The History of American Suburbia
May 8, 1945 changed the history of housing in America. Although, at the time, nobody was actually thinking in those terms; everybody was too busy dancing and celebrating V-E Day. But within 18 months of V-E Day, over 4 million service men and women would be making their way home. That many people descending on cities across the country created several difficult challenges. The returning veterans were confronted with finding jobs and adjusting to civilian life, along with housing shortages and scarcity of all types of goods and services. On the other hand, one thing that had no shortages was marriages. The marriage rate in the US soared to the highest levels in our history, and all those marriages produced the biggest baby boom the world has ever seen. As a result, all of these families needed a place to live and the demand was urgent. That same mentality and ingenuity which created the unstoppable war machine, would soon kindle the conversion of the war factories and technologies into the largest peace time economic boom in the history of America. Historians call this great expansion, ‘The Golden Age of Capitalization’ or the ‘Long Boom’. Veterans simply saw it as the fruits of peace; it was a time in which prosperity reigned, jobs were plentiful, technological advances were making life better, and housing started to flourish.
The high demand for housing required new creative ideas for communities and a method to build them. In 1947, the first large suburban planned community was developed by William Levitt, who is known as the father of American suburbia.Levitt designed and completed the first American dream subdivision in New York. It was comprised of thousands of newly built homes, appointed with the most modern technologies of the day and financed through the government GI and FHA loan programs. Levittown as it was named, was created by a highly efficient, assembly line method of production with limited choices for the buyer. This innovative concept of construction was developed by Levitt while he was serving in the Navy and responsible for the construction of military housing. The need for quickly built housing inspired Levitt to streamline construction techniques and plan building designs with interchangeable parts. This method allowed Levitt to meet the demands of military housing during the war. He was able to use this knowledge to produce the largest ‘peace time’ housing development project the US had ever seen.
It is estimated that over 1,000 Levittown homes were sold within a couple hours after being offered to the public.The Levitt floor plan was a functional design, allowing for the most effective way of construction. Lumber was pre-cut and delivered to the building site, plumbing was designed in a common wall that could serve a bathroom on one side and the kitchen on the other, reducing building cost and saving construction time. The kitchen was placed at the front of the house over looking the front yard where children would be playing.The floor plan created closeness in living conditions which was duplicated across the country and helped transform the American family. The 750 square foot houses sold for the low price $7,000 to $10,000 with house payments under $70 per month.By the time Levittown, NY building construction ended there were close to 17,000 homes and the community had their own postal delivery, schools, grocery stores and also street lights. Levitt and Sons had already started building a new town, Levittown, PA.
In 1951, Levittown, Pa was a continuation of the NY development but offered 6 home designs and various other simple options while still maintaining full automated control. Several other community amenities were added like pools, playgrounds, parks and shopping. By the time the Pennsylvanian community was completed in 1958, close to 18,000 homes were built. However, for the first time since the end of the Korean war, the country was moving into a recession which would last until 1961. But recession or not, Levitt & Sons continued building their third community in New Jersey. It was complete with over 11,000 homes in eleven sections each having a park and elementary school. The design of the new suburbia homes, neighborhoods, and communities created a closeness and connection with others. People raised in this time recall fondly the friendships of all the neighboring children.
The social impact of Levittown on family life, as well as the physical impact on suburban home developments are still being felt today. Urban sprawl has given great opportunities to Americans in realizing the ‘Dream’ of home ownership while creating significant sustainable community challenges to the suburban lifestyles as the baby boomers move back to the inner cities. However, there is one certainty gleaned from the WWII and the post WWII generations: whatever the challenge, Americans will rise to it.
Listen to this song recorded in the early 60’s poking fun at the modern subdivision.
Little Boxes by Pete Seeger: