In 1946, developer William J. Levitt and his brother Alfred capitalized on the twin circumstances of enormous demand and unequaled opportunity of the post-World War II era by purchasing 1500 acres of potato fields in Nassau County, Long Island and then building 6,000 small, boxy houses there in little more than a year. By the time Levitt started building, America returned to a state of relative normalcy for the first time in over fifteen years. Although the end of the war produced a massive housing shortage, white working class Americans began to experience practically unprecedented levels of prosperity fueled, in large part, by comprehensive government programs designed to allay the social strife that many feared would accompany the war's end. By 1948, Levitt named the new development for himself and offered what were originally rental units for sale. Potential buyers stood on long lines in hopes of an opportunity to land a Levitt house of their very own. Within the next three years, over 15,000 homes were built and sold.
The white male soldiers who returned from Europe and the Pacific came back not to merely a warm welcome, but to a wide-ranging social program designed to lift them up from the dire economic circumstances so many experienced for so long during the 1930s. The G.I. Bill of Rights offered qualified vets job training, a paid year-long sabbatical, educational funds, and perhaps most importantly, the opportunity to buy their own inexpensive home even if they lacked savings. Many minorities were barred from enjoying these benefits due to housing discrimination, job and educational discrimination, and because 60 percent of African-American veterans were given dishonorable discharges from military service and were thus ineligible for benefits. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) also fueled the dual process of empowerment for the white working class, and the exclusion of minorities from suburban life by offering developers low-cost loans to build and encouragement to write restrictive racial covenants into the deeds of the new homes.
Using the same methods of mass production as were used to produce so many of the new "labor-saving" technological devices of the post-war period, Levitt's small, two-bedroom, one-bath homes turned out spare, plain, and box-like. The large kitchen "picture" window of the original homes, soon hailed as the central focus of suburban life, faced out to the front lawn, while the bedrooms and other more private areas were arranged toward the back. Eventually, Levitt built new plans that moved the living room to the back of the home. This layout encouraged women to greet one another during the day, while maintaining privacy for the nuclear family when the male breadwinner returned home at night. In this way, homeowners could keep some of the feeling of community that they remembered from their childhoods in the city. Children could play while their mothers watched. When dinner was finished (or when the oven bell clicked to signal that the "TV Dinners" were heated through and bubbling), mother could shout for her children to come in. The spaces for more intimate socializing, arguing, and the harsher 1950s-style discipline of children were designed for a new style of privacy previously unknown to working class urban dwellers.
Significantly, the homes had no basements, but were instead set down on concrete slab foundations, a technique Levitt borrowed from ancient Rome. While many had disdain for the technique (one older suburbanite declared simply: "Without a basement, it's not a house!"), the method allowed for extremely rapid methods of construction: after the slabs were laid, crews with specific duties were dispatched to complete their work in assembly-line fashion, using pre-fabricated building materials. During one period, Levitt was starting and finishing approximately 150 houses a day.
In essence, a Levittown home was the first "easy-open, ready-to-use" home. Each home came complete with a washing machine and a television set at a time when these devices were still seen as wonders of technology available only to the upper middle classes. Now women who'd grown up in the poverty of New York City were free to explore new activities called "hobbies" which might include furniture refinishing, cake decorating, or playing "mahjong" with neighbors. Boys now played with real baseballs and bats on real playing fields instead of playing "stickball" on unsafe city streets. The first residents felt as though they'd entered paradise, and in many ways, they had. No longer would these former city dwellers be forced to live in the cramped, unhealthful conditions that characterize urban life in 20th century America. The Levittown experiment was certainly the most consequential, long-lasting, and just plain successful result of the G.I. Bill. And it wasn't the last. Soon other inexpensive and federally subsidized new suburbs appeared in such places as Lakewood, California. Levitt himself followed up with new Levittowns in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
In the ensuing years, the new suburbanites truly knew the best of both worlds. Children drank clean, fluoridated water in Levittown, Long Island, and awoke in the mornings to the bright hues of sunflowers outside their bedroom windows. There was always someone to play with, and parents didn't fear bad associations in the new suburb as they did in the city. Milk and bread were delivered fresh each morning to the side door of the home, so housewives weren't stranded without vehicles. Men had shiny new tail-finned cars with which to drive into the city to work at prosperous factory, trade union, or white collar jobs. Real wages grew enormously during this time and everyone in the home soon had plenty of disposable income to spend on big ticket items such as "high-fidelity" equipment on which to play long-playing record albums, pricey bicycles for each child, and elaborate wardrobes for everyone in the family. In the new suburbs, status became very important: "keeping up with the Joneses" was a new catch phrase. If neighbor Jones had a new power mower, neighbor Smith now wanted one too.
The original community was not as ethnically homogenous as the more gentrified pre-war suburbs; the new residents were freed from the restrictions of "an all-inclusive nature" that prohibited Jews and other white ethnics from purchasing suburban homes in the prewar period. Levitt himself was Jewish and clearly saw no reason to bar Jewish and Catholic vets from a chance at this new American Dream. With encouragement from the FHA, he did find plenty of reasons to maintain the restrictions barring African-Americans and people of Puerto-Rican origin from buying a home in Levittown. The deed to each of the original Long Island homes included a covenant barring such families from ever buying the home. If an owner later decided to sell his home to a "Negro family," that owner could be sued by his neighbors. This was all perfectly legal until 1948 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled such covenants unconstitutional. Levitt fought the Court's ruling for years afterward, culminating in a titanic battle in the late 1950s. Levitt held a press conference in New Jersey, insisting that his new Levittown there would be restricted to whites only. He claimed, perversely, that he did this for the benefit of minorities who had been harassed in Levittown, Pennsylvania. Levitt finally had to back down and make provisions for minorities to buy into New Jersey's Levittown, but no new laws specifically criminalized racial covenants until the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Many houses retained such covenants for decades, and a few deeds still had them in the late 1990s.
As the new housing developments were in the process of rapid construction, the building of highways, expressways, and freeways boomed. Most of the existing interstate highway infrastructure was built after World War II and prior to 1971. This boom in construction, with its attendant "urban renewal" facilitated the movement of urbanites out of the working class and poor neighborhoods in which they'd grown up. Many apartment buildings were simply bulldozed to make way for the new transport corridors. Those left behind, the minorities who were not permitted entrance in the new suburbs were left with urban environments that were decimated by the construction of roads leading out of the cities and into the countryside. In an effort to house these displaced persons, the federal government financed crowded public housing facilities that soon fell into states of disrepair. These districts were then "red-lined" by banks as poor risks for home and business loans. Cities now became tolerable places to work and inhospitable or downright uninhabitable places in which to live.
At the same time, life in the suburbs flourished. Veterans not only took advantage of the new educational opportunities for themselves, but made sure that quality new schools were built in the new suburbs for their children, who would come to be known as "baby boomers" because so many of them were conceived between 1946 and 1964. The baby boom reached its peak in 1957, just before Levitt built Levittown, New Jersey.
The homes in the newer phases of Levittown, Long Island, and in the new Levittowns were considerably more spacious and carefully designed than the original boxy "capes." Family and social life moved almost completely toward the back of the home and the "picture window" moved along with it. Neighbors now spent less time "coffee-Klatching" in the kitchen and more time on organized, more privatized socializing in the backyard and in the new "family rooms" of the homes. The original Levittown homes were also changed and expanded by their owners, and came to resemble the newer models. The seemingly limitless creativity of the original and new "Levittowners" gave the lie to the myth of suburban homogeneity so prevalent during the 1950s. Most of the original, simple "Cape" style homes, built during the initial phase have been remodeled beyond all recognition; Levitt himself designed the houses with such extensive remodeling in mind. The attics were large and fit for habitation once "finished" and many homeowners quickly added "dormers" which seemed to jut out from the roofs of the houses. Carports became garages and backyards were screened in. In the days before "homeowner's associations," houses were painted all manner of shades and hues. A man's "little box," as the homes were dubbed by a critical popular culture, was truly his castle. It is now difficult to find an "untouched" original Levittown "Cape," although the Smithsonian Institution is said to be looking for one for their museum in Washington, D.C.
Bennett, M. J. When Dreams Came True: The GI Bill and the Making of Modern America. Washington, Brassey's, 1996.
Conrad, P. Our House: The Stories of Levittown. New York, Scholastic, 1995.
Gans, H. The Levittowners: Ways of Life and Politics in a Suburban Community. New York, Pantheon Books, 1967.
Kunstler, J. H. The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-made Landscape. New York, Touchstone, 1993.
Sacks, K. B. "How Did Jews Become White Folks?" Race. R. Sanjek and S. Gregory, editors. New Brunswick, New Jersey, Rutgers University Press, 1996, 78-102.
The brainchild of developer William J. Levitt, the first Levittown sprang to life in 1947 on 1,300 acres of potato fields on Long Island. When completed in 1951, it encompassed over 5,000 acres and some 17,500 single-family homes, making it the largest mass-produced housing development in American history. Proponents hailed Levittown and others communities like it as the fulfillment of America's promise of home ownership for returning veterans, but critics derided it for what they saw as its aesthetic and social deficiencies.
Levittown's primary appeal was modest, affordable housing. Its first model, an 800-square-foot, four-anda-half-room Cape Cod-style house, sold for $7,500 and
included a fully equipped kitchen. Although all the houses were nearly identical, cosmetic variations in window arrangement, carport placement, and roof lines prevented total uniformity. Subsequent developments in Pennsylvania (1952–1958) and New Jersey (1958–1961) offered a wider range of models and a more carefully articulated community plan. In Levittown, Pennsylvania, houses were arranged on curvilinear streets in manageably sized neighborhoods. Residents were served by centrally located elementary schools and other shared amenities, such as community swimming pools and baseball fields, popular among families with children. Land was also set aside for churches and modern shopping plazas, the latter intensively landscaped to maintain the community's bucolic character.
The suburban trend was in many ways a by-product of the war. In 1946 the federal government estimated that five million new housing units were needed immediately to offset a critical shortage created by years of depressed construction and intense demand from returning veterans and their families. Congress did its part by passing measures designed to ease restrictive bank lending practices for home mortgages. The most important of these was the housing provision of the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, or GI Bill, which permitted veterans to finance the entire cost of the home and eliminated conventional down payments. When combined with mortgage guarantees provided through the Federal Housing Authority (FHA), the bill dramatically expanded the base of potential home owners and boosted new construction.
World War II also provided builders with invaluable experience in mass production. In Norfolk, Virginia, Levitt built his first mass housing complex, a 750-unit development for Naval defense workers, using prefabricated materials and other factory-like methods. To speed construction and meet tight, government-imposed deadlines, Levitt reduced house construction to twenty-seven basic steps, with crews assigned to complete a single task. Crews moved down the line to stationary house sites, where they repeated that task at each site. In Levittown, this inverted assembly line combined with an economy of scale to produce houses cheaply and quickly. At peak production, workers completed a new house every eleven minutes.
Few if any developments matched the scale or scope of New York's or Pennsylvania's Levittown, but several, including Park Forest in Chicago and Lakewood, California, emulated both its architecture and community plan. Countless other developments were conceived on a much smaller scale, using construction techniques and styles, such as ranch houses built on slabs, first test marketed in Levittown. Cumulatively, it had enormous implications for both the housing industry and the American landscape. In 1955 housing starts reached a record 1.65 million and continued apace through the early 1960s. Two-thirds of these new units consisted of single-family homes, most of them built in the suburbs.
Despite its overwhelming popularity among home owners, Levittown was vilified by social critics and urban planners. Architectural critic Lewis Mumford declared it to be "mechanically well done" but "socially backward." Others criticized the shoddy practices of unscrupulous builders and lamented the new suburbs' lack of architectural and social diversity. Whereas Catholics, Jews, and other ethnic minorities were overrepresented, African Americans were all but excluded. In both New York and Pennsylvania, Levitt refused to sell to blacks. Levittown, Pennsylvania, integrated in 1957 only after state intervention.
By the 1960s Levittown had come to symbolize the cultural divide that separated the war generation from their baby boom children. For many young people, Levittown became a symbol of social conformity, middle-class inertia, and soulless consumerism, a sentiment expressed in such folk-music anthems as Pete Seeger's "Little Boxes" in 1963. For his part, William Levitt defended his communities and their role in extending home ownership to millions of Americans. "We give them something better and something they can pay for."
Albrecht, Donald, ed. World War II and the American Dream: How Wartime Housing Changed a Nation. Washington, DC: National Building Museum, 1995.
Baxandall, Rosalyn, and Ewen, Elizabeth. Picture Windows: How the Suburbs Happened. New York: Basic Books, 2000.
Kelly, Barbara M. Expanding the American Dream: Building and Rebuilding Levittown. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.
Levittown was the first successful large-scale suburban housing development in the United States. Suburbs (see entry under 1950s—The Way We Lived in volume 3) existed to some extent in the 1800s, but they were mostly for rich people. When it opened in 1948 on Long Island outside New York City, Levit-town brought suburban living to ordinary middle- and working-class Americans.
When World War II (1939–45) ended, the U.S. economy was booming. The Great Depression (1929–41; see entry under 1930s—The Way We Lived in volume 2) was over, and people looked forward to plentiful jobs and good times. Millions of people, many just returned from the war, wanted to start a new life. Many were tired of living in cramped city apartments. They wanted fresh air, grass, and safe places for their kids to play. Housing developers William Levitt (1907–1994) and his brother Alfred recognized these needs and came up with a new way to meet them. In 1946, they purchased 1,500 acres of potato fields in Nassau County, Long Island, and built 6,000 small houses there. By 1951, over 15,000 houses had been built. The key to their success was in their production methods. They applied the assembly-line process, first pioneered by car-maker Henry Ford (1863–1947), to house building. Teams of workers moved from one house site to the next doing one thing over and over. One team prepared the site and laid a concrete foundation. The next team put up prefabricated walls. Another team put in plumbing fixtures, another did the electrical work, and so on, until everything was done and the house was ready. This system was possible because all the Levitt houses were largely the same. At one point, Levitt's teams were starting and finishing 150 houses a day.
This new neighborhood, called Levittown, was immediately successful. The homes were inexpensive, and they quickly filled up with young couples and their children. Although critics complained of the dull sameness of Levittown, people liked having their own homes in a friendly neighborhood. Kids loved that there were always other playmates nearby. Although Levit-town was immensely successful, its importance lies in its prominence as a model copied by builders across the United States. The modern suburb, and much of modern America, owes a great deal to the example of Levittown.
For More Information
Conrad, P. Our House: Stories of Levittown. New York: Scholastic, 1995.
Gans, Herbert. The Levittowners: Ways of Life and Politics in a SuburbanCommunity. New York: Pantheon Books, 1967.
Jackson, Kenneth T. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of theUnited States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
"Levittown at Fifty." LI History.com.http://www.lihistory.com/specsec/levmain.htm (accessed February 22, 2002).
LEVITTOWN. A mass-produced suburban housing development on Long Island, New York, the first Levittown came to symbolize post–World War II suburbanization. The product of the builders Levitt and Sons, Levittown was constructed between 1947 and 1951 on seven square miles of Nassau County, about thirty miles east of Manhattan. Responding to a postwar housing shortage, the Levitts built the four-room look-alike dwellings at the rate of 150 per week, eventually producing 17,447 houses. The first 6,000 units, all Cape Cod–style, were offered for rental. But exploiting the availability of low-cost, insured mortgages offered by the Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration, the Levitts soon abandoned their role as landlords and chose instead to sell the houses. Veterans could purchase a two-bedroom, one-bath house on a six-thousand-foot lot with no money down and payments of only $60 a month. In 1949, Levitt and Sons discontinued the Cape Cod model and introduced ranch-style houses, all of which were for sale. The Levitts also built seven small shopping centers, known as village greens, and nine public swimming pools to serve the subdivision's residents.
Although most of the new home owners praised Levittown, outside critics claimed the community's cheap structures were destined to become the slums of the future. Moreover, the rows of virtually identical houses became a target for those who feared the suffocating homogeneity that supposedly characterized suburban culture. Levittown became synonymous with working-class and lower-middle-class suburbanization and an object of contempt for all those who deplored that phenomenon. In fact, the Levitt houses were well constructed and appreciated in value. Furthermore, through extensive remodeling, the once-identical units developed an individuality. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, houses that originally cost $7,500 were selling for $250,000. In 2000, 53,067 residents called the massive subdivision home.
Kelly, Barbara M. Expanding the American Dream: Building and Rebuilding Levittown. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.
Dobriner (ed.) (1958);
H. Gans (1969);