achievements, political culture, cuisine, art, and athleticism of the other, Soviet and American leaders hoped to promote a better understanding of national differences. Politicians, scientists, writers, scholars, students, architects, technicians, musicians, singers, dancers, and even wrestlers traded visits and served as diplomats working to nurture a friendship between the two hostile superpowers. 

    In addition, the governments planned two elaborate exhibits to open in the summer of 1959, one demonstrating life in the Soviet Union to be held in New York, and an American exposition to be hosted by Moscow.

    The Soviet Exhibition of Science, Technology, and Culture

    In 1959, during the same week in which Americans celebrated Independence Day, the Soviet Exhibition of Science, Technology, and Culture opened in the New York Coliseum convention center. The showcase covered three floors of the massive building—a structure erected in 1954 as part of a federal urban redevelopment program—and featured examples of advances in Soviet industry, agriculture, science, art, and education. 

    Models of Soviet sputniks, new automobiles, and innovative farm implements were presented as evidence of technological development and economic growth in modern Russia. The exposition also included representations of day-to-day life, like a furnished three-room apartment, described as a typical residence for the average Soviet citizen. More than 200,000 Americans toured the exhibits in the first week, pleasing those, such as Soviet artist Konstantin Rojdestvensky, who hoped that Russian progress might "come to the attention of as many Americans as possible."blank">October 1962, just two years after the Soviet-American exchange pact had expired, Cold War hostilities had reached their peak, with the U.S. and Russia on the brink of nuclear war.